Local police aren't certain how to respond to revelations that Asian women in Chittenden County massage parlors were performing sex acts for money. But one thing appears to be off the table: prosecuting the women for prostitution.
Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan said Wednesday he will not charge any women who perform so-called "happy endings" because his working assumption is that they are human trafficking victims.
"I am incredibly reluctant to ever charge the women with prostitution," said Donovan (pictured). "I view them as victims. People may disagree with me, but I just will not do it."
Instead, Donovan said he would pursue a three-pronged response to the illegal activity: looking for zoning and licensing violations at the establishments; putting landlords on notice that they could be held criminally liable; and providing assistance to any victims.
Donovan's comments followed a meeting with police officials and victim's advocacy groups Wednesday to discuss a response to evidence of prostitution at three Burlington-area massage parlors, first reported by Seven Days last week.
Donovan said the meeting resulted in "some action steps" but he would not elaborate on them. He did say that he's crafted letters to landlords of all three establishments: River Spa in Burlington, Seiwa Spa in Essex and Harmony Health Spa in Williston.
As reported in Seven Days this week, Seiwa Spa and River Spa appear to have closed voluntarily following the story. Harmony Health Spa remains open but Donovan said the building's landlord was hand-delivered a letter from his office, along with a copy of the Seven Days article, stating that he would be prosecuted if authorities find evidence of prostitution in his building.
Donovan said it's "very hard" to crack down on the massage parlor owners because "it's probably an interstate or international criminal enterprise." Also, he said the female employees often vanish after a raid.
"In the past when we've gone forward these women tend to disappear," Donovan said. "And that raises real issues not just on prosecution but on their well being."
Present at Wednesday's meeting were: Donovan; Deputy State's Attorney Mary Morrissey; State Police Lt. J.P. Sinclair, who is a member of the Vermont Human Trafficking Task Force; Detective Sgt. Dennis Duffy, director of the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations; representatives from the Williston and Essex police departments; and victims' advocates from HOPE Works and Give Way to Freedom. The FBI was slated to be there but did not attend.
Asked whether the public should expect arrests or raids in the days ahead, Donovan responded, "I can tell you we are fully engaged at looking at what's happening."