ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Experts say they are criminal businesses thriving off human trafficking located right under our noses, next door to places you go with your families.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft made national headlines early this year when it was announced he faces charges for going to what police call an illicit massage parlor in Florida.
But law enforcement and experts say we have those very same businesses in the St. Louis area.
Next to pizza places and pet stores, in unassuming strip malls, reports indicate something very wrong is possibly going on.
Keaton Strong is a former investigator with the Missouri Attorney General. A primary component of his job was to tackle human trafficking.
“The men who go there, they know why they are going there. They are not going there because it’s the best massage in town, they are going there because it’s the best massage in town,” he said, with a knowing look.
Experts estimate there are 50-70 illicit massage businesses in Missouri, plus more in the Metro East.
On websites, people even boast about their sexual exploits at massage parlors all over the metro area, explicitly detailing what type of sex services they received.
News 4 also found police reports. One man claimed he was sexually assaulted in April at Orchid Day Spa on Watson in south St. Louis County.
Those who work at businesses next door were surprised to learn one of the female workers had been arrested. Charges are still pending.
"Yeah it bothers me, that's a horrible thing, especially if there are women working there and they are forcing them to work there,” said Mark, who works at the pet store next door to Orchid Day Spa.
“I think these places are anything but victimless,” said Bradley Myles, CEO of the Polaris Project, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Their research shows the women are often immigrants, between the ages of 35-55. Most are mothers, and may be in dire economic straits.
Myles said they are often experiencing trauma, fear, coercion, threats or even violence; sometimes forced to sell sex, often only for tips.
“You’ve got a thriving market of guys who want to go buy sex at these places and you’ve got criminal networks who are going to try to make it into a profit and an enterprise, which they do,” Myles said.
Sex work is nothing new of course, but with sites known to support prostitution, like Backpage.com, shutting down, Myles says more sex buyers may be turning to physical stores like massage parlors.
At Chen Sheng, a massage parlor in Manchester, recent reviews seem to indicate sexual activity.
One police report, in June last year, said a female employee was spending the night in the business, a red-flag for human trafficking, according to experts.
And in March, a man reported he was getting a massage and the worker there solicited him for sex.
People who come to the shopping center were shocked to hear of the reports, wondering why the place is still open.
"It's a bad look for Manchester then, it shouldn't be happening, it should be shut down,” said Elease. She was delivering for Door Dash and picking up from a restaurant next door to Chen Sheng.
“It is our duty, it is our mandate to make sure that sort of activity is not happening here in Manchester,” said Police Chief Scott Will.
Chief Will says they are investigating Chen Sheng massage, despite the fact the victim did not want to cooperate after filing the report.
“If it is happening, we can nip it in the bud and take the appropriate action,” he said.
He agrees, as many experts do, that the workers alone should not be the targets.
In St. Charles County, for example, a woman is currently facing charges for sexual abuse and prostitution inside a massage parlor. But the owner of the business has not been charged.
News 4 tried going to Orchid Day Spa, but it was closed.
We also went to the listed addresses for those in charge of that parlor and Chen Sheng. No one answered the door at either apartment.
A woman at Chen Sheng, who claimed to speak very little English, gave us a phone number for the owner of Chen Sheng, but we never heard back
Strong says during his investigations, he found lots of health code violations.
“Imagine going in for a massage and you come out with lice or bed bugs,” he said.
But proving trafficking was especially tough; requiring a lot of time, and potential danger.
“I was burned, burn with hot stones during an investigation,” Strong said.
He says a lot of law enforcement agencies just aren't able to devote the resources.
“As simple as it seems to do these investigations, they are very dangerous, because you don't know if you are going to come out standing up or rolling out,” said Strong.
Unfortunately, he says, human trafficking in massage parlors is here to stay.
“I think we always will have it, unfortunately, because for every time we close one, another one opens up,” Strong said.
Experts also say the women often do not want to cooperate with law enforcement. They are often even coached on what to say to investigators.
Everyone who spoke to News 4 for the story said there are plenty of legitimate massage businesses, and owners who want to do the right thing.
But if you go looking for a low-cost massage, you might be a part of the problem.
To spot human trafficking, the Missouri Attorney General says you should be on the lookout for people who may be in financially vulnerable positions, those who are abused or appear to be controlled, or are isolated from others.
They have a website, makeMOfree.com, with more information.
You can find information on how to call or text the trafficking hotline here.