DEDHAM — Suspected leaders of an alleged prostitution ring that stretched to four Boston suburbs coordinated a well-organized operation that shuttled a succession of women from out of state to work in massage parlors, prosecutors said Friday.
Authorities described the businesses as thinly veiled fronts for prostitution, and said the women were taken to appointments with clients at parlors in Burlington, Needham, Revere, and Wellesley.
Three suspected leaders of the operation pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking charges, and were ordered held on bail.
In Dedham District Court, Assistant Attorney General Patrick Hanley described Zhen Lai, 37, as “essentially the madam of the brothel in Wellesley.”
Much of the business, the prosecutor said, involved “illegal sex acts.”
Lai, whose long black hair shielded her face from view, listened to a Mandarin interpreter during the hearing and did not speak. She was ordered held on $2,000 bail and agreed to surrender her passport.
Lai, who lives in Quincy, is a citizen of China. Authorities said they are working to determine her immigration status.
Lai’s attorney said she has two young children and would try to post bail early next week.
In Wellesley, police have said they received a tip in March that Sun Spa, a business tucked in a commercial strip alongside Route 9, was a facade for prostitution, and investigators quickly realized that the operation had a broad reach.
The business kept a low profile, with no signs in front of the office. Around back, a small sign on a blue door reads Sun Studios. Hanley said the studio placed ads on websites known to advertise prostitution.
Authorities are looking into how the operation was run and whether women were forced into the trade. Women who agree to cooperate with authorities could receive consideration on immigration decisions, authorities said.
Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Boston, declined to speak specifically about the ongoing prosecutions, but said that in past cases in New England, intermediaries in Asia promise a better life in America to vulnerable women.
The intermediaries help the victims travel here and then force them into prostitution or labor. Pimps often coach the girls to refuse help in order to maintain control over them.
“It’s almost a situation where they have the Stockholm syndrome,” Foucart said, referring to a psychological disorder in which kidnapping victims become attached to their kidnappers.
In past cases, Asian women have been brought from New York City by handlers who take them on a sexual tour of the Northeast, staying briefly in different cities, before returning them.
In Chelsea court Friday, Deb Bercovitch, an assistant attorney general, described a similar process, and said the women at the parlors were from New York, would stay a short time, and then move on.
In advertising for the establishments, the appearance of a spa is used as a thin cover for the real purpose of the cash businesses, Foucart said.
“What we’re finding are these brothels are opening up, and they’re calling themselves ‘day spas,’ or ‘reflexology,’ or, like in this case, ‘bodyworks,’” said Foucart.
In Chelsea, meanwhile, a 55-year-old Revere man, Joseph Girouard, was ordered held on bail after pleading not guilty to trafficking charges. Girouard owned a massage parlor in Revere, which was allegedly managed by Wenjie Dong, 49, of Malden. She was released after posting $1,000 cash bail.
A prosecutor said Dong cooperated with police after her arrest and provided documentation of her financial interest in the business.
Dong’s attorney, Paul Anthony, said his client denies the allegations. She worked part time at the business, he said, and was still processing the charges against her.
“She still doesn’t know what’s truly happening,” he said.
Bercovitch described Girouard as the ringleader of operation.
“He was the man who was basically in charge,” she said.
Lai and Girouard allegedly transported women between the four massage businesses.
Richard Barrett, Girouard’s lawyer, said his client has a very limited criminal record, with offenses mostly tied to operating a motor vehicle after the suspension of his license, which he lost as a result of unspecified trouble with the Internal Revenue Service.
“I won’t even comment on the charges,” Barrett said in court.
Dong allegedly managed the Revere Bodywork location, taking appointments, and posting numerous advertisements online. Some of the advertisements were still posted Friday.
Workers at the parlor masked the payments for sex by describing the money as tips, authorities said.
In Wellesley, a number of people who live or work near the business were surprised to learn of the charges.
“This is a clean-cut town,” Steve Caban, 46, said Friday after exiting a restaurant near Sun Studios. “It doesn’t have this kind of reputation.”