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The storefront where Pleasant Massage Therapy was located, in Pawtucket, R.I., stands empty after the owners were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations state law. One has already pleaded no contest.
The storefront where Pleasant Massage Therapy was located, in Pawtucket, R.I., stands empty after the owners were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations state law. One has already pleaded no contest.Amanda Milkovits/Globe Staff

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — A Lincoln woman accused of operating some of the most-notorious Asian massage parlors in Rhode Island has pleaded no contest to racketeering and forfeited about $650,000.

This is the first time that the attorney general’s office has used the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute, known as RICO, to go after the operators of illicit massage parlors.

“Among the most effective methods to halt and deter serious illegal conduct is to target criminals where it often hurts the most – their pockets,” Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said in a statement. “Here, we were able to seize and forfeit substantial assets from the defendant, who was profiting from illegal sex acts behind the scenes of an otherwise legitimate business. I am pleased that we were able to shut down this operation, because of great investigatory work by the Pawtucket Police Department and our prosecution team.”

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Until now, these three massage parlors in Pawtucket have weathered decades worth of attempts to close them.

In 2009, state lawmakers closed a 30-year-old loophole that had permitted indoor prostitution, and then in 2016, cities passed ordinances to crack down on brothels barely disguised as “body works” spas.

Still, massage parlors have hung on in the cities and suburbs, operating in strip malls and drab buildings, with mysterious owners and a shifting cast of workers.

Customers — almost always men, and many from out of state — would be buzzed into the spas day and night. About $60 or so covered a basic massage; the sex acts were extra and paid for in cash. The women often lived in the spas or were shuttled back to local apartments, never left alone. They were cycled through every few weeks, with routes tracing back to a hub in Flushing, N.Y. Men paying for sex would describe them in lurid detail in chat rooms and online sex sites.

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Law enforcement knew all this, but struggled to stop it. Police raids had little effect on business beyond raising questions about whether law enforcement was arresting trafficking victims.

After Pawtucket police cracked down on three massage parlors in March 2019, “they opened two weeks later,” said Lt. Timothy Graham. “We said, ‘We have to figure out a way that they stay closed.’”

Far East Acupressure, Harmony Spa, and Pleasant Massage Therapy had been operating for years; Far East and Harmony even brought a lawsuit against the city over its body works ordinance.

Then, the police, prosecutors, and Homeland Security decided on a different strategy. Instead of going after the women who work inside the massage parlors, they’d follow the money. Sgt. David Medeiros, who was a detective serving on a Homeland Security task force at the time, took the lead, Graham said.

Other states are starting to do the same. Donna Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island who studies trafficking, said the money is where law enforcement should focus.

“We know these are criminal networks. A lot of the massage parlors are connected and have headquarters in other places,” said Hughes. “The only way you bring down criminal networks is you have to go as far to the top as you can and reach all the players.”

There’s also a different approach to understanding how the women working at the massage parlors will react. “We know a lot about domestic trafficking of minors, because they come to trust you and they talk. The Asian women are controlled by criminal networks,” Hughes said. “Even if they have choice in what they’re doing, they’re not going to go against a criminal network. If they are paying off a debt... they are not going to risk talking. There’s a whole culture of silence.”

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Graham said that’s what happened when police and Homeland Security agents raided the Pawtucket spas in late 2019 and arrested 16 women and three men. “None of the women would speak to us,” Graham said. “We had Korean interpreters, we made sure they had someone available. But they were not happy with us.”

Homeland Security checked the immigration status for the women who were arrested; there are trafficking visas for victims. Most had addresses in Flushing, N.Y., Graham said.

Some of those charged at the time have had their cases dropped, as prosecutors have focused on a few who are believed to have been the owners or managers of the businesses. In February 2020, a Providence County Grand Jury indicted four women believed to be owners and operators of the three Pawtucket massage parlors — charging all with racketeering, conspiracy, maintaining a common nuisance, and pandering — all felonies.

Grace Kwon, 57, who operated the Harmony Spa and was also connected to Pleasant Massage Therapy, pleaded no contest on March 17 and was sentenced to three years suspended with probation. She also forfeited about $650,000 in proceeds and assets. The Pawtucket Police Department will get 80 percent of the forfeiture, and the attorney general’s office will get the remainder.

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The money came from bank CDs, bank accounts, money orders, and more than $609,000 cash that police found in her house in Lincoln, Rhode Island. They found that she was “washing money” — several thousand dollars at a time — at Twin River casino, Foxwoods, and Mohegan Sun, according to court records.

A lawyer for Kwon did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Yon C. Wood, 70, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Jenny Li, 59, of Attleboro, Mass., are scheduled for a disposition in their cases at Providence County Superior Court on April 28.

Jean Son Derrico, 62, of Flushing, N.Y., disappeared last year; a judge has issued a bench warrant for her arrest.

The attorney general’s office said that Kwon could reopen her spa, provided it is a legitimate business.

As of this week, all of the storefronts where the spas used to operate were vacant.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.