Cash deposits and energy bills linked woman to network of illicit massage parlors in Louisiana, police say | Crime/Police

A bank account used to pay bills and drain money from a network of local massage parlors has led authorities to a woman they accuse of handling the finances of a citywide prostitution ring. town.

Thursday’s arrest of 61-year-old Yanqun Rao marked the latest in a months-long investigation that the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office says shows the extent of these underground networks and their possible links to trafficking. human being.

Prosecuting cases of forced prostitution poses a challenge, law enforcement officials say, because women are often reluctant to incriminate those who traffic them. But police describe businesses such as massage parlors – which may offer prostitution alongside off-board services – as “operating in plain sight” with what they call clear indicators of illicit activity, such as only blackout curtains, “cash only” signs and late night hours.

The investigation that led to Rao’s arrest focused on a particular Houston-based ring whose members allegedly ran a prostitution ring at massage parlors in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Lafayette, and Broussard.

In January, authorities arrested three people – Johnny Wang, 43, Ting Song, 47, and Huang Weng, 38 – and charged them with money laundering, criminal conspiracy, promoting prostitution and pimping . None are charged with human trafficking, although officials accused Weng of “helping to cover up and transport individuals” involved in “possible human trafficking through acts illicit massage”.

The arrests involved several businesses in the southeast corner of East Baton Rouge. Namely, Lotus Massage on Jones Creek Road, Wonderful Land Massage and B&B Spa on O’Neal Lane, Blue Olive Spa on Coursey Boulevard and All Natural Spa on Jefferson Highway.

According to EBRSO, none of the three suspects arrested in January held a license with the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy. But another person had: Rao, whose role at the time was unclear to investigators.

In addition to providing the massage license, his arrest affidavit states that along with Song, Rao managed the corporate circle’s finances, depositing over $160,000 in credit and debit card payments into a bank account. JP Morgan Chase between January 2020 and November 2021.

Deputies also accused Rao of “altering” $40,000 in payments to the account to make their sources ambiguous. She used the same account to pay energy bills to Entergy for Massage Business, the affidavit states.

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Rao was arrested on allegations of criminal conspiracy, promoting prostitution, money laundering and pimping. This last count, according to state law, applies to someone “attracting, placing, persuading, encouraging or causing any person to enter into the practice of prostitution.”

In addition to transporting women to various businesses and collecting large sums of money, the three suspects arrested in January were charged with money laundering via L’Auberge Casino.

The industry received renewed national attention last March when a gunman killed eight people at Atlanta-area massage businesses, claiming his sex addiction had driven him to deadly violence. . Six of the victims were women of Asian descent.

Although prosecutions for human trafficking are rare, a case in Lafayette resulted in such charges against a woman named Xufang Ou after one of her masseuses told police she had been forced into prostitution. It was not immediately clear if Ou had any connection to Baton Rouge’s recently exposed network.

The Baton Rouge case raises questions about how — and whether — the massage parlor board that granted Rao a license oversaw the chain of parlors accused of illicit activity.

Oversight of massage businesses in Louisiana has recently drawn criticism after a legislative audit found the state’s regulatory system to be uneven and lenient.

Over a two-year period, the licensing board dismissed or closed investigations into 74% of complaints, according to the audit. These included allegations of unprofessional conduct, sexually suggestive advertisements and indicators of human trafficking.

While council officials said they left human trafficking investigations to law enforcement, auditors concluded regulators had failed to establish criteria for dismissing cases and ignored court rulings. its investigation committee composed of three members.

Meanwhile, the auditors added, other states have stricter oversight standards.

The council fell into turmoil after its longtime chief executive resigned last November, its chairman resigned and three others quit the seven-member panel at the end of their terms.