Sex trafficking thrives when landlords comply, turn a blind eye, or fail to monitor how their properties are being used. This was the central message behind the DC Stop Modern Day Slavery group’s online petition on Change.org that launched on Friday March 4, 2011. More than 300 community members have signed the petition, calling for Jerry Schaeffer, the property owner of the four-story building at 1215 Connecticut Ave., NW, to take action by closing down a brothel disguised as a legitimate massage parlor on the fourth floor.
Sky Spa displayed many of the known indicators for brothels which are part of a national network for trafficking Asian women into prostitution: purposefully opaque and blocked out windows, security cameras installed to watch incoming customers, locked doors with buzzer systems to gain entrance, operating hours during 7 days of the week and late into the night, and a client base limited exclusively to men. The location has a consistent modus operandi to similar brothels where human trafficking has been found by federal authorities in Washington, DC.
Sky Spa’s website and advertisements describe massage services and references commercial sex. On the site, there’s a joke that says, “What does the hurricane say to the palm tree?” “Hold on to your nuts, this is not an ordinary blow job.”
“Johns” also exchange details about Sky Spa through online “john boards” as they describe their experiences of purchasing commercial sex. Weeks ago, one john recently wrote, “She let me throw her legs over my shoulders, and then I went to work.” Clearly, this place gives more than just a shoulder massage. These john boards rate the women on their hair color, age, breast size, hygiene, build, attitude, and talent in performing sexual acts.
Sun Hwa Lee-Lim, another defendant in the case and the alleged owner of Sky Spa, has two previous criminal records for running a house of prostitution and solicitation charges, stemming from investigations in 2004 and 2008. At least one of the previous locations under Lee-Lim’s management showed elements of coercion and sex trafficking conditions. She submitted the business application for Sky Spa in November 2009.
According to court records, Sky Spa also has links to management in Flushing, NY, the well-known East Coast hotspot for recruiting women into Asian sex trafficking networks, based on evidence from previous federal investigations.
On January 5, the D.C. police investigated Sky Spa and discovered it to be a house of prostitution. Two women were arrested on solicitation for prostitution charges that day. Without sufficient time to build trust and interview them, it’s hard to know the conditions they faced, or how they came to be in the brothel. A week later, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General (D.C. OAG) also filed a case for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) on the illicit business on January 14, 2011. Government action and community pressure culminated this morning when Judge Ronald Wertheim presided over a hearing on the details of the complaint. Jerry Schaeffer, the landlord, agreed to a Consent Order presented by the Office of the Attorney General.
While Sky Spa is now a vacant ghost-like space – emptied of all furniture, equipment, and decoration – the rooms still tell a story of what the day-to-day experiences could have been like for the women who endured life there, having sex with a steady stream of johns all day every day. The only way to access the brothel is to ride a dim narrow elevator up four floors, barely large enough for two people. Pressing the elevator button for the unmarked fourth floor business will take you above a sushi restaurant and psychic shop. It then opens up into a coffin-sized space of darkness with a door that now reads: “CLOSED. SPA SKY CLOSED PERMANENTLY.”
Once inside the brothel, there’s a lobby/waiting area for the men, the most sunlit room on the floor. With the boarded up windows, the sunlight dims as you descend into the back rooms. Doors are labeled with numbers 1 through 8 along a long dark hallway. Each door opens into a barely-lit bedroom with large mirrors on the walls; walls painted dark green, and all completely windowless. There are two cold tiled “shower rooms” beyond the numbered doors; a bathroom with a small window painted over with thick layers of white paint. The sensory deprivation is noticeable throughout the floor, and the air feels oppressive.
Thanks to government, law enforcement, and community action, Sky Spa was completely empty, vacated, and gone on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day today. One more node of the national network is now out of commission, at least temporarily.
Curiously, the only piece of the previous life in the building remained taped to a wall in the kitchen: A strip of paper, carefully torn out of a magazine, with the following words in Korean: “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the living God who is always with me. Hallelujah. Amen.”