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Crime and Courts

Denver’s new massage parlor ordinance adds investigative power to the city’s robust human trafficking units

A slate of new laws and the manpower of dedicated human trafficking units in Denver’s Police Department and District Attorney’s Office are leading to more convictions.

(ILLUSTRATION BY LONNIE MF ALLEN)
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When Aurora cracked down on massage businesses involved in human trafficking, the “bad apples” moved their operations across city lines into Denver. 

Now Colorado’s capital city — thanks to a massage parlor ordinance passed in July and one of the only district attorney’s offices and police departments in the state with dedicated human trafficking units — is poised for battle. Denver has spent the past four years building a robust investigative team to tackle hard-to-make human and labor trafficking cases, and the payoff is coming through convictions. 

The Denver District Attorney’s Office has closed 40 trafficking cases, either through trial or plea, in the four years since it started its trafficking unit, a team that has grown to seven from one. One of those cases was a hard-to-come-by labor trafficking conviction this year, the first in Denver. 

The office currently has 38 open trafficking cases, and worked with city officials to pass the new massage business ordinance.

Much of the success lies in a new avenue of investigation — a collaboration with community nonprofits that are contacted by women in trouble, often Chinese women who were trafficked from their native country or after they arrived in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major U.S. cities. 

Criminal investigators from the district attorney’s office and the Denver Police Department are building cases as they build trust with service organizations, especially the Asian Pacific Development Center. 

Vicitms are agreeing to provide information when they understand prosecutors won’t threaten them with prostitution charges in order to compel them to testify. Instead, their information is helping investigators build cases long term against the leaders of the trafficking scheme, said Lara Mullin, an assistant district attorney and head of Denver’s human trafficking unit. 

In some cases, law officers meet with community service providers ahead of a trafficking bust, in part so that the nonprofit is ready to help victims find food and shelter. Besides the Asian Pacific Development Center, which helps refugees and immigrants from all countries, agencies including the women’s day center The Gathering Place, are supporting trafficking victims through the new program, boosted by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

It’s a contrast to a decade ago when sex trafficking victims often ended up with their own criminal charges, Mullin said. 

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“The female victims that I work with oftentimes are commiting crimes of need,” she said, “as a means of survival. We’ve made it really clear — we are not looking to charge you.” 

Under the new massage business ordinance, operators must submit to a vetting process before they can open their doors, an effort to combat money laundering and wage theft. There are new financial reporting requirements intended to “shut down the avenue for people who are a shadow business,” and the ordinance allows a clearer path for law enforcement to immediately suspend operations when criminal activity is suspected, Mullin said. 

Without the new law, and the manpower to complete months of investigative work, it was often the case that the women who worked in illicit spas were the ones busted instead of the leaders funding the operation, laundering money and coercing women into prostitution, Mullin said.

The ordinance, passed by Denver City Council and taking effect next July, was modeled after Aurora’s 2018 city law. In recent years, Aurora city officials have alerted Denver officials that a massage business with history of trafficking or prostitution — information collected at the time of a licensing application — was trying to open in Denver, Mullin said. 

In one high-profile Denver case last year, seven people and 12 businesses were indicted on human trafficking and illegal marijuana grow charges after an investigation dubbed “Bad Apple.”

Aurora’s manager of tax and licensing alerted Denver prosecutors in 2019 that illicit massage businesses that had been shut down by Aurora officials had reopened in Denver. After a yearlong investigation, Denver authorities busted several massage parlors in Denver, Douglas, Arapahoe, Routt and Jefferson counties with names such as Denver Apple Spa, Tulip Spa and Ocean Foot Massage that were the “nexus for running a complex pimping, prostitution, money laundering and tax evastion operation.” 

The defendants trafficked women from China to engage in sex acts with customers, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann said when the indictment was announced. 

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The women were kept on site 24 hours a day with little to no freedom, Mullin said. “We had six cameras up on the business and we would see them go outside to exercise and stretch and go right back in,” she said. 

Trafficking cases rising across Colorado, but not federal charges

Statewide, human trafficking convictions have increased, too. Criminal filings on trafficking charges have jumped from just nine statewide in 2014 to 75 in 2016 and 44 in 2019, thanks to stronger laws passed by state legislators. From 2014 through 2019, the latest data available from the Colorado Human Trafficking Council, filings numbered 295. 

It’s a different story at the federal level, however. 

Colorado’s federal prosecutors were criticized in a national report this month for filing zero human trafficking charges in 2020. The report from the Virginia-based Human Trafficking Institute called out the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Colorado, which has a prosecutor who handles human trafficking cases but does not have a dedicated unit, for “zero new criminal human trafficking cases” filed and “zero defendants convicted.” According to the institute’s tally, federal courts in Colorado have not ordered a convicted trafficker to pay restitution since 2014. 

Federal prosecutors in Colorado pushed back on the report, saying that three of the trafficking cases filed in 2020 were not included by the national institute, perhaps because they did not meet the criteria of the report’s scope. 

Three people were charged in 2020 with trafficking or attempting to traffic adult victims, according to the office. In one case, a defendant accused of attempted sex trafficking pleaded guilty to coercion. Other cases are now in the works, the office said.

“Human trafficking is an area of concern for my office,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Alecia Riewerts wrote to the institute in a letter provided to The Sun. 

Cases are complex, involving domestic violence and money laundering

The bulk of the state-level cases in Colorado are sex trafficking, often involving minors, said Maria Trujillo, manager of the state’s human trafficking program within the Colorado Department of Public Safety. Colorado has three trafficking statutes – labor trafficking, sex trafficking of an adult and sex trafficking of a minor. 

Colorado has had human trafficking statutes on the books since 2006, but they were rarely used. From 2006 through 2013, there were only a couple of trafficking convictions statewide, Trujillo said. The bar was so high that prosecutors remarked that they practically needed a bill of sale to prove that a defendant had paid for a person to use as a slave. 

Then in 2014, Colorado lawmakers passed a new version of the human trafficking law, aligning the statutes with federal law and resulting in nine criminal filings in 2014. 

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In 2019,  state lawmakers tackled Colorado’s wage theft law. In the past, wage theft was a misdemeanor, no matter how much was stolen. Now the level of the crime depends on the amount of the wage theft, raising many cases to felonies. 

Still, the cases are among the most difficult to make, in part because the victims are unlikely to come forward because they often are committing crimes themselves and because they are bound emotionally to their perpetrators. Many don’t trust law enforcement or the government because of previous involvement with juvenile detention or the child welfare system.

Mullin, Denver’s chief trafficking prosecutor, said the cases are harder to prosecute than homicides. First, there’s the power and control dynamic of a perceived romantic relationship, similar to domestic violence cases in which victims often do not want to testify. Then there’s the complex trail of money, the financial records that make a case. Elaborate trafficking operations often are violating laws intended to prevent racketeering and organized crime, she said. 

Sex trafficking typically begins with a relationship, until the “tables turn,” Trujillo said, and then the boyfriend is saying “I need you to go and have sex, for us, so we can go and a have life together.” It’s usually a drawn-out manipulative crime, not an abrupt, violent crime, she said.

“They weren’t snatched off the street in a white van and held at gunpoint,” Trujillo said. “That is Hollywood’s version of human trafficking and not reality.” 


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