Neighbors ‘knew something was off’ with massage parlor raided in prostitution bust

Hillsborough County

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — People who work near a Lutz massage parlor said they knew something was off as soon as it opened.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced Thursday the raid of 12 massage parlors Thursday that were part of a multi-county prostitution ring operation.

Chronister said “Operation Shared Hope” started in September 2020 after detectives received a tip about suspicious and illegal activity at a massage parlor called Simply Massage, in Lutz. During their surveillance, the sheriff said detectives saw only male customers entering the establishment.

People who worked nearby Simply Massage said they had a feeling something was off.

“It was obvious to us that no one really comes here except for guys, so it was kind of a red flag right there,” Meghan Byrne said.

Byrne and her colleagues said in recent weeks they grew concerned as it appeared workers were living in the massaged parlor and acting strange.

“Just recently we saw people out walking their dog in their pajamas and it just seemed not right,” Byrne added.

As their investigation continued, deputies say detectives found that the owners of the parlor, married couple James Robert Smith and Nan Chen Smith, were running an illegal prostitution ring at the property and were using the business as a front.

According to Chronister, James was a “target of a Homeland Security investigations case involving human smuggling” in 2012 but was never charged.

Deputies say records connected the Smiths to 12 massage parlors, four in Hillsborough County and eight in Pinellas County, in recent years. Detectives also found evidence that the couple and their business associates laundered more than $1 million into their bank accounts, a release from the sheriff’s office says.

Chronister noted that customers would enter the parlors, speak to a manager or “madame,” negotiate which sexual acts they’d receive and then hand-select the woman who would perform such acts. The women involved in the prostitution ring, who were all above 18 and came from different parts of the country and world, would also sleep at the parlors to “maximize their availability.”

“It’s cases like this where women are being exploited that keep me up at night,” he said.

On Wednesday, law enforcement from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, St. Petersburg Police Department, and Largo Police Department executed numerous search warrants on the Smiths’ home, a storage unit, and the 12 massage parlors linked to them.

According to the sheriff, detectives seized more than $750,000 between cash and cars used in the operation.

A total of seven people, including the Smiths, were arrested.

Chronister said the Smiths had a 5-year-old son, who is now in the care of protective services.

“Just think of the heartache and trauma this young child will now face with both of his parents in jail, where they belong, because of their sickening drive for cash at the expense of exploiting women,” he said.

You can see the full list of those arrested and the charges they are facing here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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