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June 14, 2013

Williston Landlord Charged With Allowing Prostitution, Customers May Be Identified in Court

Harmony Health Spa

Police have finally taken action against one of the Asian massage parlors outed by Seven Days for prostitution and possible human trafficking.

On Thursday evening, Williston police charged Tom Booska, owner of the building housing Harmony Health Spa, with knowingly allowing prostitution on the premises. He was cited to  appear in court next Tuesday.

Williston Police Chief Todd Shepard says police went to the massage parlor on Wednesday and spoke to two customers leaving the spa who said they received sexual services in exchange for money.

The day before, Shepard hand-delivered a letter to Booska from Chittenden State's Attorney T.J. Donovan warning the landlord he would be held criminally liable if authorities found evidence of prostitution on his property.

"He was allowed some opportunity to do something about it and it was still continuing on Wednesday," Shepard said.

The investigation was a response to Seven Days' June 5 cover story, "Unhappy Endings: Getting a Grip on Vermont's Asian Sex Market." The article documented prostitution at three Chittenden County massage parlors: Harmony, Seiwa Spa in Essex Junction and River Spa in Burlington. The latter two have since closed.

Shepard also said that Williston police had reported zoning violations at the spa to the town planning and zoning director after it learned the women were living on site. According to Shepard, Booska received the notice of violation and was actively seeking apartments to house the women when he was charged.

Shepard said Harmony spa remained open as of Friday and acknowledged it could still be accepting new customers. But he added, "It's our hope that by taking criminal action, that Mr. Booska is taking some action to stop this from happening."

Harmony Health Spa was one of three Asian massage parlors raided by Vermont police in 2004, a search that found undocumented sex workers. A message left for Booska at a Burlington business he owns was not immediately returned Friday.

Two weeks ago, Booska told Seven Days reporter Ken Picard that he was certain nothing illegal was happening at the Harmony Health Spa. "The Williston Police Department and U.S. immigration check in from time to time. There’s nothing going on there that shouldn’t be," Booska told Picard.

Donovan said Friday the two customers who confessed to paying for sex will be witnesses in the case against Booska, and therefore will not be charged as "johns." Likewise, Donovan reiterated that women providing sex for money will not be charged as prostitutes because he presumes they are human trafficking victims.

"For us, the issue is not necessarily prostitution," Donovan said. "It's about the issue of trafficking. That's why our focus is going to be at the higher level, not at the customer level."

TJ DonovanAsked whether the customers would be identified in court papers that will become public Tuesday, Donovan answered, "They'll probably be identified with initials but if it goes to trial, they would have to be identified."

Donovan said he's been told there are surveillance cameras inside Harmony Health Spa and that he's "assuming customers would have been on camera."

"At this stage, we're trying not to embarass anybody here," the state's attorney said. "We want to focus on the bigger picture and it's really to try to help these women and cut down on these places. I think we can do that without embarrassing folks."

Donovan (pictured) also raised the prospect that Seven Days' Picard, whose first-hand accounts of massage-parlor prostitution formed the basis of the June 5 cover story, could be called as a witness. "We're not talking about his sources here, we're talking about his article," Donovan stressed, adding that he included a copy of Picard's story in letters he sent to four massage parlor landlords.

The listed owner of Harmony Health Spa is Nam Son Yim, but Donovan said she was out of state and not available for questioning.

The women working around the clock in the massage parlors, meanwhile, have so far not cooperated with authorities. Donovan said, "Victims services were yesterday in an effort to reach out to these women" but their offer of assistance was declined. Donovan says he remains "very concerned" about the women disappearing, as they did after the 2004 raid on Harmony and other massage parlors.

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