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June 18, 2013

Williston Spa Under Investigation for Suspected Human Trafficking Since 2011

Booska-webAn Asian massage parlor in Williston where male customers routinely paid for massages and sexual favors has been under investigation since at least April 2011 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for suspected human trafficking and financial fraud, court papers revealed Tuesday.

These and other details about the Harmony Health Spa were included in an affidavit filed Tuesday in the arraignment of Tom Booska (pictured) in Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington.

Booska, 68, who owns the building that until late last week housed the Harmony Health Spa, at 5649 Williston Road, pled not guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of "prohibited acts," for allegedly allowing prostitution to occur on his premises. If convicted, Booska faces up to one year in jail.

Though he denied the allegations, Booska said through his attorney that he plans to cooperate with investigators.

"This particular property has been a problem for close to 10 years," Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan said Tuesday, referring to a police raid on the establishment in 2004 that netted eight female workers believed to be sex slaves. "Mr. Booska was on notice. He failed to act. The [sex] acts continued and that's why he’s in court today."

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Harmony Spa was one of three Asian massage parlors — all of which have since closed — outed by a Seven Days cover story on June 5 for prostitution and possible human trafficking.

According to court papers, Williston police sent an undercover officer into Harmony Spa on June 12; that officer paid for and received a massage but, according to the affidavit, "was not offered a 'happy ending' or other sexual contact following the massage.

Later on June 12, a Williston police officer stopped two vehicles driven by customers who had just exited the Harmony Spa. Upon questioning, both subjects (who were identified only by their initials in court papers) admitted to receiving happy endings at Harmony. Police subsequently cited Booska for allowing prohibited acts.

But police interest in the place was rekindled more than two years ago. According to court records, ICE opened an investigation into the Harmony Spa on April 28, 2011 following a tip received by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. ICE agents in 2011 interviewed three customers after they left the Harmony Spa, all of whom admitted they were offered and/or received a "happy ending" after their massage. A happy ending is code for a hand job.

The police affidavit, by Williston police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, indicated that ICE agents and Williston police visited Harmony Spa in May 2011 and twice more in September 2012 seeking documentation on the women who worked there. Subsequent record checks of those women found prior arrests for prostitution in other states.

Chamberlain's affidavit also suggests that Booska had more involvement in the spa than he previously revealed. Booska not only collected rent on the place, which was often paid in cash, but he told police that he "also gives the employees rides to the bank to make weekly deposits and he gives employees rides to buy groceries, snacks and run other errands."

Myong Hui Kim, a woman who worked at Harmony Spa for three months as a manager, told investigators at the time that she lived in Booska's apartment in Burlington. According to the police affidavit, Kim has four arrests for "criminal nuisance and maintaining a premises for engaging in unlawful conduct," as well as for prostitution, dating back to March 1997.

When state's attorney Donovan was asked why none of the "johns," or sex buyers, was charged, he said that that approach has not worked in the past. His goal is not to hold the women responsible either, whom he views as victims, but to try a "new approach” to an age-old problem.

"The focus is not on prostitution," he added. "The focus is on human trafficking."

The police affidavit also notes that Williston police received a tip in December 2012 from an anonymous out-of-state source alleging that the Harmony Health Spa had ties to the "Chinese mafia" in Flushing, N.Y., which forces Asian women to work as slaves and sex workers.

Contacted later for comment, Chamberlain said he wasn't sure how much credence to put in that anonymous tip. Although the information sounded credible, as the most recent owner of the spa, Sun Hui Nam, is from Flushing, Chamberlain noted that similar letters were sent to police departments throughout New England.

Meanwhile, a fourth Asian massage parlor not named in the original Seven Days story, but which was featured on the "erotic" massage parlor website, Rubmaps.com as a location that performs happy endings, has also closed.

The Evergreen Spa, at 111 Center Road in Essex Center, is now closed, according to property owner Kevin Macy. Macy, who owns Finest Image Photography, told Seven Days that the two Asian women who worked at Evergreen Spa pulled up stakes last week due to "health concerns." Macy later revealed that an Essex police detective had served him with a copy of a letter Donovan distributed last week putting massage parlor landlords on notice, but that the women had left on their own accord. 

Macy was unwilling to provide any contact information for the owners of Evergreen Spa and said he didn't know their current whereabouts.

Booska photo courtesy of Ryan Mercer, Burlington Free Press.

Harmony Spa photo by Ken Picard

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