Missouri AG files suit to stop alleged human trafficking in the Ozarks

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley took emergency legal action to shut down a series of Southwest Missouri businesses connected to human trafficking, thirteen in the city of Springfield.

This action follows raids Thursday across the Springfield region by the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Attorney General’s Office and other agencies targeting businesses believed to be involved in illegal trafficking.

“Today’s raids make good on my promise: if you come to Missouri to conduct human trafficking, we will find you out and we will shut you down,” Hawley said. “We are going to court right now to put a stop to these terrible crimes.”

The lawsuit was filed in Greene County Circuit Court and names 16 defendants. The Greene County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office also assisted with the suit. More than 70 law enforcement officers participated in the raids on 18 businesses and residences in Springfield on Thursday.

Agents served search warrants at these businesses Thursday:

Angel Massage Star Plaza, 1774 1/2 S. Grant Ave.
Asian Massage Northeast Plaza, 2005 E. Kearney St.
Shui Massage and Spa 520 W. University, #E
Chi Spa 2971 E. Chestnut Expressway
Golden Massage 4728 South Campbell Avenue #112
Lotus Spa Sunshine Corners, 220 W. Sunshine St.
Massage Best Spa 1550 E. Battlefield Road, #N2
Unnamed Business 2841 S. Fremont Ave
Palm Spa Imperial Plaza, 2902 S. Campbell Ave #E
Peace Massage 3029 E. Sunshine St.
Phoenix Massage 1261 E. Republic Road
Relax Spa Silver Center, 2022 S. Stewart
Sunshine Spa Plaza Towers Center, 1925 S. Glenstone Ave.

Missouri State Highway Patrol investigators were present at each location Thursday afternoon searching the businesses. The highway patrol has been investigating what they believe to be one large human trafficking ring for months, along with authorities in Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana. Attorney General Josh Hawley was in town for the raids and says investigators believe the ring may have ties to the west coast and Asia.

At one spa, we saw two young Asian ladies walking out with a woman we believed was an investigator, and were asked not to record video of any potential victims walking out. One neighboring business owner told us he would see many different young women coming and going from the spa, in what seemed like frequent staff changes.

People who pass by these businesses every day are shocked to hear of this suspected criminal activity hiding in plain sight. "I've heard it happens here, and it's sad. I think it's horrible, and it's surprising that it's in so many places in our town," says Kathy Vestal.

In April, Hawley announced a crackdown on human trafficking in Missouri, including new regulations under Missouri’s consumer protection laws and the creation of an Anti-Trafficking Unit in the Attorney General’s Office. Missouri is the first state in the nation to use consumer protection laws to combat human trafficking. Hawley’s Anti-Trafficking Unit participated in Thursday’s raids and is currently investigating other businesses with alleged involvement in human trafficking, including Backpage.com.

“To businesses anywhere that engage in trafficking, let the events today serve as a warning for what’s to come,” Hawley said.

"We cannot allow human traffickers to pose as legitimate businesses in our community. Today, with the help of Attorney General Hawley, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Springfield Police Department, these businesses will be exposed for what they truly are. Greene County will not tolerate human trafficking activity," Dan Patterson, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney, said.

Thursday’s raids were a coordinated effort between the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, Springfield police and various other agencies. The Attorney General praised the work of all law enforcement involved, including the extraordinary efforts of the Missouri Highway Patrol.

“The Missouri Highway Patrol has carried out hundreds of hours of surveillance and devoted thousands of hours more to investigating these crimes,” Hawley said. “Their tenacity, perseverance, and skilled investigative work has saved lives today.”

Click HERE to read the lawsuit.