8 Investigates: What is Tampa doing to stop ‘modern day slavery’?

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The same day that Tampa police raided and shut down a massage parlor staffed by scantily-clad Asian women on Henderson Boulevard, the Tampa police chief stood outside of that business and declared that “human trafficking is the modern day form of slavery.”

That was four years ago when Jane Castor was Tampa’s police chief and the city seemed focused on shutting down organized prostitution that masqueraded as legitimate therapeutic massage in the city’s Asian health spas.

Consignment store owner Teena Slocum was there that day and ended up moving her store, in the largest part to get away from the notoriety of the prostitution next door.

“They had girls on the back porch in lingerie,” Slocum said. “Young girls.”

Today, there are at least ten Asian health spas on Kennedy Boulevard and several more just around the corner on Dale Mabry Highway. Business is booming.

“I don’t know how they get away with it,” Slocum said. “Why isn’t anybody doing anything about it?”

“I think the entire city’s being victimized by this,” said Brandon Pierpont, who lives minutes away from Kennedy Boulevard. “I think it makes us look trashy and endangers us.”

Last year, Pierpont took his girlfriend to Kim’s Spa, one of the Asian spas operating freely on Kennedy Boulevard, to purchase a pedicure for her birthday. He immediately suspected there was prostitution going on inside.

His subsequent complaint to Tampa police culminated in a prostitution bust six months later. The business has recently changed names, but Pierpont said he revisited it to see for himself what is going on now. Other than a name change, he reports that it looks the same.

“It should be a high level of priority,” Pierpont said.

Our 8 on Your Side investigation of police records reveals that over the past five years, Tampa police have attempted to bust a total of four spas on Kennedy Boulevard, resulting in just two prostitution arrests. In the other two cases, the women either vanished or could not be identified for arrest.

The undercover Tampa detective who leads such investigations tells us investigations are complaint-driven and it is difficult to catch women in the act, because they are savvy about undercover police tactics. The women vanish and the businesses change hands when there’s a crackdown.

Tampa City Council members who are aware of our news investigation have now asked police to give a report on Tampa’s seedy massage trade at its upcoming meeting on May 18th. Meanwhile, even Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi appears stymied about how to suppress what the undercover detective calls “organized prostitution,” operating in plain sight on some of Tampa’s busiest thoroughfares.

“I know Tampa police, they have a great unit and they’re looking very closely at them. I know that,” Bondi said. “And I know our state attorney here, they have a unit that investigates as well. My office only gets involved if they can prove human trafficking charges.”

Bondi was in Tampa last week to help dedicate human trafficking mural at the bus station when she made those comments. “To me, it’s supply and demand and those men need to quit going to those places,” Bondi said.

Since last week’s broadcast of our investigation “Storefronts for Sex?” we have been bombarded with responses, comments and complaints about the seedy side of the massage profession as it plays out on Kennedy Boulevard. We’ve heard from residents, customers, and wives who blame such establishments for wrecking their marriages. Some critics blame us for waging a moral crusade, others are rallying to join the cause to shut down massage parlors that engage in prostitution.

Last Friday —the day after our broadcast– Venice police raided three Asian massage parlors in that city and arrested three women for prostitution as a sign of zero tolerance for such activity in that city.

Despite repeated requests for an interview, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s media handler won’t make him available to answer our questions, and we’re still waiting on a response to our request to interview current Tampa Police Chief Eric Ward.

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