Billings had at least 15 businesses suspected of selling sex acts at the beginning of this year, according to an FBI report. Now there may be as few as 11 of these purported spas or massage parlors.
Federal agents arrested one man in April on charges of coercing two women to work at two illicit businesses in Billings. The indictment effectively closed King Spa and A Spa. His trial is set for August and federal prosecutors will seek forfeiture of property used for those crimes.
In April, the Montana Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock enacted two new laws intended to stop sex trafficking. One law revised state criminal code by redefining commercial sex, clarifying consent criteria and increasing penalties for traffickers who are making money from victims forced into prostitution. The other funds the first Montana state law officers dedicated to enforcing anti-trafficking laws.
In May two other businesses, Happy Spa, on Grand Avenue, and Bamboo Hut and Spa on Garden Avenue, contacted the Billings license clerk and deactivated their business licenses.
That leaves 11.
"I think it's the pressure," said Billings City Councilwoman Penny Ronning, co-chair of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force. "They know code enforcement can go in there. They don't want the hassle. The public is becoming more aware."
Ronning spoke to The Gazette last week at the end of a task force meeting where 35 or so members thanked Billings lawmakers who sponsored anti-trafficking bills, including Sen. Margie MacDonald, Rep. Jessica Karjala and Rep. Daniel Zolnikov. The new criminal code on sex trafficking is already in effect. The new authority for law officers to enter massage businesses to check compliance with the new law that requires display or massage therapy licenses of all people providing massage on the premises takes effect Oct. 1. On July 1, the Montana Department of Justice will have a $250,000 annual appropriation to hire two detectives and conduct investigations to stop sex trafficking in Montana.
Both of the new DOJ agents will be based in Billings, but they will work statewide, department spokesman John Barnes told The Gazette. The jobs will be filled as soon as possible. Until then, a single FBI agent in Billings will continue to be the only law officer assigned primarily to sex trafficking investigations.
Although law enforcement officials and anti-trafficking task force members are pleased with new laws and recent prosecutions of traffickers, their work is just beginning.
The Billings City Council and city attorney's office have been researching and drafting an ordinance targeting illicit sex businesses that have proliferated throughout Montana, but especially in its largest city. The most recent draft will be discussed at the council work session set for 5:30 p.m. on June 17 at City Hall.
Ronning hopes the council will vote on an ordinance later this summer.
The current draft would require all massage businesses to disclose information about their owners, to have only licensed massage therapists providing massages and would forbid sexual contact between customers and the person providing the massage.
Asked if the city ordinance is still necessary in light of the new state laws, Ronning said it is needed because some illicit businesses employ people who have massage therapy licenses. The state law would shut down businesses with unlicensed "therapists".
One difficult aspect of the proposed city ordinance is stopping the sex trade without stigmatizing or otherwise harming licensed massage therapists who are appropriately providing massage to treat sore muscles, backaches or shoulder pain. City leaders began researching an ordinance after some local massage therapists complained that they have been propositioned and harassed by customers who think all massage businesses are brothels. But other legitimate massage therapists have voiced opposition to city regulation of their businesses.
The council also will need to reconcile any city ordinance with federal and state law. The current draft would make violations a misdemeanor, but repeated violations could be cause for declaring a "public nuisance" that the city could legally close down.
We commend the Yellowstone County Human Trafficking Task Force and the city officials who are taking time to thoroughly research remedies.
Over the past two years, Billings citizens and many other Montanans have learned a lot about human trafficking, thanks largely to the local task forces. The use of "spas" or "massage" as a front for the sex trade is just part of the problem. Vulnerable women and girls are preyed upon by family, acquaintances and strangers. Drug abuse increases that vulnerability. Runaways, homeless and former foster children are at high risk of being ensnared by traffickers. Ads for sex are ubiquitous on numerous websites — even after the notorious Backpage.com was shut down.
Montana will need multiple strategies to stop sex trafficking and protect potential victims from becoming trapped in that life of fear and abuse.