A■ By Debbie Vena / Reporter of The Valley Chronicle
death occurred on Feb. 4, 2016 inside the Ai Spa massage parlor in Hemet. Only after months of requesting information from the Hemet Police Department about this death did The Valley Chronicle receive the name of the deceased. Upon review of the coroner’s report, many more questions arose, mainly, why was the medical examiner denied access to the scene by police for almost eight hours after the death was reported? And why has it been so difficult for the press to get any information about this case?
The Hemet Ai Spa (literal translation of “Ai” from Mandarin Chinese is “love”) was a frequent advertiser on the website, Backpage.com. This month, the U.S. Senate has opened hearings to try to determine whether the owners and executives running Backpage.com were complicit in criminal activity involving human trafficking. This initiative by the Senate is significant because law enforcement has not kept pace with advances in technology, and free speech does not protect criminal activity. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has identified more than 420 cases of missing children who wound up in Backpage ads, according to Newsweek. A separate team led by Arizona State University researchers has found more than 150 Backpage ads that feature minors, according to the magazine. As a result of the Senate inquiry, Backpage.com has taken down its adult content section, but explicit ads remain in other areas.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), said in October that Backpage was “purposefully and unlawfully designed” as an online brothel, and alleged that the “vast majority” of Backpage’s profits come from fees paid by users posting ads in the “adult” section. The owner of the site, Carl Ferrer, was arrested in October on charges of pimping a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping, but those charges recently were vacated by a California court judge citing federal protections to online publishing.
While lawmakers are concerned about the influx of human trafficking, some of our local elected officials do not seem to take this threat as seriously. Hemet Police Chief Dave Brown was quoted last year in a front-page Chronicle story: “I am acutely aware of the crime and safety issues that concern our citizens most, the awful crimes that make them fearful of being victimized,” Brown said. “Frankly, misdemeanor acts of prostitution that occur between consenting adults in private rooms at massage parlors is not even on their list.”
I am curious to learn whether Backpage.com can be connected through its advertising billing statements to the business owners of Ai Spa at their physical address in Hemet. If so, this could link the death at the Ai Spa to the Senate investigation and hearings. More importantly, if the death occurred during commission of a crime, then owners of the massage parlor, and perhaps even the website, possibly could be considered accessories. Is this local case included as part of the Senate hearings? If not, it seems to me that it certainly should be.
My personal Interest
A newspaper reporter once saved my life, which relates to how I now work as an advocate of childhood survivors of human trafficking. The reporter interviewed me as a teenage suicide survivor, rather than a human trafficking survivor, because of how law enforcement mishandled the situation when I escaped my trafficker by jumping from a moving vehicle. In the decades since, I have been blessed to be free from the sex trafficking industry—specifically because of that story—which appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. That article, which appeared when I was 16, saved my life.
My advocacy and journalistic focus have since given me a voice to share my beliefs about how God intervened to save me. Many people have tried to shame me into silence rather than help me share my story, and I thank the publisher of this newspaper for supporting me in these goals.
In the decades since getting my degree in advertising, I have seen technology used in a way that makes me truly respect the power of a small, locally-printed news source focused on a local community. Offline, my media skills led me to work with many nonprofits as well as domestic violence shelters in both San Diego and San Bernardino counties engaged in stopping the growing crime wave in human trafficking.
The Valley Chronicle
When I first started working at The Valley Chronicle, I began discussing these issues with the publisher, who expressed interest in focusing on the visible crime on Florida Avenue and some local businesses that were anything but legitimate massage parlors but were operating within city limits as an arm of organized crime.
I wrote a few stories on human trafficking by promoting public education events such as those presented by a local activist and the Million Kids program, and I followed up on the arrest of a local high-threat pimp known as Jacobo, who was allegedly recruiting area teenagers on Facebook to work as massage escorts.
After the death at the Ai Spa, I found the massage parlor’s ads on Backpage.com, and we did another news story. This helped bring the subject of human trafficking in Hemet into critical public focus. It was no longer such an abstract subject; it was investigative journalism, and people were very opinionated. The publisher began to investigate further, putting signs in the office window looking for someone who spoke Mandarin Chinese, the only language of the girl working at the Ai Spa.
Soon, things got very strange. Our local police department refused to release any information on the case to the press, which is unusual because normally, the police department issues a press release seeking public help in gathering additional information. Not in this death; all communications were completely shut down. It took more than eight months just to discover the name of the deceased, thereby allowing the newspaper to pursue the coroner’s report.
Some have said that politics, sex and business are all about timing. All three converged at once judging by the reaction to a May 19, 2016 “URGENT EDITORIAL” written by the publisher. The editorial was printed on the front page using photos from Hemet massage parlors that were advertising on Backpage.com. In that article, the publisher demanded accountability and transparency from HPD instead of supporting a move to raise more funds for a department unwilling to report progress on the Ai Spa investigation.
The backlash against these articles culminated in a City Council meeting to discuss budget issues as outlined in that same editorial. During that meeting, the police chief still refused to answer my questions during public comment in front of City Council members. This time they were directed specifically at the investigation into trafficking victims within city limits and whether the Ai Spa investigation had been handed off to federal authorities.
To put this into context at a local level, the very place that Ai Spa advertised, Backpage.com, is now the subject of U.S. Senate hearings looking into, among other things, whether minor children were featured in ads intended to solicit sex. Ai Spa, by the way, was just across the street from the Hemet Children’s Museum and only a few blocks from City Hall and the HPD. Yet our police chief is not concerned about what goes on behind closed doors.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has said during these Senate proceedings that child sex trafficking has increased 846 percent in the last five years. A vast majority of that has happened directly because of advertising on the above mentioned website.
I am not speaking up as an advocate against human trafficking because I enjoy telling my story. I consider it like the Prayer of Jabez; by sharing my pain I can expand belief in God’s willingness to help us if we only turn to faith. Regardless of religious beliefs, prostitution is illegal, even if between “consenting” adults.
HPD still won’t release details about the business that blatantly advertised on Backpage.com. How do we know the police have forwarded these investigative files to the proper authorities to be included in the Senate hearings?
Backpage.com has shut down its adult section, but the ads are starting to show up in other categories, such as the dating section. The Valley Chronicle is just asking questions about what is going on in our community. We are reporters. These are issues on which I want police to keep the newspaper informed. Inquiring minds want to know. I want to know. I want to know that our tax dollars are effective at stopping crime advertised in such a high profile location a few blocks from the police department.
Bullying the press into silence doesn’t allow questioning of political rhetoric or inspire uncensored debate on these laws, investigations, or Senate hearings. Call me old-fashioned for believing that a little hometown newspaper could make a real difference in our community. Backpage.com is not just advertising trafficked kids in America; it might be advertising children or teens from our neighborhoods to buyers in foreign countries. I nearly was kidnapped myself. I jumped from a car as a teenager to avoid being put on a boat and shipped out of California. The girl who worked at Ai Spa who spoke only Mandarin Chinese—did she want to come here on her own accord, or was she forced?
Yes, I am very concerned about Backpage.com and how a death being swept under the rug in Hemet could potentially have an important impact on the investigations and future laws affecting criminals using technology. Hopefully this Hemet PD case has been forwarded to federal investigators, and details soon will be released to the local press—and to Hemet citizens.