SPRINGFIELD, Mo. - More than a dozen businesses advertising as massage parlors in Springfield were raided as part of a multi-state investigation into human trafficking, Attorney General Josh Hawley announced Thursday.
Hawley and Greene County Prosecutor Daniel Patterson also filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking emergency orders to shut down the businesses. Hawley said young Asian immigrant females are being held against their will for sexual contact with customers under the guise of providing massages.
A total of 16 businesses and individuals were named in the lawsuit, which was filed after The Missouri State Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies raided the businesses.
Hawley told The Springfield News-Leader about 18 businesses and residences in Springfield were raided. Similar raids were being conducted in Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana and the activities could be connected to Asian organized crime, he said.
"We will find you out, we will hunt you down and we will prosecute you," Hawley said of anyone suspected of committing human trafficking in Missouri.
According to the lawsuit, the patrol conducted hundreds of hours of surveillance at the massage parlors before the raids.
The total number of victims involved in the ring won't be known until all searches are conducted and the investigation is completed, Hawley said.
A news release from Patterson said many of the Greene County businesses searched had advertised on backpage.com and rubmaps.com, which are websites "known by law enforcement to be used to promote the sex trade."
A special prosecutor has been assigned to the case, Patterson said.
In April, Hawley announced that he planned to crack down on human trafficking in Missouri, including new regulations under the state's consumer protection laws and the creation of an Anti-Trafficking Unit in the attorney general's Office. The new anti-trafficking unit participated in Thursday's raids and is currently investigating other businesses with alleged involvement in human trafficking, including Backpage.com, he said.
Human trafficking is an issue police in the area are starting to pay more attention to, according to CBS affiliate KOLR.
Last month, the station reported that the "Welcome to Springfield" magazine, which is in every hotel room in the city, featured an ad promoting awareness of human trafficking on its back cover.
The Holiday Inn Express in downtown Springfield told the station that as of 2015, employees must undergo training to learn signs of trafficking, and according to Dr. Rachael Herrington, a psychologist and the founder of local non-profit Stand Against Trafficking, the coalition received a mini-grant to train the Springfield Police Department and other local officials.