The phrase "human trafficking" brings to mind the tangled plots on Law & Order. But the simple truth is: the trafficking of humans can be simmered down to a matter of control.
Hiding in plain sight is what Mark Elam, director of Oklahomans Against Human Trafficking (the OATH Coalition), calls it.
"They're not wearing chains or holding a sign," Elam said. "They won't even know they're in trouble. They think they're doing what they're doing to survive."
Many young women -- who are vulnerable, who have drug problems, who are controlled by their pimps -- are hiding behind those storefront massage parlors. Some have been brought in from far-flung locales with promises of a better life. Others are looking for money.
"The difference between prostitution and human trafficking is about who is in control," said Elam. "If that issue of control has moved to where I've lost my freedom and rights, when I'm more afraid" of a pimp or massage parlor owner, the crime goes beyond prostitution and into human trafficking, he explained.
And there's not much Tulsa Police can do about it. Oklahoma's massage industry is not well-regulated, and as a result, massage has become a gaping loophole for easy prostitution, human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Anatomy of an Email
Take, for example, the businesses of a man named Dennis R. Cousino. In a Nov. 8 email to former District 8 City Councilor Bill Christiansen, Cousino detailed his standard business practices amid a laundry list of reasons he opposes stricter controls on Tulsa's massage industry.
"My business simply leases space to independent masseuses," Cousino wrote. "They sign a sublease agreement and they come and go as they want. They simply pay their rent to my business.
"I provide a receptionist to 'direct traffic' and to do laundry. This receptionist has no managerial responsibilities. Yet, under the current changes I would have to get an establishment license and my receptionist would have to get an operator license," Cousino wrote.
No current ordinances or laws require owners like Cousino to be licensed. "If one of the masseuses that simply rent (sic) space doesn't have the proper amount of lighting or conducts themselves in an improper way, my receptionist could be held accountable and my business could loose (sic) its establishment license," Cousino explained in the Nov. 8 email.
Cousino's concerns were carbon-copied to Jeffrey Bollinger, the city of Tulsa's licensing and revenue processing manager.
Bollinger handles the issuing and suspending of licenses for massage technicians, among others.
By 3pm on Nov. 8, Bollinger had forwarded the email to several others, including Sergeant Todd Evans, head of Tulsa Police Department's vice unit.
Bollinger wrote, "You may recognize the name of the sender [Dennis Cousino] as the owner of All Hands On, Swedish Realization [Relaxation] Center, Alternative Therapy and tulsamassage.com.
"His assessment is that the [ordinance] changes 'Won't Fix the Problem;' however Dennis Cousino's opposition may be a good sign," Bollinger wrote.
Sergeant Evans responded to Bollinger, and carbon-copied Trail, "I imagine Dennis Cousino would be opposed to anything that would give him responsibility for what goes on inside of his businesses."
Bollinger did not return a phone call to his office or to an email requesting comment.
Sgt. Evans responded via email: "I want to make it clear that the ordinance proposal is not directed at any single individual to be targeted for enforcement, but rather is intended to be a tool to combat businesses that frequently have prostitution offenses occurring."
"I would rather not compete in a tit for tat with Mr. Cousino about his businesses," Evans wrote. "I can say that there have been multiple instances of prostitution in businesses that he owns and he has previously hired girls who he would have good reason to know that [they] have been arrested and convicted of prostitution in his businesses in the past."
But, as Cousino stated, he "simply" leases space to girls. He does not accept responsibility (nor is he legally responsible) for their possible criminal histories.
His receptionists are only required to take calls or do laundry. In his email to Christiansen, Cousino wrote, "If a masseuse isn't aboveboard in her business, we currently terminate her lease ... But why would my business be held any more accountable or require any more licenses than the landlord I rent the entire space from?"
The state's massage industry is like "the Wild West," according to former Councilor Trail, who has worked for 18 months to pass a stricter city ordinance on massage parlors.
No city ordinances hold massage parlor owners responsible for what goes on inside their businesses. Rules regulating hair salons and barber shops are tougher than those for massage parlors, explained local Stop Child Trafficking Now volunteer, Kristin Weis.
Individual masseuses aren't required to attend school or achieve certification. A massage technician license costs $75 to $150 through the city of Tulsa, a process managed by Bollinger.
Law enforcement officers are "overwhelmed, under-staffed and under-trained" to handle the situation said the OATH Coalition's Elam.
The massage industry in Oklahoma is divided, and lacks a cohesive voice. "We met with three different organizations that said they were the voice of the massage parlor industry," Trail said.
"There's a lack of organization in the industry and no real voice," he said.
Without oversight, many massage parlors become "brothels," Elam said. "Tulsa has grown from having 20 to 25 legitimate massage establishments to over 100.
"Sixty or 70 of those are brothels," Elam said. "'Day spa,' 'massage therapy,' 'massage parlor,' they use the same words so you can't necessarily tell the difference.
"But when you get to the location, you can see barred doors, buzzers to get in and they're open late at night," Elam said.
"What really troubles us is that these Asian girls live on site, [the traffickers] bring in food and water, and keep them there day and night servicing clients," Elam said. "That's nothing more than sex slavery.
"We have that in Tulsa, and it's clear to everybody," he said.
Legislators like Trail have been trying to pass an ordinance to identify between the two types of massage establishments: those that traffic in the treatment of muscle aches and stress, and those that offer a totally different kind of rubdown.
Back to Committee
During his term as District 5 City Councilor, Chris Trail worked to advance a tougher city ordinance to tighten regulations on the massage industry.
In the old city council's final meeting on Dec. 1, Trail stormed out of council chambers after five other councilors voted to put the ordinance he'd spent 18 months championing back to committee.
The ordinance has languished in committees and on back burners for nine years. But when Trail joined the council, he wanted to see it pass into law after complaints from constituents. Trail told UTW that Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. agreed, and even apportioned additional money to the city of Tulsa's legal department to hammer out the specifics of the ordinance.
Bartlett "took a stand and appropriated money to make sure city legal could write this ordinance," Trail said. "I feel like I let him down, too. He was fighting this fight with us."
Rather than having a yes-no vote on the ordinance, five councilors, led by District 9 City Councilor G.T. Bynum, voted to send it back to committee. Again.
The ordinance has come up in committee 10 times in the past 18 months, according to Trail.
So, how did former District 8 Councilor Christiansen -- and recipient of the email from massage parlor owner Cousino -- vote at the Dec. 1 council meeting?
He said, "I vote to send it back to the committee and leave it in the good hands of the people who were just elected."
More than 44 states require a state-level license for massage technicians.
"Nothing's going to just go away," said Weis, who was inspired to work with the advocacy group, Stop Child Trafficking Now, after seeing an upsetting story about child sexual exploitation on the news.
She supported Trail's ordinance in the Dec. 1 council meeting. "We need to be shutting these places down," Weis told UTW. "This bill isn't the end-all of anything, but it's a good start to crack open the door."
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