AP NEWS

‘Did you know that Greenwich has a brothel?’

March 29, 2019

GREENWICH — A recent raid at an unlicensed “massage parlor” in the west end of Greenwich, and the felony arrest of a woman on charges of promoting prostitution, offer a glimpse into the illicit sex trade — and the difficulty authorities face in curtailing it.

When authorities last year shut down Backpage.com, a website described by a federal prosecutor “as the world’s top online brothel,” law-enforcement officials and advocates fighting sex trafficking hoped that would put a dent in the sex trade. But the commercial business in the sale of sex is a persistent one.

In the Greenwich area, the sex trade has had an ongoing presence — both online, at hotels and in a local neighborhood — in recent months.

Greenwich police say they will investigate reports of illegal activities at massage parlors and spas.

“A small percentage of them are engaged in illegal activities,” Greenwich police spokesman Lt. John Slusarz said. “It’s a good idea to report suspicious activity, if it seems unusual or out of the norm.”

A police raid at 111 S. Water St. earlier this month was brought about, in part, by community complaints.

Greenwich police were tipped off to a business that was offering sexual services by an anonymous letter.

“Did you know that Greenwich has a brothel?” the letter said, according to the criminal affidavit filed in court. “Went in for a massage and was offered all kinds of sexual services for a steep price. The girls on the couch didn’t look very happy being there and it seemed to me they were being forced to supply service. Probably illegally in this country.”

Another informant told police he went to the apartment on South Water Street to get a back massage, after seeing a listing for the business on the internet. When he arrived, the man “saw a Hispanic male in the apartment with a gun,” he told police, and a woman he met there said she was in the sex trade, according to the court papers.

An undercover police officer went to the South Water Street apartment in late February, after first making contact with the business on Bedpage.com, an imitator of Backpage. The investigator spoke with a woman, later identified as Elizabeth Gonzalez, and discussed prices — “$250 an hour” or “$300 for everything,” according to the court papers. It was made clear to the officer that sexual services would be provided for cash, the affidavit stated.

The officer was offered edibles, which contained a cannabis extract, according to court papers, and he later left the premises after saying he was “too nervous to continue.”

After police raided the apartment, officers found condoms, sex toys, erectile dysfunction pills, hash brownies, marijuana, “bondage collars and restraints” and $684 in cash, according to the court papers.

The apartment is now vacant and unoccupied, filled with a strong odor of air freshener. A neighbor, who did not give his name, said he was glad an arrest was made and that the operation was closed.

Gonzalez, 40, who has a Pennsylvania identification card, apparently signed a lease for the apartment in November 2017. She is free from police custody after posting $50,000 bond on charges of promoting prostitution, a felony, and prostitution, a misdemeanor. Her next court date is April 15.

In June 2018, police in Stamford shut down an illegal massage parlor in a Summer Street apartment, seizing $2,532 in cash and a large amount of new condoms and used ones in the trash.

Online boards offering services that appear to be sexual in nature are also still in business.

The Bedpage listings say “massage services” can be obtained in Greenwich. A poster named “Jenna’s sensual touch” is offering “sensual exotic touch and body rubz,” the website reads, in the area of Greenwich and Rye Brook, N.Y.

Since Backpage was closed, a number of competitors have been taking its place by offering thinly veiled sexual services. Backpage was shut down in April 2018 after years of litigation, but sexual services can still be found online.

“It converted over to the ‘dark web’ and other sites,” said Elizabeth Boolbol, a Greenwich resident who fights to end sexual trafficking. She said that sexual exploitation was hard to stop from a purely law-enforcement approach.

“We need to have a place for survivors to go after they’ve been trafficked, and we need to stem demand — there shouldn’t be a thing called ‘commercial sex’,” said Boolbol, founder of the Partnership to End Human Trafficking. “But it’s so profitable, and when it’s that profitable, it’s hard to stop.”

rmarchant@greenwichtime.com