ELKTON — A woman linked to an Elkton-area spa is facing sex trafficking and prostitution charges after a two-month-long Maryland State Police investigation that involved, in part, interviews with clients, surveillance operations and a raid in which detectives found a naked male customer in a “massage room” with a “scantily clad” female employee, according to Cecil County District Court records.
Investigators identified the suspect as Bifang Zhong, 44, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Zhong is facing eight misdemeanor charges, specifically five sex trafficking counts and three counts of prostitution, court records show. Scheduled for a Friday bail review hearing, Zhong remained in the Cecil County Detention Center on Thursday, according to court records, which indicate that she is scheduled for trial on March 5.
MSP Tfc. John Wildman, a detective with the agency’s Special Investigation Section, started his investigation into Spa Aromatherapy at 1657 Elkton Rd. (Route 279) in early October because of suspicions that the business was “functioning as a prostitution enterprise,” court records allege.
In the second week of October, SIS members started conducting “periodic physical surveillance” of Spa Aromatherapy, police reported.
“Investigators established through preliminary physical surveillance that the establishment is frequented only by male clients. Investigators observed that the clients are required to ring a doorbell prior to gaining entry into the establishment. Investigators observed that male clients frequently parked in the Wawa parking lot adjacent to the establishment, despite ample parking in the Spa Aromatherapy parking lot,” according to charging documents.
Between the second and third week of October, Wildman conducted a non-custodial interview with a man whom investigators had identified as a Spa Aromotherapy client through the periodic surveillance operations focusing on the business in question, court records show.
That man, identified in charging papers as “CS-1,” told the investigator that a female employee manually gratified him inside the spa and that he paid for that service, police reported.
“CS-1 advised that he walked into the Spa and was greeted by an Asian woman. CS-1 advised that he was led to a rear massage room that appeared small in size. CS-1 advised that the price for a one-hour massage was $60. CS-1 advised that a second female entered his room and remained clothed while she provided him with (manual gratification). CS-1 adamantly advised that the Spa Aromatherapy was not a legitimate massage parlor. CS-1 advised that he gave the second female a $40 tip in exchange for the sexual act,” court records allege.
Wildman later interviewed four additional men whom investigators, through the periodic surveillance operations, identified as Spa Aromatherapy clients, police said. Surveilling investigators reported that the four men remained inside the establishment for 30 to 60 minutes after entering the business during their separate visits, police added.
“Each man provided a statement to law enforcement indicating, in sum and substance, that they patronized the Spa Aromatherapy with the intent to engage in a sex act and that they engaged in sex acts with the various female employees of the Spa Aromatherapy in exchange for U.S. Currency. Each male client advised that they were required to pay in cash,” court records allege.
A number of those male clients told investigators that they called the same phone number and “communicated through a third party” to make their Spa Aromatherapy appointments and, in one case, to “receive photographs of Spa workers prior to arrival,” according to charging documents.
Also part of the investigation, Wildman “conducted a query” of public postings to websites “intended to advertise prostitution” and found numerous postings advertising Spa Aromatherapy, police reported.
Wildman then searched for “Spa Aromatherapy Elkton” and identified an archived advertisement posted to a website that advertises prostitution, police said. That advertisement included a phone number — the same number provided by some of spa clients identified through the surveillance operations — and the 1657 Elkton Rd. address of Spa Aromatherapy, police added.
“The advertisement included a sexually suggestive photograph,” court records allege.
Wildman then checked a law enforcement program for advertisements associated with the phone number in question and found “536 unique advertisements that list this phone number on various websites that advertise prostitution,” according to charging documents.
“Tfc. Wildman observed that, in a majority of the aforementioned advertisements, sexually suggestive photographs with obvious editing to blur out personally identifiable features were present. Tfc. Wildman recognized this as indicative of sex trafficking . . .” court records allege.
In addition, the detective observed that the text content in a majority of those advertisements were “consistent with criminal activity,” police reported.
“For example, in a number of the advertisements, the following message was posted: Girls New Arrived (100% Real, Relaxation 1hr is $60, HOT GIRLS, top service, 1000% satisfaction, 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. to make an appointment,” court records allege.
Charging documents also indicate a phone number — the same one as the phone number in question — was included in the advertisements.
“Tfc. Wildman knows through training and experience that legitimate massage therapy establishments do not utilize terms like ‘New Arrived, 1000% Real’ and ‘Hot girls’,” according to charging papers.
During the third week of November, Wildman and MSP Sgt. Harris conducted a voluntary interview with the Spa Aromatherapy landlord, without disclosing the nature of the ongoing investigation, court records show.
“The landlord told investigators that rent for Spa Aromatherapy is paid in cash,” according to charging documents, which allege that such a payment is “consistent with prostitution at the establishment” because prostitution is “an inherently cash-based business.”
Through questioning by the investigators, the landlord described the manner in which rent is paid, police reported. The landlord told detectives that he receives a monthly phone call from a woman that “speaks (in) broken English and is told that the rent is ready for pickup,” police added.
“The landlord subsequently drives to the Spa Aromatherapy and parks in the lot. The landlord re-contacts the phone number and advises that he is in the parking lot and ready to receive the rent payment. The landlord subsequently enters the Spa Aromatherapy and is paid the monthly rent ($1,500) in cash,” court records outline.
Wildman obtained authorization from a Cecil County Circuit Court judge to “intercept non-content surveillance information” from the phone having the same number as the one provided by the Spa Aromatherapy clients and the one listed in online advertisements, police said.
In addition, police added, the detective received the same “judicial authorization” relating to the phone used to set up rent payments with the landlord.
Both of those phones are “located within the same area of Brooklyn, N.Y.,” police reported.
“Tfc. Wildman, in undercover capacity, has communicated with (the phone number in question) via text message. Tfc. Wildman has received a number of text messages from (the phone number), including photographs of Spa workers dressed in sexually suggestive attire,” court records allege.
On Dec. 4, Wildman obtained a warrant through a Cecil County Circuit Court judge that allowed him to search the content of the phone in question through phone company records, police said. Investigators linked Zhong to that phone, police added.
“Tfc. Wildman identified numerous messages confirming that Spa Therapy is a de facto prostitution business & sex trafficking enterprise and that the (phone) user, later identified as Zhong, actively facilitates prostitution and sex trafficking at that establishment,” court records allege.
The detective provides one example in charging documents, which indicate that, on Dec. 3, multiple messages were sent from the phone in question to a “potential client about the price of (a specified sex act) at the Spa Aromatherapy.”
During the course of the investigation, Wildman and other SIS investigators identified a black Toyota minivan with a New York license plate that “appeared to transport Spa workers to and from the establishment,” according to charging documents.
“Investigators identified that THE NEW YORK VAN travels to Elkton from Brooklyn, (N.Y.), on an approximately ten-day rotation,” court records allege.
On Dec. 1, while conducting “non-content electronic surveillance” on the phone that had been linked to Zhong, Wildman observed “sequential southbound pings” originating from Brooklyn along the Interstate 95 corridor, police said. Based on that information, police added, Wildman suspected that “The New York Van” was traveling to Elkton and would be arriving soon at Spa Aromatherapy.
Wildman then conducted surveillance outside Spa Aromatherapy and observed the van in question pull into the establishment’s parking lot, according to court records. The van, driven by an Asian man, also was occupied by Zhong and another Asian woman, not identified, court records show.
“Tfc. Wildman also observed these individuals carrying bags from The New York Van into the Spa Aromatherapy and from the Spa Aromatherapy into The New York Van. The unidentified female remained inside of the Spa Aromatherapy and a different Asian female (INDIVIDUAL 1) entered THE NEW YORK VAN,” court records allege.
After the van left the spa parking lot and headed west on Elkton Road, an MSP trooper, who was aware of the ongoing investigation, observed a traffic violation and stopped the van, police reported.
Investigators identified the 45-year-old driver and Zhong, who was his front-seat passenger, with their driver’s licenses, police said. The trooper identified the other Asian woman, who was seated in the back, through her Chinese passport, police added. (The woman with the Chinese passport is identified as “INDIVIDUAL 1” in charging papers.)
“Based upon training and experience, Tfc. Wildman believes that Zhong was transporting INDIVIDUAL 1 from Elkton to New York City in furtherance of the sex trafficking scheme,” court records allege.
During that traffic stop, Wildman placed a “controlled phone call” to the number of the phone in question, and the phone that Zhong was holding started ringing at the same time, police reported.
“Tfc. Morrison asked Zhong if the ringing phone was hers and Zhong replied in the affirmative,” court records allege.
On Wednesday, two days after he had obtained warrants from a Cecil County Circuit Court judge to search Spa Aromatherapy and the New York van, a surveilling Wildman observed the van in question arrive at the business, police reported.
He then watched Zhong and the driver — the same one observed by investigators on Dec. 1 — enter the establishment and then leave about 15 minutes later, according to police.
As the van traveled on Elkton Road, SIS investigators stopped the vehicle in order to serve the warrant allowing them to search the van, police said. They detained Zhong and the driver and transported them to MSP’s North East Barrack, police added.
“Zhong was searched and three phones, including (the two that had been linked to her during the investigation), were seized. Zhong’s purse was found to contain $16,820. A significant portion of the U.S. Currency was organized into individual envelopes with ledgers of activity at Spa Aromatherapy. Tfc. Wildman believes that this currency is proceeds of sex trafficking and prostitution at the Spa Aromatherapy,” according to charging documents.
Investigators also served the warrant allowing them to search Spa Aromatherapy, police reported.
“Tfc. Wildman, posing as a potential client, rung the exterior doorbell of the establishment and was greeted by a scantily clad female Spa Aromatherapy employee matching the general physical description of one of the photographs transmitted by the phone (linked to Zhong),” court records show.
After that female employee unlocked the door and allowed Wildman to come into the spa, additional MSP troopers also entered the establishment and announced that they were serving a search warrant, police reported.
“As troopers tactically cleared the building, a locked interior door to a ‘massage room’ was breached, revealing a completely naked man with a condom hanging from his penis and a scantily clad Spa Aromatherapy employee,” court records allege.
Wildman observed $120 lying on a table adjacent to the massage table in that room, police reported.
While searching Spa Aromatherapy, investigators found condoms, additional money and electronic devices, in addition to “a system of video cameras that enable remote viewing of the establishment” and a “box of envelopes matching those seized from THE NEW YORK VAN,” according to charging documents.
Wildman checked the cell phones that had been seized from the van and observed “evidence indicating that Zhong was placing ads for the Spa Aromatherapy on various websites intended to promote prostitution, was sending and receiving messages to clients of the Spa Aromatherapy and has the application capable of live-monitoring cameras installed within the Spa Aromatherapy,” court records allege.
Investigators interviewed the driver of THE NEW YORK VAN, police reported.
“(The driver) advised that he is a taxi driver and periodically drives Zhong from Brooklyn to Elkton. (He) advised that Zhong periodically is accompanied by other Asian females when traveling to and from the Spa Aromatherapy. (He) advised that he calls Zhong ‘the boss lady’,” according to charging documents.
A search of court records indicated that the driver, whose name is provided in charging documents, has not been charged.