By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Two Chinese citizens were arrested for the unlawful practice of massage therapy Wednesday in downtown North Tonawanda as police continue to investigate a possible prostitution ring being run there.
Haiou Gao, 39, and Ping Zhao, 47, were taken into custody inside the apparently unnamed business on the first floor of 110 Webster St., after several officers arriving in unmarked vehicles entered the premises around 10 a.m., multiple witnesses told the News.
Capt. William Hall said the two women, who entered the United States legally and were in possession of resident alien cards, have not been arraigned because the department hadn't located an interpreter. Police said more charges are pending.
Hall said his department received several complaints of prostitution inside the business, which has only been in operation in a former dance studio, the sign for which still hangs on the building facade, for roughly two months. A search warrant was obtained, Hall said, and two undercover officers first visited the establishment Wednesday, poising as potential clients.
"The officers that went in there did not see anything that indicated any kind of prostitution was going on," Hall said. "We believe there was."
Two nearby business owners who asked to remain anonymous said six month ago they saw items packed in boxes and resting on pallets being carted into the establishment.
They said they never spoke to the Gao and Zhao but would occasionally see them sitting at a park bench along the street "to catch some fresh air."
They also described a third Asian woman, who introduced herself as Lucy, randomly stopping by with supplies during quick visits.
But neighbors became suspicious when they noticed the clientele, which they characterized as "all men," often from out of state, who would park near the establishment in "expensive cars" and "all looked like very well-dressed guys." A surveillance camera also was installed above the door.
The business apparently did not have a formal name, with a few words stuck to the front window indicating it was a massage parlor.
Hall said he believes the women were living in the rear portion of the building, where a kitchen was set up and several other rooms were constructed without a building permit.
"It's not really an apartment," Hall said. "There were four separate booths in there, they put a bathroom with a shower in and there was food and personal effects. You could probably assume they were living there."
Police have also conferred with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who confirmed that the women entered the country legally. Investigators are also probing the possibility of human trafficking as federal authorities investigate the possibility of servitude agreements made in China.
The women are being held at the North Tonawanda Police Department in lieu of $750 bail each.Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.