THE HOPE INITIATIVE
The Hope Initiative was designed by our IMB Working Group to target illicit massage businesses throughout the state of Missouri. The goal of the initiative is to make it increasingly difficult for the organized crime groups that run these businesses to
operate in our state. This will not only reduce the number of illicit businesses in our state, but ultimately reduce demand and prevent potential victims from ever being recruited for the state of Missouri in the first place. The Hope Initiative is
set up in several distinct phases: landlord engagement, civil action, and criminal action.
Phase I - Landlord Engagement
After the ruling received in the Spring Massage Case in Springfield, we used a non-profit agency Heyrick Research to “rake” the internet for ads posted on illicit websites, such as RubMaps and CityXGuide. If businesses were found to have ads
on illicit websites, the Attorney General’s Office sent letters to their landlords that outlined the case law and potentially legal consequences if the business were allowed to continue to operate on their property. Aside from inspiring landlords
to evict these businesses, a secondary goal was to educate these landlords on IMBs and prevent them from potentially renting to another one in the future. Earlier this year, the landlords of 77 suspected IMBs were targeted (a map of these businesses
is shown below), and, as of November 2020, 16 businesses have been evicted or vacated the premises, and another 17 are
in the process of eviction or have committed to not renewing the lease.
Phase 2 - Civil Action
Because the AGO does not have criminal jurisdiction, we are primarily targeting these businesses using civil action suits. Under public nuisance statutes, we can sue the businesses for operating a public nuisance business. A statewide database is being developed to identify criminal networks and help inform next steps for law enforcement, the AGO and regulatory agencies.
Phase 3 - Criminal Action
In this phase, intelligence sharing will help identify criminal networks operating through IMBs. The relevant law enforcement agency for their suspected human trafficking activities will investigate and build criminal cases. If there is sufficient enough
evidence, the owners of these businesses can be charged with human trafficking. Prosecutors across the state will receive training on IMB cases.
The Hope Initiative was not designed to be a one-time operation. We aim for this initiative to be a sustained effort to ensure that human trafficking in illicit massage businesses does not occur in Missouri.
What are the Indicators of IMBs?
The façade of a legitimate business allows traffickers to operate in plain sight, usually in strip malls and small shops found in our major metropolitan cities as well as small towns around the state. It's important for the citizens of Missouri
to be aware of illicit massage businesses in their communities and also be educated about the reality of what is going on behind closed doors and how women and men come to be exploited in these businesses.
Some indicators that may suggest a business is operating as an IMB are:
- Prices below market - which incentivizes the masseuse to earn tips
- Male only clientele
- Customers entering and exiting through rear or side entrances
- Business is open late at night
- Windows are blocked off so that you can’t see inside
- Doors are locked requiring customers to be “buzzed in”
- Website contains sexual innuendo or references to the appearance of the masseuse
- Online reviews describing sex acts
- The masseuse(s) appear to live on site