Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall says four North Alabama massage parlors were fronts for human trafficking.
Investigators shut down the Massage and Foot Care parlors in Huntsville, Madison and Decatur, along with the Health Massage parlor in Huntsville.
Temporary restraining orders have been issued against the owners of the massage businesses. This means their doors will be locked and all their assets have been frozen until a judge holds a hearing.
Kirk Wickizer, who lives in Huntsville, said he was shocked to hear about the operation inside four North Alabama Massage parlors.
"You drive by and see the massage sign. You assume it's going to be a back massage with all the signage and everything, but apparently not," Wickizer said.
Marshall said in a legal complaint that the investigation revealed employees inside four businesses were being forced to work longs hours and also to engage in sex acts with customers.
The Alabama Board of Massage Therapy was a part of the investigation and said it's investigators concluded the businesses were providing sex in exchange for money.
It's unclear how the investigation started, but Wickizer said he doubts customers brought it to the attention of authorities.
"If the customers are getting what that they want, then they aren't going to be blowing the whistle, are they?" he said.
Marshall's office said the victims are from China. Investigators say the parlors' owner and her daughter gave the victims little freedom, and transported them to and from the parlors in groups. They were eating and sleeping in terrible conditions, according to investigators.
Right now, we don't know how many victims there are, or where they're being held. The owner and her daughter are only charged civilly. We don't know if they'll face criminal charges.
The attorney general says this is the first time he's used Alabama's Civil Human Trafficking Law. He said it allowed his office to move in quickly and seize assets, to shut the parlors down.
Alabama House Bill 305 was signed into law in 2018. It gives the Attorney General the ability to go after businesses in a civil manner before criminal charges are ever filed.
The bill states the Attorney General's office can go into businesses and seize assets if it has reason to believe human trafficking is going on inside. That's what the Attorney General's Office did at the four businesses in Madison and Morgan county on Thursday.
The bill removes the statute of limitations for the Attorney General's office which means it can seek civil relief at anytime.
Tim Gann, Madison County Assistant District Attorney, explained the threshold in a civil case is much lower than in a criminal case, meaning they don't need probable cause, only reason to believe there's trafficking.
While evidence is collected in the civil investigation, criminal components may come to light, and that's when criminal charges could be brought. The Attorney General's Office said it had no comment when we asked about the potential for criminal charges in this case.
The new provisions also established sleeping overnight in a massage therapy business is misconduct, and could result in disciplinary action by the Massage Therapy Board. The board said the four businesses had various violations to the board's rules and regulations. WAAY 31 is working to learn if this was one of them.