Inside, authorities allege, had been the local outpost for a prostitution ring that stretched from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C. Prosecutors in New York have charged 31 people, including at least four from Maryland, with using seemingly lawful businesses to house prostitutes imported from Korea, transport them up and down the East Coast and amass millions of dollars from sex services.
Security was so elaborate at the Baltimore County operation that authorities said it had not one, but two hidden compartments to stash prostitutes in case of a police raid.
Court-approved wiretaps on cell phones revealed the location of one secret closet at Moonlight, according to court papers.
But Mark Bastan, acting special agent in charge of the Baltimore office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said his agents didn't immediately know about a second one behind a kitchen cabinet when they stormed the storefront Tuesday afternoon.
"We counted up the number of suitcases and the number of people we had, and we realized we had people missing," Bastan said, adding that agents needed to use a kind of tool used by firefighters to pry open the compartment.
Agents targeted people suspected of being brothel owners and managers, middlemen who worked as transporters, and prostitutes. Charges include conspiracy to transport illegal immigrants and to transport women for the purpose of prostitution.
At their homes in Maryland, Kum Ok Lowery, 53; Mi Ja Park, 41, of Montgomery Village; and Sun Im An, 44, of Upper Marlboro were all arrested early Tuesday, accused of running brothels, officials said.
During the raid at Moonlight, immigration agents arrested another five people, including two who had overstayed their visas, Bastan said.
"This case is a reminder that large-scale human trafficking occurs every day, right in our own cities and neighborhoods," said Michael J. Garcia, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Neighboring proprietors said yesterday that men entered the dark-tinted glass door of the Moonlight at all hours. Employees, mostly young Asian women, always entered through a back door.
There were few disturbances, although neighbors said local police had visited the spa in the recent past. "They didn't bother us, so we didn't say anything," said Iyabo Fagbayi, the owner of Abek's International Food.
According to complaints unsealed in federal court in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the investigation began in May 2005 when a Korean couple who owned and operated a chain of brothels in Queens attempted to bribe an undercover New York City Police Department detective. They hoped, authorities said, to protect their businesses from being raided by law enforcement.
Working undercover, the detective began accepting bribes from the couple, according to prosecutors. In March, the couple and two officers accused of accepting bribes were charged.
The government then expanded its investigation and obtained a wiretap on the telephone of Tae Hoon Kim, a Flushing, N.Y., resident accused of being a middleman and transporter of prostitutes. The wiretap led to the discovery of an extensive network of Korean-owned brothels, authorities said.
In some cases, authorities said, the recruiters provided women from Korea with false immigration documents to enable them to enter the United States. In other instances, the women were taken into the custody of handlers in Canada or Mexico and then smuggled into the United States, according to court papers.
Effectively indentured servants, the women were placed by middlemen into the network's brothels, court papers say. The brothel owner or manager frequently took women's identification and travel documents, including passports, so it would be difficult for the women to leave, according to prosecutors.
The women were sometimes threatened or led to believe their families in Korea would be harmed if their debts weren't satisfied, according to authorities.
In Baltimore, activity centered around Moonlight at a strip mall bookended by a temple and a mosque.
Scoping out the business on the 1800 block of Woodlawn Drive, immigration agents had already suspected money laundering and prostitution, according to court papers.
Tapping phones, they listened to at least seven conversations involving a woman identified as Mi Sun Hayes earlier this year.
On Feb. 13, Hayes, who authorities allege owned Moonlight, said during a call that she had been robbed of cash the night before. She told an unidentified person on the other end of the phone that she thought one of the women might have stolen the money.
Hayes also said her lawyers told her she could not go to the police because she was employing girls who were in the country illegally, according to the criminal complaint. Hayes was arrested and charged with conspiracy to engage in human trafficking, according to federal authorities in New York.
In March and April, Yong Chong, known as Ra Ra, said in tapped phone conversations that she was working at an unspecified "Oasis," and later at Moonlight.
During several calls, Chong negotiated with an unidentified person to provide her with girls. Criminal records show that Chong was convicted in Queens in 2004 and 2005 of promoting prostitution.
Sun reporter Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.