From the street the faded, yellow house on Belair Road looks unassuming.
Three large picture windows overlook a community recreation center and an elementary school. It’s around the corner from a community baseball diamond. On one recent visit, a small American flag lay discarded on the front lawn, along with a few scattered cigarette butts.
A metal pipe protrudes above a side door. Before the police raided this house, prosecutors said the pipe held a surveillance camera placed there by the operators that recorded the number of men who passed through the entrance, and helped monitor the women working inside.
Federal prosecutors say that the house just over the city line in Baltimore County had a name — Elite Spa — and that it was a brothel that fronted as an Asian massage parlor. Authorities raided the Overlea house in May as part of a wider investigation into prostitution in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
Neighbors said they took note of suspicious activity — frequent visitors, reclusive occupants — but didn’t really understand the full scope of what police now say went on there.
Carroll Pupa, a member of the Overlea Community Association and a resident of 43 years, said Elite came up at neighborhood meetings but most people “had no idea what it was or that it existed.”
He said county zoning officials shuttered several other spas in the past two years, including one on the same block as a church, but he noted the difficulties of getting rid of the businesses. The county council enacted a law in 2001 that restricts massage parlors and other adult entertainment businesses to warehouse and manufacturing districts.
“They go in with the proper medical license, but they’re fronts and nothing can be done,” Pupa said. “It took us two years to finally get the raid accomplished. That’s the reason the neighborhood didn’t know as much, but the community leaders were aware.”
Pupa said Overlea isn’t alone. “They’re popping up throughout the county,” he said. “I understand from the code enforcement people that they’ve already shut down six to eight in the county in the past year.” The parlors, he said, “could bring in the bad elements.”
The investigation involving Elite resulted in months of work by federal and state law enforcement officers who tapped phones and tracked suspects with GPS devices hidden underneath vehicles. They even seized the camera from the drain pipe.
Police arrested five people they say are connected to five suspected brothels in four states — alleging a criminal enterprise that took proceeds and trafficked Asian women from house to house, including the one on Belair Road, and forced them to have sex with clients for money.
Michael Shen and John Ferraro, along with three others, are charged with conspiracy to defraud the government, racketeering, transporting for prostitution, coercion, failing to file factual statements about illegal immigrants and money laundering. Their attorneys did not return calls seeking comment.
Federal authorities said Elite advertised as a massage parlor, spending $70,000 on ads between October 2007 and March. Prosecutors said customers paid a flat fee for one hour — $50 to $60 — and then more in tips.
The main door of the former Elite Spa is on the side of the house, facing where a man named Matt resides. From his vantage point, he could see customers and watched what he said was a constant rotation of about 20 women over two years.
They were all of Asian descent, and all appeared reclusive. “It almost seemed like they were blindfolded,” said Matt, whom The Baltimore Sun agreed to identify by only his first name because he fears for his safety. A court affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore says the women also lived in the house.
The owner of the house Matt lives in also owns the house that was raided, and Matt helps out with maintenance and looking after both places. After the police raid, he cleaned out the house to prepare it for a new tenant. It wasn’t the first time he had gone inside.
He had been asked to do odd jobs and had become acquainted with several of the women, including one with whom he conversed often. Matt described the man in charge as well-dressed and always driving “really nice cars.” Authorities listed a 2010 Porsche Panamera Turbo and a 2011 BMW 550i among assets they seized.
Court documents say that in one recorded conversation, Shen gave Ferraro a “honey do list,” instructing which girls to rotate in and out of six massage parlors in several states. “For tomorrow take Mary (the Thai girl) to Baltimore (Elite Spa). Switch with Mina back,” the documents say.
The men also frequently discussed the stock of “tools,” their code word for condoms, at each location, according to the affidavit.