FARGO — A Fargo man is on a mission to expose local massage parlors for what he believes they are — fronts for commercial sex and human trafficking.

Keith Coates, 26, said he visited four such parlors in the metro area, all with the same result — an unmistakable offer from the masseuse for a sexual service in exchange for money, which he declined each time.

“I couldn’t believe it. It just seemed so surreal,” said Coates, who has worked as a massage therapist in Fargo for more than two years.

In addition, he said he has what he believes is proof, in the form of a text message, that human trafficking is happening at one of the parlors.

Coates said he reported the incidents of sexual offerings to Fargo and Moorhead police, but that he’s “hit a wall” trying to make something happen.

A Fargo police spokesperson said the department is unable to comment on something it hasn’t fully investigated. Moorhead police said they also couldn't comment.

Coates said he’s sharing his experience to shine a light on the parlors' practices. He said if people truly knew what was going on inside those businesses, “they wouldn’t exist.”

Robert Hoy, a local criminal defense attorney and former Cass County state’s attorney, was asked about Coates' efforts, and Hoy said Coates has done “way more” than any private citizen would be expected to.

“He shouldn’t get his underwear in a bundle. He’s told law enforcement — now he should stay out of the way and see what happens,” Hoy said.

Hiding in plain sight

A report by the anti-trafficking group Polaris estimates more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses are hiding in plain sight in strip malls and along busy corridors in the U.S.

While some women at these businesses may choose to sell sex, the report says, evidence suggests many thousands of women engaging in commercial sex there are actually victims of human trafficking — being controlled through debts, psychological manipulation and threat of violence from their traffickers.

According to Polaris, most trafficked women have recently arrived from China or South Korea and are under extreme financial pressure.

In 2018, The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead visited all known massage parlors in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area. Since then, one in Moorhead has closed, while two new parlors have opened in Fargo, for a total of at least eight such establishments.

This article is not naming any of the businesses or their owners because they have not been publicly implicated by authorities or criminally charged.

During the visits last year, reporters found employees who spoke little to no English and requirements that customers pay up front to receive services. Some offer a "table shower," where the customer is washed while lying down, a service not typical of other massage businesses.

Coates said his concerns about trafficking were borne from a previous job at a local homeless shelter where he saw "very shady stuff."

He later decided to become a massage therapist and enrolled in a local massage school. There, Coates said, he heard stories about illicit massage businesses in town, but doubted they were true.

“I was like, I don’t believe it. I have to go to one of them,” Coates said.

A 'cookie-cutter method'

Coates said his first visit was to a Moorhead parlor a few years ago, and subsequent visits to other parlors, the most recent in Fargo in August, played out the same way. Typically, the masseuse offers only a small towel for draping, inappropriate in a legal massage setting, he said.

In sharp contrast, at Massage Envy where Coates works, he said clients are covered with sheets or blankets, except for the body part being massaged.

At a parlor, once lying face down on a table with the small towel covering only his glutes, the masseuse would take his underwear off without asking, he said. They would do a full body massage, then start rubbing his inner thighs to see if he would react.

After he was "flipped over," the employee's hands would move back to the inner thighs, even touching his genitals. At that point came a hand motion from the masseuse — an unspoken message to inquire whether he wanted “more.”

Usually, they asked for a "big tip" or $40 to $60 in exchange, he said. In each case, when he declined the sexual offer, the masseuse abruptly left the room.

Coates described it as a "cookie-cutter method" at each establishment, "like they’re trained to do that."

Proof of trafficking?

Coates said during his massage parlor visits, he saw only male customers waiting, usually ages 55 and older.

He said he thinks men use parlors because it seems safer than hiring a prostitute, but he wishes they understood the larger picture. “What they’re doing is fueling a huge sex trafficking trade,” he said.

Aside from the sexual favors aspect, Coates maintains he has evidence of human trafficking in at least one Fargo massage parlor.

He said he learned some Mandarin Chinese in the last year or so, specifically to converse with women at the parlors in order to learn more. He went so far as to befriend one who turned out to be an owner.

Coates said she told him she’s brought girls to Fargo from all over the country. She told him it doesn’t matter where they’re from, as long as they have the proper “work card.”

He said he has a text conversation from the woman, angry that she was promised “a new girl” for the parlor who was supposed to be “25 and pretty,” but instead, was sent a woman who appeared to be in her 70s.

Coates said the owner claimed she would “send her back.”

“Very, very distant, very cold, with almost no emotion behind it,” Coates said, of the comment.

Willing to risk his safety

In the 2018 story, Fargo Police Lt. Shannon Ruziska said it’s difficult to prove these cases when police don't have a good direct witness.

Turns out, even that may not be enough.

Hoy, the former state’s attorney, said a prosecutor would need more than what Coates experienced to have a good case. “Even if they trusted him (Coates) implicitly, he doesn’t have that proof,” Hoy said.

“If he put that evidence in front of a jury, he’d lose with any kind of spirited defense. The prosecution loses that case,” Hoy said.

Police would need evidence of some sort of “completed transaction,” he said, perhaps even an audio recording.

Better to go after the trafficker than the local operator who’s “getting a part of the action,” he said, adding that they would have an “unlimited number of excuses” about how they run their business.

Hoy said Coates’ actions could also have an unintended consequence of pushing the perpetrators underground for a time.

Coates is undeterred, and he thinks Fargo can set a good example for North Dakota and beyond by taking a tougher stance. He realizes there also could be some risk in sticking his neck out for this cause, but says it's worth it.

“It’s human trafficking. It’s one of the most abhorrent evils that humanity can possibly have, and I’m willing to put my safety at risk for it,” he said.