YBOR CITY — With hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of illegally obtained vehicles serving as the backdrop Oct. 28, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister detailed a multiagency operation that broke up prostitution activities occurring throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Operation Shared Hope began in September 2020, Chronister said, when detectives noticed suspicious reports coming from Simply Massage in Lutz, 18125 U.S. 41, Suite 108.

“Our detectives conducted surveillance and found it highly unusual that the massage parlor only had male customers,” Chronister said during the Oct. 28 news conference staged in the parking lot of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Operation Center in Ybor City.

Detectives soon learned the owners of the Lutz massage parlor were a married couple, James Robert Smith, 51, and Nan Chen Smith, 41.

“James is no stranger to law enforcement,” Chronister said. “In 2012 he was the target of a Homeland Security investigations case involving human smuggling but was never charged.”

Detectives soon discovered the Simply Massage in Lutz was just one of many locations throughout the Tampa Bay area conducting illegal activity. “Records revealed a connection between (the Smiths) and 12 massage parlors in the Tampa Bay area,” Chronister said, stating that four were in Hillsborough and eight were in Pinellas.

“Detectives quickly learned that these 12 locations were simply fronts for a prostitution ring,” Chronister said.

The expanded scope of the operation led to the involvement of multiple investigative agencies, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, St. Petersburg Police Department, Largo Police Department, and the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough.

The roughly 13-month operation resulted in the arrests of seven suspects, Chronister said, and there may be more as the investigation continues. Search warrants were served Oct. 27 on all 12 parlors, the home of the Smiths and a storage unit that was connected to the married couple, Chronister said.

The arrested individuals were the Smiths, two women acting as managers or madams and three employees.

“These individuals now face charges including racketeering, money laundering and deriving support from prostitution,” the sheriff said.

Chronister said the Smiths ran their business like a franchise and recruited women from around the country and beyond. The couple would operate a parlor for six to eight months and then sell the business, where criminal activity would continue, he said. Some women providing the services and sexual acts were in the country legally and others were not, the sheriff said.

“We believe that there are even a couple that may have been smuggled in from as far away as China,” Chronister said. “That’s what we’ll continue to work on now. How did this happen? Where did these women fall into this horrific cycle?”

“This multifaceted criminal ring operated like this: the customer, or John, would enter the establishment and speak to a manager or madam who would negotiate the sexual acts they wanted to perform, then hand-selected the women who would perform the act, as if they were a personal shopper,” Chronister said. “We believe the individuals involved in this criminal ring made hundreds of dollars a day from the women they exploited, while the women who performed these sex acts were forced to work for mere tips.”

In total, Operation Shared Hope seized more than $750,000 between cash, vehicles and assets, according to a HCSO press release. The report state that detectives found evidence that the couple and their business associates laundered more than $1 million into their bank accounts.

While serving search warrants at the 12 massage parlors, Chronister said detectives discovered a large amount of new and used condoms and a wide selection of lingerie, “which is never found in a reputable massage parlor.”

Members of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough are conducting investigations, as well, which Chronister said he believes will result in additional charges.

“The women being exploited are not the only victims in this case,” the sheriff added. “The Smiths’ 5-year-old son was also taken into protective custody. Just think of the heartache and trauma this young child will now face with both of his parents in jail, where they belong, because of their sickening drive for cash at the expense of exploiting women.”

Chronister said detectives found that the Smiths’ criminal organization had immediate plans to expand by adding two more massage parlors in the Tampa Bay area. “We believe they are connected to dozens of additional massage parlors,” he said.

Investigations related to Operation Shared Hope continue, Chronister said, as victimized women involved in human trafficking and sexual exploitation are being both interviewed and provided services.

“It’s cases like this, where women are being exploited, that keep me up at night,” Chronister said. “We know that we have a human trafficking problem across this country. Florida’s not immune to that and neither is Hillsborough County and that’s why a few months ago we established a human trafficking squad. We will continue to dedicate the resources until we eradicate human trafficking here in Hillsborough County.”