One of six women arrested this month during a federal sting at illegal massage businesses ran a similar operation in Horry County that shut down following a controversial countywide investigation.
Ok Hwa Lee, of Little River, was arrested June 16 along with five other woman on charges of conspiracy, bribery, and operating an illegal prostitution enterprise in interstate commerce.
Lee was the leader and manager of six North Carolina massage parlors that federal investigators said offered sex acts in exchange for money.
Lee previously owned Lily Spa, at 2100 Old Hwy 17 North in Little River, where Horry County police arrested multiple women during a pair of prostitution stings in early 2019. None of the women arrested then had licenses to work as massage therapists, according to records with the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Following those 2019 sting operations, which included arrests at numerous other massage businesses across the county, The Sun News published an investigation that consulted law enforcement experts and advocates who warned that police were potentially arresting human trafficking victims.
After that investigation, the county solicitor filed nuisance orders against more than 20 local massage parlors, most of which voluntarily shut down. Earlier this year, The Sun News found that the investigation leading to these civil charges involved numerous local police agencies paying a Columbia-area private investigator, who participated in sex acts with the employees, who were potentially trafficking victims.
At some point between the initial prostitution arrests at Lily Spa and the solicitor filing charges, the name of the Little River business changed to Garden Spa, and ownership transferred to In Gyung Lim. However Lee still appeared to be involved in the business, according to online court records. The property owner filed to evict Lee and Garden Spa in August 2019, after the solicitor filed the nuisance actions, according to court records.
Federal investigators note in the criminal complaint that Lee admitted to an undercover agent that she had a habit of paying someone to put her business under a different name to avoid scrutiny.
Lee may have been involved with at least one other former Horry County massage business because the private investigator noted in his report that the receipts he received at Harmony Spa, in Myrtle Beach, were listed as coming from Lily Spa.
Law enforcement experts and human trafficking victim advocates were critical of the massage parlor investigation conducted in Horry County noting, among numerous issues, that the lack of criminal charges meant the business owners could easily move their business and their employees, who could continue to be victimized.
Homeland Security’s most recent investigation began in August 2020, according to the complaint, and it does not state how long Lee was operating the businesses in North Carolina.
The women paid thousands of dollars in bribes to a law enforcement officer, who was actually an undercover agent posing as a corrupt law enforcement officer, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s office. The officer was paid to provide protection for their operation of illegal massage parlors in Cary and Wilmington, NC, where sexual services were offered, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The arrested women are from Flushing, N.Y., and Little River.
Investigators also gathered evidence by stopping customers leaving those businesses and getting them to admit to paying for sexual services, a tactic that experts previously told The Sun News would have been a more appropriate way to prove probable cause for the nuisance orders.