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WAYLAND — With a fire crackling in the living room and a handmade birthday poster on the wall, eight suburban moms gathered around the kitchen table of a restored farmhouse, hatching a plan of attack.

Their goal was nothing short of audacious: They would put an end to sex trafficking at massage parlors in Massachusetts.

Eight days earlier, in the wake of allegations at Florida day spas and revelations about similar businesses closer to home, one of the women, who goes by Pat, had begun looking more skeptically at the spas in her pastoral town.

A quick Google search indicated there was sex for sale along Boston Post Road. One recent customer had offered a lurid review on a Yelp-like website; his satisfaction was tempered only by disappointment at the shape of his masseuse’s backside. A second spa had just opened behind the deli where the local kids hang out after school.

Outraged, Pat sprang into action. She texted members of her dog-walking group, the Wayland Moms Pup Walk, and other friends who had been involved in grass-roots organizing. A formidable and highly motivated bunch, they included a Harvard MBA, a training consultant, a tech executive, and an adviser on partnerships and development who had begun working for a trafficking prevention program in Southeast Asia.

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In a few days, both spas would be shut down — but not the way anyone had intended. No criminal charges would be filed by police. No women would be identified as victims of sex trafficking, let alone rescued from the squalid back room of a spa. Pat and her friends had set out to save women from exploitation — not to chase two businesses out of their backyard.

Now they would never know if their suspicions had been right.

But they were just getting started.

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* * *

This is the story of a group of residents so agitated by news of other women’s exploitation that they launched a vigilante response to a global problem from their Metro West bedroom community.

The women weren’t affected by the massage parlors personally. They’d been driving right by them for weeks without noticing them at all. Hidden in plain sight, behind a florist and the deli, respectively, both businesses had rear entrances and parking lots that could be discreetly accessed by knowing customers.

But the spas loomed large for the women after they learned that similarly nondescript storefronts harbor women lured from China, ostensibly for legitimate jobs, and forced to work as prostitutes. As far-fetched as the notion sounds — sex slaves in Wayland? — news stories and experts were attesting to the fact that illicit massage businesses operate all over the country. Leafy, peaceful Wayland was not immune.

“We decided as a group we want to help the women,” Pat told the Globe. “We want to train the community on what to look for.”

The women began gathering on Tuesday nights and invited the Globe to sit in on their early planning sessions, though they declined to be fully identified, fearing for their safety. They didn’t want to put themselves at risk; they just wanted to help.

Experts in human trafficking have expressly warned concerned citizens not to confront owners of a businesses they find suspicious. Polaris, a national nonprofit, instead encourages people to call its National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) or report suspicions to police.

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“Generally, trafficking situations are dangerous. That’s often one of the reasons people are not able to leave them,” said Megan Cutter, associate director of the hotline. A business owner might have ties to organized crime, and is likely to view a meddling neighbor as directly threatening her livelihood.

Even some of those trained in the field won’t set foot inside a spa, Cutter said, if they might be trapped with a suspected trafficker.

But it was too late in Wayland.

By the time Pat heard such advice, she had already been inside both spas.

* * *

Pat showed up at the first spa one Sunday evening with a cover story: She was collecting donations for a school fund-raiser, she claimed. Would the owner be willing to donate a gift certificate?

An Asian woman wearing short shorts and wedge heels answered a few questions. But when Pat asked the big one — “Are you here of your own free will?” — the woman acted as if she didn’t understand English. The conversation was over.

Pat headed straight to the Wayland Police Department, where a sergeant said the business was already on their radar. He divulged few details, but did share this: Did she know that a second spa had just opened up behind the deli?

She rushed over there as soon as she left the station, using the same cover story. The interior was similar, right down to the signage, fake plants, covered windows, and another Asian woman in short shorts and wedge heels. When she started taking pictures of the massage licenses on the wall, an older man working there raced down the hall to find someone who could speak English. He put her on a cellphone with the owner, who said the spa was too new to offer gift certificates.

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The next day, Wayland Detective Sergeant Jamie Berger told Pat he was already investigating. But he also told her how difficult it is to gather evidence in cases like this.

Pat is a fan of the local police, noting Wayland is routinely rated one of the safest communities in the state, even in the country. But she was underwhelmed by their response. The department didn’t seem to share her sense of urgency — or fear that there may be trafficking victims inside.

Was it possible, one friend asked her at their first meeting, that police simply couldn’t divulge how much they knew?

“If they have an active investigation, they can’t share this information,” the tech executive noted. “Could they be downplaying what they’re doing?”

To some extent, they were.

Chief Patrick Swanick assured Pat — and the Globe — that she was the only one who had raised an issue about the spa, saying the single complaint “was from Pat and it was based on rumors, whispers around town, and certain websites.”

But that wasn’t exactly true. An incident report Swanick shared with the Globe showed that Berger had launched an investigation in December, based on an “anonymous source,” whom Berger later explained was a friend without firsthand evidence. He had taken the tip seriously enough to begin surveillance of the spa and to visit the spa, with state inspectors, about six weeks before Pat came calling.

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Inside, they found luggage, a hidden TV, and clothing that apparently had been washed in the shower — what Berger characterized on his incident report as “evidence of someone living there.”

* * *

Over a platter of cookies at their first meeting, the women considered how to take a stand against sex trafficking. Should they hold signs in the spas’ parking lots, to create awareness? If they did, they’d have to have a constant presence, working in shifts like Salvation Army bell-ringers. Should they leave fliers on car windshields with ominous “I-know-what-you’re-up-to” messages? That could shame local johns out of visiting the shops.

But what were their legal boundaries? Could they be sued for harassment or libel? Would they be putting their families at risk by attaching their names to such a public campaign?

“We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re just a bunch of moms sitting in this kitchen,” the tech executive worried at the first meeting. “And out there is the entire organized crime world.”

Surely, there were organizations with expertise and insights to share, noted one of the women, a longtime activist in town. Why not ask those groups what would be most useful: Fund-raising? A Metro West community awareness campaign? A legislative push?

C.J., who had recently worked with an antitrafficking organization, had just been tapped for a separate initiative, working with corporate leaders to address antitrafficking through their businesses. She offered to hit up her contacts and seek suggestions, while the other women formed pairs and trios for other assignments. One team would seek insights from communities that had already cracked down on illicit massage businesses. Another would explore the status of legislative efforts to fix the problem.

Their group would need a mission statement, a territory to monitor, and a name. One member, Caroline, felt strongly the name should focus on victims — the women they hoped to help — and signify a reach far beyond Wayland.

Otherwise, she said, “it has a flavor of NIMBY-ism to me.”

They would start their work in Wayland, the women decided, expand to Metro West, and set their sights on ridding all of Massachusetts of illicit massage businesses. And for the time being, until they thought of something better, they would call their group “Operation Rescue.”

* * *

Pat, who works for a boutique investment bank, approached this venture with a business mind-set. In order to operate, a spa needs a space to rent, a massage therapy license from the state, and a business permit from the town. That meant Wayland’s familiar local landlords, real estate brokers, and bureaucrats may have been — whether wittingly or not — doing business with people involved in sex trafficking.

She would pressure all of them.

But soon she recognized the limitations each faced.

The town is not responsible for licensing or inspecting massage parlors — the state is.

The properties where the spas had opened were zoned for business, and spas were permitted by right. Building commissioner Geoffrey Larsen told the Globe he would need a written complaint to go after the spas for zoning enforcement. He hadn’t gotten one, and Pat wasn’t able to convince Town Planner Sarkis Sarkisian to issue one.

Sarkisian told the Globe he had regulatory control only over signage, and though one spa sign was illegal, that wasn’t unusual. He couldn’t target a single business for scrutiny.

“We have to treat everyone the same when we do enforcement,” he said.

And what about the allegation that someone was illegally living inside a spa? To groups that fight human trafficking, like Polaris, that can be an indicator of likely human trafficking.

Wayland’s director of public health, Julia Junghanns, had accompanied police and state inspectors on their visit to the spa on Jan. 29. Her site visit report said she would inform town departments about the inspection, which found violations, including failure to change sheets between customers, that resulted in state fines of $400.

But the town took no additional action after that. The police were taking the lead, Junghanns told the Globe. And Swanick, the police chief, questioned how he was supposed to proceed.

“What is the crime? What would the follow-up be if they were living there or sleeping there?” Swanick asked.

Swanick made clear he did not view the “evidence of someone living there” that Berger described on his report as proof that, indeed, someone was living there. When Berger visited, there were two women in the spa; one claimed she lived with the other in Quincy. She explained away the personal belongings kept at the spa, saying their apartment is small, the report shows.

Berger didn’t buy her story: Police had been conducting surveillance of the spa and saw only one person leaving at night, his report showed.

In addition, Berger’s report notes that while in the spa, he had searched credit card receipts and discovered that all but one of the recent customers were male, and several had offered $50 tips that were almost as large as the transaction — $53. “It is known through investigations that typically a sex act would be conducted and a large tip given for that act,” Berger wrote in his incident report.

But without a victim or actual evidence of illegal sex, police didn’t have anything to charge, Swanick said.

“We had zero evidence of sex crimes taking place,” the chief said.

“You would need someone to admit that they had engaged in some sort of activity,” Swanick added. “Or you would need a witness to say this definitely happened and the witness would have to be a known, reliable, credible person.”

So after visiting the spa, finding “evidence of someone living there,” and two women with dubious stories, the police left the women at the spa with a warning: They’re watching. Police intended to continue surveillance and to begin stopping customers outside the business, Berger said. But Massachusetts’ laws would not permit the type of undercover surveillance that police conducted in Florida, where hidden cameras allegedly captured more than 200 men, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, receiving sex acts.

“This is not Florida,” Berger said. “We were not putting up video cameras in the business or anything like that.”

The other step police took was contacting the property owners. Like Pat, who asked the landlords of both businesses how much they knew about their tenants’ activities, police told the property owners what they were hearing about the spas.

The landlords talked to the spa owners, both confirmed to the Globe. And though the owners of the spas denied they were involved in any illegal activity — even telling the Globe in interviews they didn’t know why they were suddenly unwelcome in Wayland — they both left their leases without a fight.

For the police chief, it was case closed.

“We put them on notice, we conducted surveillance,” Swanick said. “We did not find any evidence to charge anybody with anything.”

* * *

But Pat and her friends were far from satisfied, worrying about where the spas would relocate. They had already learned that illicit massage businesses, when threatened with exposure, will often shut abruptly, only to pop up in another community .

“From my standpoint, just getting rid of these two spots in Wayland is sort of pointless because all they’re going to do is take those girls and move somewhere else,” the tech exec said at the first meeting.

At their second meeting at an estate overlooking a rolling pasture, the women sat around a massive, octagonal wooden table, offering their reports. Two had dispatches from municipal leaders in Arlington and Framingham — communities that have already cracked down on illicit massage businesses.

One local health director had shared with Caroline his ideas for beefing up enforcement of massage businesses. The state took over control of massage parlor licensing 12 years ago, keeping local officials at arms-length from enforcement. Just two inspectors from the Division of Professional Licensure were tasked with inspecting 1,882 massage businesses statewide. Should their push be for more funding, or a return of some regulatory power to local authorities?

C.J., for her part, had been drawing on her connections. She had a lengthy conversation earlier that day with officials from Polaris, the organization that runs the trafficking hotline. Among the surprises they offered: Citizens could legally monitor traffic outside a spa to review the comings and goings of potential johns. The women joked about how visitors would flood the town of Wayland’s website if they streamed such footage online.

“Johnnycam!” Caroline howled.

No, they would not do such a thing, they agreed after a laugh. What they would do was bring together resources, connections, and grass-roots energy. They invited Polaris to visit Massachusetts for a meeting in May to brainstorm on what their group can do. They renamed the group, Organizing Neighbors to End Exploitation, and even have a website, www.onesquared.org.

And they set to work building a database of 100 suspected illegal massage businesses across Massachusetts by unearthing online commercial sex reviews, mapping addresses, photographing exteriors, and verifying massage licenses at each of the establishments. They will share their research with other concerned citizens groups and, armed with up-to-date information, pressure police and individual landlords to take action, just as they did in Wayland.

The evidence is all right in front of them. All they have to do is organize.

“We can do this,” said Pat. “This is definitely a bite-sized thing we can do.”


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.