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Two men appeared to be in their 50s. One nervously kept glancing out the window of a suite in the Fountain Plaza office complex, then turned and buried his head in hands. A few women half his age sat nearby. Some retreated to the floor out of view. The youngest was 19; one of them was two months pregnant.
Moments earlier Wednesday Chattanooga police had raided a hypnosis treatment center business they say was used as a front for prostitution.
Of the five women inside Hypnosis for Power, two of them were charged -- 22-year-old Kimberly Chacon with prostitution and 25-year-old Suzanna Gregory with promoting prostitution. A male client was cited for prostitution, records show.
"We get a good bit of prostitution off of Backpage and the local Internet sites," Chattanooga police Chief Bobby Dodd said Wednesday. "Most of the time it is people traveling through here. Having them set up as a permanent business, that's not as common."
City business records show 45-year-old Nelson Hampton as the owner of Hypnosis for Power. He obtained a business license from the city in August 2012.
County business records show Hampton also owns a downtown family tourist attraction, Vaudeville Cafe, which features entertainment over dinner with singing waiters, stand-up comedians and murder mystery shows.
"It's my hypnosis clinic, but there is absolutely nothing illegal going on," Hampton said.
Although storefronts aren't common for promoting prostitution, there are a couple of recent cases in which the businesses claim to offer massage services, hypnosis or acupressure but instead attract male clients through online ads, authorities said. Many of the store fronts are located near interstate highways.
The business raided by police Wednesday advertised in a Backpage.com ad that provided a Rocky Mount, N.C., phone number. Text the phone number, and someone would text back the address, directions and prices.
A Lifestyles condom wrapper was in the back stairwell leading to the Fountain Plaza suite. The condom itself was a few steps ahead. Inside Hypnosis for Power-Body Rocks, 6925 Shallowford Road, at Suite 308, pictures of people with chiseled bodies plastered the walls.
Just a few days ago, the business relocated from a North Shore business center at 25 Cherokee Blvd., Suite F, where it first opened in August, according to business records. Hypnosis for Power was nestled among chiropractic and physical therapy practices.
A white Dodge Ram pulled up to the alley of the Cherokee Boulevard business with three men inside Monday afternoon. They loaded up leather armchairs, bar stools and stained cases.
The small storefront with soothing green walls and marble countertops boasted certified hypnotherapy with results ranging from weight loss to overcoming grief, according to the business website. The website since has been disabled.
"We are a clinic in North Chattanooga with a team of hypnotherapists that feel confident that we can help you with these and a variety of other issues that are keeping you from living the fulfilling life you deserve," the website stated.
While the hypnosis website touted treatments leading to a healthier lifestyle, a Backpage.com ad stated, "We will be your new addiction."
The owner of the shopping center, John Wise, founder and president of Wise Properties, is behind numerous local business and residential developments. The building where Hampton rented space is one Wise considers one of his "proudest accomplishments," according to his business website.
He said he recently confronted Hampton about the women. About a month ago, one of Wise's other tenants nearby contacted him.
"I contacted Chris Hampton and said, 'I have problem. We need to talk.' I said I think you're running a different business down there. He denied everything and said he subleased the property," Wise said.
Wise said he gave Hampton an opportunity to vacate the premises for violating the lease agreement. He threatened to call the police. Hampton was out within five days.
A 23-year-old woman, who declined to give her name, said she interviewed for a job with the business. She described the man as being "dressed really nicely. Very professional" in appearance.
The woman said he told her she would be expected only to perform manual stimulation on male clients.
"Nothing else," she said. "But any girl could do whatever they want back there."
There were about four other girls in the business when the woman went there for the interview. She was warned about what the expectations might be, she said.
"'Oh, be careful. He wants to warm up with you. He gets naked. You get naked,'" the woman remembers being told. "He's your first client. It's pretty messed up."
She said the only services offered were sex acts with prices quoted at $120 for 15 minutes, $150 for 30 minutes and $200 for one hour. The woman said the man who runs the operation keeps half of the profits.
"We are here Mon-Fri noon-7pm. We like clean, classy polite men. We do not see black men," the Backpage ad read.
The woman said the interviewer told her she could choose what days she works. You have to stay all day and cannot leave, she said.
"He wants you inside that building," she said.
When questioned about prostitution at the business Hampton said, "All of that is absolutely untrue."
Investigators at the Chattanooga Police Department began to notice businesses using a front to hide prostitution a couple of years ago.
Investigator Zachary Fuller made arrests at another business that promoted prostitution under the name Chattanooga Acupressure Clinic, 5932 Pine Grove Trail, in 2011. As a result, three women were arrested -- including the business owner, Fuller said.
Fuller tries to collect as much information as possible on the businesses in hopes of prosecuting most of the people involved, he said.
"You're still going to have street girls, but there seems to be an increase for Internet prostitution," Fuller said. "It's easy to spot a street girl, but it's harder to work an Internet-based case. It's more involving."
As of Wednesday afternoon, investigators were still working to tie evidence to Hampton for charges.
In the Acupressure Clinic case, one of the women still has an open case after she missed a court date last month. Another has a warrant issued for her arrest, and a third had her case dismissed.
East Ridge police are working a similar case in which a massage parlor is listed on Backpage under the body rub and escort service section.
The ad for Midori Spa lists a direct address of 1450 Mack Smith Road, just blocks away from the Interstate 75 exit by the Georgia state line. There is no sign for the business.
The business license has been changed a couple of times. A man in his early 20s, Austin Wade, approached clerks at East Ridge City Hall. Wade told clerks he didn't know the name of the business because the company runs so many in other cities. The business name on the license is 1450 Massage Therapy. In January, a new owner, Moo Shik Yoon, of Michigan, was listed as the owner.
"It's being investigated as an ongoing case," said East Ridge Detective Joshua Creel. "It involves multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions. I understand the community is concerned about it. We've had these pop up in the last couple of months."
Creel said some of the cases involve fake names placed on licenses and documents. He said East Ridge authorities work with other agencies to build cases in hopes of preventing the same people from returning to set up shop.
Arresting a couple of prostitutes won't work, he said.
"That doesn't solve our problem. That doesn't make anyone's life better. That doesn't get to the facilitators of the problem," Creel said.
Some argue prostitution is a victimless crime. Two consenting adults engage in sex acts in exchange for money.
But it's the secondary and tertiary crimes surrounding the acts that can lead to greater offenses, including drugs, assaults, rapes and robberies, he said.
"There's some pretty nasty people involved in this," Creel said.
So far, area detectives have not found any evidence of human trafficking. It's something they keep a watch out for, though.
In cases where foreign nationals are involved, false names often are used, as well as falsified documents.
"It's always possible. You never know until you get in there," Fuller said.
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.