The Case of Jane Doe Ponytail
The man spotted her on the street one night after stopping at a 40th Road restaurant known for its cheap and plentiful food. She was pretty, younger than the other women and conversant in English, so he paid for a session. She said her name was SiSi.
His was Paul Hayes. Single, in his early 40s and living in Queens, he carried himself with a seen-it-all air — but she beguiled him. They gradually became lovers, then good friends with vague plans to rekindle their romance someday. But she lived with her husband in an apartment a block away. It was complicated.
She had a good sense of humor, and often solicited his advice — although she ignored him when he recommended bolstering the building’s security system. She also confided about the dangers and vagaries of her work life.
“She really hated doing it,” Mr. Hayes said.
Even so, Song Yang established herself as a fierce competitor in the circumscribed world of 40th Road. Fueled by coffee and Red Bull, she toiled nearly nonstop, as if facing some self-imposed deadline. Word was that she was trying to save up to open her own Vietnamese restaurant, or to buy a house in New York for her aging parents, or to just move on.
Her sharp elbows and inexhaustible style irked some of the other women, leading to arguments, shoves and occasional hair pulling. One competitor recalled that if a man chose another masseuse, Song Yang would tease the client about preferring older women.
But another woman remembered a gentler, more generous Song Yang. She said that when she arrived at 40th Road, Song Yang insisted that she accept several pairs of pants to ward against winter.
Song Yang’s domain was a fourth-floor apartment at 135-32 40th Road, directly above another massage operation. The apartment door faced a boiler room and a makeshift gate that was intended to keep vagrants from sleeping on the roof, but also to protect the hot pepper plants nurtured there by the aged custodian.
As were most things on 40th Road, her rental arrangement was convoluted.
The building was constructed in 1992 by Jentai Tsai, 85, a prominent, even revered, banker in Flushing, and is owned by a real estate company overseen by his son, Eugene Morimoto Tsai. In a brief conversation last month, the younger Tsai, 42, said that he did not know that a woman had fallen from his building last year, or that his building had long been a hub of illicit massage activity.
这幢公寓楼是蔡仁泰在1992年建的，85岁的蔡仁泰是法拉盛著名的、甚至备受尊敬的银行家，物业持有人是他儿子尤金·森本·蔡(Eugene Morimoto Tsai)管理的一家房地产公司。在上个月的一次简短交谈中，42岁的小蔡说，他不知道去年有个女子从他的公寓楼上掉下来过，也不知道他的公寓楼成为非法按摩业的窝点已有很长时间了。
They both said, and city records confirm, that the building’s managing agent — responsible for collecting rent — was another man of local distinction: Peter Tu, 62, the longtime director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, a member of Community Board 7 and a district leader for the Democratic Party.
Outside his office around the corner, Mr. Tu at first denied that he was involved with the 40th Road building, but then said that he had merely tried to assist the Tsai family by collecting the $18,500 monthly rent from the main, first-floor tenant, the Shi Li Xiang seafood restaurant. He said he no longer served in this role, had never taken any payment “from the street,” and had no idea what arrangements the restaurant had with the tenants and subtenants upstairs.
“I’m always in the middle,” Mr. Tu said.
A man identifying himself as the boss of the first-floor restaurant began to shout when asked about the tenants upstairs. “How am I supposed to know the names of the people to whom I rent?” he asked in Mandarin. “You want me to go up and ask everyone who they are?”
Above the restaurant, in this building owned and managed by Flushing men of stature, Song Yang paid a flat fee for her apartment — as much as $400 a night, competitors say — to a square-headed, elusive “boss” who goes by Lao Li, or Old Li, a kind of avuncular nickname conveying familiarity with the women who work for him. But the particulars of his subleasing arrangements are as difficult to pin down as he is.
One spring midnight, Lao Li made a rare appearance on 40th Road to mediate a dispute over clients that had erupted among the women. When a reporter approached and called him by name, Lao Li looked up — and bolted. He dashed east down the center of 40th Road, dodging cars, before vanishing into the dark Flushing night.
Although Song Yang and other women often quarreled, they occasionally gathered with Lao Li at the restaurant downstairs, or at a nearby karaoke bar. They’d watch him blow out a candle on his birthday cake, or sing along to a song popular in his native northeast China. At the Chinese New Year, he would hand out red envelopes containing small cash gifts.
In cellphone videos and photographs of these get-togethers, the participants could easily be mistaken for co-workers at an accounting firm, making a night of it. They seemed untroubled by their profession’s many perils, including robbery, bodily harm — and, especially, arrest.
Arrest attracted unwelcome attention. It jeopardized applications for permanent residency. It magnified the humiliation. And it usually meant an appearance at the Human Trafficking Intervention Court, held on Fridays in the basement of the Queens Criminal Court in Kew Gardens, where Mandarin sometimes seems as common as English.
被抓引来不必要的注意，会危及当事人的永久居留申请。被抓也加重了羞辱感，通常意味着要在皇后区人口走私法院(Human Trafficking Intervention Court)出庭，这个法庭每周五在位于秋园的皇后区刑事法院的地下室开庭。在法拉盛的秋园，普通话似乎同英语一样普遍。
Established nearly 15 years ago, the court set out to treat women in the commercial sex trade less as accused criminals than as victims of trafficking and exploitation. They are told that charges will be dismissed and records sealed if they complete several individualized counseling sessions — focused, say, on job training, or education — with Garden of Hope, Restore NYC, Womankind or another outreach organization. A group called Sanctuary for Families is also on hand to provide immigration services.
人口贩卖干预法庭是差不多15年前成立的，法庭想达到的目的是，把性交易当中的女子当作贩卖与剥削的受害者来对待，而不是被指控的罪犯。这些女子被告知，只要完成若干个性化的咨询辅导班——比如以就业培训或职业教育为主的——就可以撤销对她们指控，并封存记录。这些辅导班由纽约励馨妇幼关怀中心(Garden of Hope)、纽约市恢复中心(Restore NYC)、纽约亚裔妇女中心(Womankind)等服务机构提供。一家名为“家庭庇护所”(Sanctuary for Families)的组织也可提供移民服务。
Song Yang went through this process more than once. In addition to expunging the arrests from her record, these court appearances provided pause, forcing her to confront the consequences of her work life.
In the summer of 2016, Song Yang began frequent WeChat dialogues with a Flushing lawyer, Chen Mingli, that at first focused on acquiring permanent residency — a process that he repeatedly told her could take months and months. Still, she fretted that her arrest history would thwart her application for a green card.
I am having a lot of anxiety, she wrote in Chinese.
Gradually, though, their conversations came to reflect the darker realities of her 40th Road realm, with sobbing emoticons peppering her messages.
At the insistence of a friend, she had filed a complaint with the 109th Precinct. Investigators spent the day in her “shop,” looking for evidence and checking the building’s surveillance video, which had captured a heavyset bald man in a suit ascending the stairs.
Mr. Chen assured her that the matter would not affect the status of her immigration case, and implored her to cooperate with the police. But her intense desire to avoid attention, coupled with fear of retaliation from her attacker, overshadowed everything.
The police said that this won’t affect me in any way, but I’m afraid that it will … Lawyer Chen, what am I going to do now? … (Sob) (Sob) (Sob)
The police circulated a wanted poster based on a hazy photograph of the man lifted from the surveillance video. A retired United States Marshal, who surrendered after someone mentioned him as a possible suspect, participated in a lineup.
But Song Yang identified another man, wrongly, as her attacker. In addition, a DNA sample from the retired marshal did not match samples taken from Song Yang’s clothing. The case was eventually closed.
Several months later, in late September 2017, she was arrested a third time on a prostitution charge. Handcuffed, led away from 40th Road, held overnight.
A few days later, Mr. Chen asked, You’ve been arrested again?
Song Yang answered:
Yeah. (Sob) (Sob) (Sob)
She explained that she had been forced to make hard decisions and that it had been difficult to suppress her feelings while married to a much older man who seemed increasingly removed from her day-to-day life. She felt “morally depraved,” and sometimes thought about giving it all up and going home — or worse.
I’ve been having thoughts of jumping from a building, but what should I do? she wrote early one morning.
Mr. Chen was never formally hired by Song Yang, but now his central role seemed to be to buoy her spirits.
Don’t be scared, he wrote hours later. Don’t think that way.
Song Yang only sank deeper.
I’ve fallen so low I can’t be saved.
Without purpose, without direction, what meaning is there to keep on living?
I used to be a woman who was very strong in her life. I strove for perfection in everything I did. I never thought that my life would turn out this way. I’ve truly failed.
At the end of October, Song Yang made one last visit to Mr. Chen’s office. She confided that another client had badly beaten her a couple of weeks earlier — an assault she had not reported to the police — and showed him photographs of her bruised and swollen face.
“Why am I so unlucky?” he remembers her asking.
The case began with an anonymous complaint: Several women were said to be “selling intimacy” at the building at 135-32 40th Road.
The tip hardly came as a revelation, since shady activities at this address had generated scores of 911 calls over the years. To some, the building even had the aura of being cursed, following a horrific crime in 2010, in which a deranged stalker stabbed a woman in the second-floor hallway and removed her heart and lungs.
Forty-three arrests had taken place in the building over the last decade, more than a few sex-related, the most recent that of Song Yang. Ensnared in an undercover sting in late September, she had tried but failed to hide in the cramped boiler room across from her apartment, and was charged with offering sex for $70.
Her case, which had prompted those despairing messages to the lawyer Mr. Chen, was one of 91 massage-parlor-related arrests in the 109th Precinct in 2017, and one of six along 40th Road. According to court records, none of those arrests were for pimping, solicitation or operating an unlicensed massage parlor.
A few nights after the anonymous complaint, a sergeant and a detective ended a brief surveillance by venturing into the notorious building. The only thing they found suspicious was a handwritten sign in Chinese on the second floor, which they believed to say, in effect, There are no girls on this floor; please go to the third floor.
The police later determined that the sign actually said, “Attention, the driving school is on the third floor next door.”
An undercover officer then telephoned a woman associated with the building who was known as SiSi. They arranged an appointment for the next evening, Saturday, Nov. 25. Her price: $120.
On the appointed day, members of the Queens North Vice Enforcement Squad met at their base in College Point to discuss the seven locations they planned to hit that night. The closest target became the first: the bleak building at 135-32 40th Road.
The vice officers went over their safety plan. They chose their identifying color of the day. They agreed upon the mission’s assorted distress signals and code words, including what the primary undercover officer would say to indicate that sex had been offered for money. Now they were ready.
The 10-member team headed out into the evening, unseasonably mild for late November. They parked along Prince Street, across from the White Bear dumpling place and just short of where the one-way street bends east to become 40th Road. The team leader and two arresting officers sat in the first car, with two more arresting officers in the second car. The third vehicle was for prisoner transport.
The team tested its recording device, which used Bluetooth to transmit one-way audio. No problem. The green light was given: Go.
Minutes later, the undercover officer approached his target, Song Yang, just inside her building’s entrance. He wore an olive-green jacket, jeans and a cap. She wore a short winter coat, a red-and-black scarf, leggings and one of her signature headbands — with a small bow that resembled a butterfly.
The officer could not have known that this woman had just attempted a video chat with her younger brother, who was still asleep in China. That she had plans to fly home in December. That she had kept her court-mandated appointments with Restore NYC, a nonprofit organization that helps foreign-born victims of sex trafficking. That her fifth and last session with Restore was four days away.
About all he knew was her police nickname for the night: “JD Ponytail.”
Jane Doe Ponytail.
She led him up the worn stairs. She gave him a peck of a kiss in the hall, and opened her apartment door. Another woman, brand-new to Flushing and known as Momo, was already occupied with a man in the second bedroom.
Song Yang walked her client to her bedroom, where, according to the police, she offered sexual intercourse for the reduced price of $80. He consented to the arrangement and, heading to the bathroom, managed to utter the code word into his transmitter that a positive — that is, illegal — agreement had been reached. He also hoped to signal to colleagues that it was time to move in, but a wary Song Yang prevented him from having privacy, telling him to keep the bathroom door open.
“This is bad service,” the officer said.
Once in the bedroom, Song Yang became even more suspicious. Why aren’t you taking off your clothes? she asked. Are you a cop?
No, he answered. But he complained again about the service and grabbed his hat, prepared to leave. She pushed him out and closed the door.
Responding to the undercover officer’s signal, the three idling police vehicles turned onto 40th Road, smack into its everlasting gridlock. Four officers got out and hustled to the building. Climbing the dreary stairs, they passed their undercover colleague, who pointed to Song Yang’s door as he descended — and as she watched on the monitor in her apartment.
With the police demanding that she open the door, and preparing to break it down, a panicked Song Yang hurried to the apartment’s north balcony. The other woman, Momo, emerged naked from her bedroom to investigate the noise, but hustled back to hide when she realized it was the police.
The balcony was not equipped with surveillance cameras, leaving what happened next to the imagination. It is possible that Song Yang was hoping to escape, perhaps by reaching for a wire that ran vertically past her balcony. It is possible that she was trying to land on the protruding metal sign of the restaurant below. It is also possible that she intended to kill herself.
It is fact that she hit the pavement directly in front of the undercover officer she had pecked on the cheek just five minutes earlier. His supervisors say that the officer remains shaken to this day.
Later that night, while Song Yang was lying in a hospital bed with multiple fractures to her face, head and body, the police placed her under arrest. She died in the morning — and the arrest was, in the parlance of the police, “voided.”