Massage parlor crackdown gets results
Sep. 19, 2003
Corinne Purtill
Staff Writer

Susan Whitney/ The Gazette

Classic Therapy in Wheaton had been closed and reopened six times since August 2001 until it shut its doors for good as part of a plea agreement this month. The county's efforts to close the massage parlor reflect its campaign to stop prostitution.

County: Fronts for prostitution make thousands

She said her name was Han.

The tall, attractive Korean woman, who appeared to be in her early 40s, studied a reporter's business card in the dim light of the basement entrance to the Silver Spring massage parlor. Han's impeccable red lipstick and ruffled floral-print blouse clashed with the musty brick walls and chipped concrete staircase that led to a parking lot.

"Not interested," she said with a friendly but firm expression. "I got to go. I have a client." And she disappeared behind the dark, peeling door.

For the past two years, massage parlors like this one have been the targets of a countywide crackdown that has resulted in nearly three dozen arrests for prostitution, scores of citations for illegal business operation and the closure of roughly 20 parlors -- most recently Classic Therapy in Wheaton, which reached a plea bargain this month with the county.

Montgomery County officials say the parlors are brothels raking in thousands of dollars under the guise of legitimate health practices.

The few parlor owners who are willing to talk insist that they are legitimate operations persecuted by an overzealous community.

Human rights activists say the parlors across the Washington, D.C., region are part of an extensive human trafficking network that keeps vulnerable immigrants locked in an isolated world of commercial sex work.

Amid the cacophony of voices, the county is chipping away at the industry. And the parlors are starting to wobble.


Unwelcome neighbors


Massage parlors have proliferated in the Washington, D.C. area for the past two decades, but by 2000 their presence in Montgomery County seemed to be spiraling out of control. Twenty-seven spas suspected of prostitution operated in the county at that time, flourishing in Metro-accessible areas like Wheaton, Rockville and Shady Grove.

A loophole in state law allowed employees at "spas" or "health clubs" to practice massage without a license from the Maryland Board of Chiropractic Examiners, the state body that governs massage therapy.

Police could arrest individual employees for prostitution, but the parlors were staffed by an "almost endless supply" of transient women who stayed a few weeks at a parlor before moving on to another, said Detective Tom Stack of the Vice and Intelligence section. Arresting a few employees was like bailing a handful of water from a swiftly sinking ship.

Police and public officials were deluged with complaints from citizens about suspicious activities at the spas. Customers circulated in and out of the buildings from morning until midnight and beyond. Businesses adjacent to the parlors reported hearing noises through the walls that seemed to indicate less-than-innocent activities taking place on the other side.

The front porch of Kensington resident Eleanor Duckett's home overlooks the rear of a building that used to be Golden Spa on University Boulevard.

In the five years that a massage parlor occupied that site, it "affected everybody on this street," Duckett said.

Customers parked in the neighborhood to avoid being seen in the parking lot. Duckett was unnerved to hear her son, who was 10 at the time, casually mention that he was going to the field "behind the whorehouse" to play football with his friends.

When he was 13 and asked to be a pimp for Halloween, she wrote Duncan an angry letter.

"The police knew what it was, we knew what it was, the kids knew," she said of the spa. "I'd call and call and call, and they'd bust it and bust it and bust it."

Redevelopment efforts added a note of urgency.

The county designated $11 million and $179 million for the respective revivals of Wheaton and Silver Spring, both of which were home to several parlors.

Some worried that prospective business ventures would be turned off by the idea of sharing an office park with a commercial sex joint.

"We spent millions and millions on downtown redevelopment," said David Weaver, a spokesman for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "We are not going to put our investment at risk."

Ultimately, the presence of the massage parlors was considered "a quality-of-life issue within Montgomery County," as Stack put it.

"If you don't enforce the laws, then what's next after massage parlors?" he said. "Do we have streetwalkers in Silver Spring?"

In response to the threat, a coalition of county agencies including police, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Permitting Services, the county and state's attorneys and the county executive formed to purge the parlors.

In August 2001, Duncan signed Emergency Bill 18-01, which required all massage establishment employees to be licensed by the county. Therapists with a state license were exempt. County licensees had to obtain the 500 hours of board-approved massage training required for a state license, but could not massage a person of another gender, as state-licensed therapists are allowed to do.

Similar statutes had already been passed in Howard and Prince George's counties. Charles County later adopted a nearly identical law.

Officials could not say exactly how much the enforcement efforts cost the county.

"We're doing it all with existing resources," Weaver said, adding that no money has been set aside specifically for the issue.

Some officials said the law itself was not as powerful as the reinvigorated drive it represented.

"The bill itself was more of a focal point than an enforcement tool," Savage recalled. "It was an announcement of the county's intention to do something about these things."


Connected, but isolated


While women of all races have been arrested in the county for prostitution, the massage parlors are dominated by Korean and Korean-American owners, managers and employees, said Derek Ellerman, co-executive director of the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works against human trafficking.

There are 100 to 120 identified Korean-run massage parlors in the greater Washington, D.C., area, according to a database maintained by the Polaris Project.

Ellerman described the industry as a "decentralized criminal network" in which parlors may be linked to one another but not necessarily centrally controlled.

The network system may explain the uncanny similarity in the parlors' operations.

"If you've been in one, you've been in them all," said Detective Steve Colferai of Vice and Intelligence.

When a client enters the business, he pays the spa manager a flat fee for a massage. Prices tend to be consistent among establishments. The going rate for a massage at the suspect parlors in Montgomery County is about $60.

Another woman then takes the client into a private room, where she bathes and massages him. At this point, authorities say, a client can hand over a tip, the size of which determines what sexual service he receives.

The range of sex acts offered differs between parlors. Some prohibit intercourse, which is known in the business as "full service" and can cost up to $100 extra, but do allow oral or manual gratification. At others, a client will get whatever he can pay for.

Negotiation tends to be unnecessary during the transaction.

"It's completely understood how the system works. No words need to be exchanged," Ellerman said.

"But if no commercial sex act happens after the money is handed over, words will be exchanged."


'More kidnapping, more rape, more problems'


Apart from the inconspicuous brass plaque bearing the spa's name, one massage parlor in a Rockville office park is indistinguishable from the other tasteful condos, which house law firms and dental offices.

Since August 2001, this particular spa has been closed four times for permit violations and has reopened three times. Three employees have been arrested for prostitution, according to Montgomery County Police.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a middle-aged Korean woman dressed in a floor-length gown answered the door, and quickly fetched the spa's owner, a thin man in his 40s dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt.

After a lengthy conversation with a reporter, the owner insisted that his name and that of his business be withheld.

He escorted the reporter through the clean, dimly lit lobby, past the enormous faux-flower bouquet and candy dish, into a room with a candle burning in one corner and exercise equipment packed closely together in the center. He took a seat on the weight machine. Halfway through the interview, a woman's hand reached into the room and firmly closed the door.

He moved to the D.C. area from Seoul in 1985 and has owned the spa for nearly three years, he said. The licenses of the two female massage therapists who work there with him 13 hours a day, seven days a week, hang prominently by the front door.

Despite the "We Support Our Police" stickers plastered on the spa's windows, cops hang out in his parking lot, he said, and interrogate clients as they leave the business.

"That's why business has slowed down," he said. "Really slowed down."

A quick tour reveals five massage rooms, a sauna and a locker room-style shower where plastic flowers hang above the faucets.

The man stressed that while the business does not engage in prostitution, it provides its predominantly male clientele with more than just a gentle touch.

"People come in here just for massage? No," he said. "They enjoy the talk. Some married men, they not talk to their wife about certain things ... they come in, they talk, next day they go back to work."

"Just like psychology, or whatever," he said.

He denied the police's claim that three of his employees had been arrested for prostitution. One woman was arrested last year, he said, but her case was dismissed.

The stricter licensing requirements were good for business, he said, since they reduce competition by turning away people unfamiliar with the system. The police interrogations, however, were scaring away clients. Some days, only one or two men come in.

"I tell you one thing," he said, leaning over the weight machine. "If they close down the massage places, they [will] have more crime, because [the clients] don't have a place to hang. More kidnapping, more rape, more problems."


Weapons in the battle


Officials can use three tools to cripple the parlors' business: zoning code and massage license citations, which are civil issues, and arrests for prostitution, which is a criminal offense.

If an employee is found to be practicing massage without a license or engaging in prostitution, she may be cited or arrested, but the business can remain open.

Employees with state licenses are referred to the Board of Chiropractic Examiners in Baltimore, which holds periodic disciplinary hearings.

Almost all of the hearings involve prostitution allegations, said Gwen Wheatley, program manager for the board's massage therapy program. The board has revoked eight licenses since January 2002.

A more fatal blow is a zoning code citation, which can result in the revocation of the business' use and occupancy permit. Think of it as similar to the government nabbing notorious gangster Al Capone for tax evasion.

Although a business owner can apply for a new permit -- and many do -- it is time-consuming and expensive, and can shut a business down for several weeks while new inspections are obtained.

Mark Moran, an investigator with the zoning section of the Department of Permitting Services, has issued about 45 use and occupancy citations to massage parlors since he began working with police in the summer of 2000.

When he inspects a parlor, Moran looks for cooking, sleeping and bathroom facilities, all of which could indicate that people are living at the business in violation of commercial zoning codes.

He usually finds them.

"The ones that we've been shutting down, they look like somebody's apartment," he said. "Often they'll have clothes in the closets, a completely stocked refrigerator, cabinets."

To what extent the parlors are permanent homes is questionable. The women tend to move frequently among the spas, and zoning inspections turn up an unusual number of suitcases.

"'Living' is a kind of relative term," said Colferai, the Montgomery County Police detective. "People are always there."

Vice officers said they rely primarily on interviews with clients leaving the businesses and "other investigative techniques" that they declined to specify to obtain evidence prior to a bust.

In 2001, court documents revealed that police had sent two informants into Kona Spa in Bethesda, each of whom paid $60 for a massage and an additional $100 to have sex with parlor employees.

Forty minutes after the second informant left Kona, police entered the building and arrested two women who had allegedly had sex with the informants after determining that the serial numbers on the bills the informants had paid them matched those of bills in their possession.

The state's attorney's office criticized that tactic and did not use the informants' testimony. The police department has since stopped that practice, said Sgt. Mike Rusher of Vice and Intelligence.

But vast resources of workers, cash and tenacity enable spas to reopen almost as quickly as they are shut down.

From August 2001 to May 2003, Shady Grove Gym and Spa was closed five times and reopened four. Rockville Health Center has closed and reopened four times. Classic Therapy reopened six times before closing permanently Aug. 29.

"You prosecute, and they come right back," said Gayle Marie Brown Driver, an assistant state's attorney.

Driver said she wants to see a state law that would allow police to confiscate money seized at a raid, as is done for drug dealers. Cutting off their cash supply would prevent owners from setting up shop again.

"If we can get their assets, they can't move on," she said.


Consent or control?


When the stings first began in 2001, authorities from the Department of Health and Human Services' Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program accompanied police to the parlors to aid the employees.

Driver said she had not heard of any woman accepting those services.

Female workers arrested at the parlors frequently give out-of-state addresses from the corridor between Montgomery County and Flushing, N.Y., where there is a large Korean immigrant community. Police found one woman who commuted to the spa from Pennsylvania, where she had family.

Police emphatically deny finding any evidence of employee abuse -- no locked doors, no withheld passports, no minors, no violence.

"As far as our investigation has revealed, we haven't come across any here in this area [from the] slave trade, women who are here against their will," Colferai said. "The impression is they come and go as they please ... in all the [interviews] we keep doing over and over, we've never come across that situation, nor have we received any tips to that effect."

When police interview a female employee, Colferai said, the interview is often conducted one-on-one, and not in the presence of the parlor's manager.

A Korean translator is available if necessary, but for the most part, "I've never had a problem communicating," Colferai said. He said that most of the women he has encountered at the parlors speak English.

Ellerman and his staff at Polaris Project contend that police on raids like Montgomery County's are missing the point.

"You can be just as powerfully controlled through psychological deception as you can through beatings and locked doors," he said.

Employees at the parlors are often told by their managers not to trust the police, Ellerman said. It can take a week before women will talk to Polaris Project staff about the parlors. In the intimidating and confusing atmosphere of a police raid, they may never do so.

In July, Polaris Project started a 24-hour hotline staffed by Korean speakers to aid massage parlor workers in the D.C. area. They have received about a dozen calls since.

Polaris Project is among the few that have been able to breach the parlor employees' isolated world.

Korean and Korean-American organizations were quick to stress that the individuals behind the massage parlors were, at best, fringe elements of society.

"I'm sorry I'm laughing, but I don't know anything about those massage parlors," said Kim Hale, president of the Korean Society of Maryland, when asked if her organization sponsored any outreach work to spa employees.

"That's their job, and we don't have anything to do with them," she said.

Korean churches in Montgomery County and Korean-American social service groups said they knew nothing of the spas' employees.

Cyndee Clay, executive director of Washington nonprofit Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, which focuses on sex worker health, said her organization has had little success gaining access to women in local massage parlors.

"A lot of trafficking does go on in this area, where women are brought in here either knowingly or unknowingly and have very little autonomy over their own lives," Clay said.

Many parlor employees are recruited through print ads in Korean publications, Ellerman said. To a woman with no English skills, money or connections, a job that offers a plane ticket to Washington and a place to stay is attractive.

What the ads don't mention is that the woman may owe her employer the cost of that plane ticket. It doesn't say that the room and board offered is at the massage parlor itself, Ellerman said.

"The people who recruit for these places really target [the most vulnerable], and are very successful in doing that," Ellerman said.

The way Ellerman describes it, parlor employees may start out just massaging men. But since most of the house fee goes to management, it soon becomes clear that "if you're not doing anything sexual, you're not making money at all," he said. Compounded with pressure from managers to please their clients, employees may eventually "choose" to do more than massage.

Yes, they know what they're doing, Ellerman said. But "your consent is not meaningful if you're being threatened, socially isolated, lied to."

Assistant State's Attorney Driver in particular disputes the portrayal of the massage parlors' employees as victims. Publicized images of evicted female employees dragging their suitcases down the street after a police raid don't tell the whole story, she said.

"Ninety percent of those bags had 20, 30 thousand dollars in them," she said. "They go around the corner and get in BMWs and Jaguars and drive away. They're not the poor little women that you think they are."

Rusher confirmed that search warrants have turned up large amounts of cash in the employees' belongings.

"Maybe there might be one or two that have just gotten here and are in over their heads," Driver said, "but the rest know what they're doing."


Packing up and moving on


The county's efforts are working.

Only four or five of the 27 parlors that were open when the crackdown started are still operating. Many have moved on to the District or Virginia. In online message boards frequented by spa patrons, the buzz is that "the scene in Montgomery County is dead," Stack said.

In December 2002, vice officers noticed a newspaper ad for a new spa called Paradise slated to open on Rockville Pike.

After a surprise inspection by vice and the Department of Permitting Services, the owner abandoned Paradise before the first customer could visit, Rusher said.

Professional massage therapists are thankful for the county's efforts.

The crackdown is "weeding out a lot of people who are basically prostitutes," said Lawren Edwards, a licensed massage therapist who practices in Montgomery County.

The number of certified massage therapists and students in the United States has nearly doubled since 1996, and is estimated at between 260,000 and 290,000, according to the American Massage Therapy Association.

At Natural Healing Practices, a massage therapy clinic in Burtonsville, the brightly lit therapy rooms and lobby contrasted sharply with the shuttered look of parlors on the police's watch list.

Therapists at the practice conduct interviews with each client to establish rapport and determine their health needs. Walk-ins are not accepted.

"I assume that the people who come here are looking for a legitimate, professional, appropriate massage," said Peggy Hyland, one of three certified massage therapists who works there.

On several occasions, Edwards has asked male clients to leave when they made sexual overtures during their sessions. Most female massage therapists interviewed for this story reported similar experiences.

"Massage therapy is a health care thing," Edwards said. "It's like going to a doctor, and you wouldn't expect your doctor to do sexual favors for you, would you?"

The end of the massage parlors doesn't mean the end of commercial sex in Montgomery County. Prostitution is the oldest profession, the saying goes, and those working on the issue admitted that they don't believe it's possible to extinguish the sale of sex. But the days of the brothel next door have passed.

"You're not going to stamp out prostitution. It's always going to be around," Savage said. "But we don't have to have it so blatant."