Raids of massage businesses in SLO County are mostly a warning

Surprise immigration check, investigation of alleged prostitution at local massage shops end in no arrests

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comFebruary 17, 2012 

At the podium conducting a post-enforcement briefing are Lt. Ty Lewis, left, and Detective Michael Rickerd of the Paso Robles Police Department. Federal agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement assisted in the surprise sweep on massage businesses in February 2012.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Correction: A headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly said no citations were issued in the raid. Citations were issued to two employees at one business for failing to have licenses.

A woman in a short, strapless dress exited a dimly lit room where a man lay naked on a padded table Thursday at a massage business in downtown Paso Robles.

The man was caught unaware as authorities ran surprise immigration checks at five massage shops in Paso Robles. The checks followed a similar sweep Wednesday led by the Sheriff’s Office at two massage businesses in Atascadero, one in Nipomo and one in Los Osos.

Increasing complaints to police in recent months from Paso Robles businesses about suspected prostitution and illegal immigrants working at massage businesses prompted the sweep by the Paso Robles Police Department and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

In addition, one anonymous customer had called police to say he was propositioned for sexual acts at a massage business in town, police said.

The Sheriff’s Office’s sweep with ICE was unrelated.

No evidence of prostitution was found by either sweep, law enforcement officials said.

In Paso Robles, three of the five businesses were targeted because of public complaints, while two were randomly selected for checks on immigration status and business licenses.

Two employees at one business were cited for failing to have licenses. A relative of the business’s owner told The Tribune he didn’t know his employees needed licenses because they had just moved to the area from China.

Paso Robles police also warned some of the employees at other massage businesses about illegally living there. The Sheriff’s Office issued similar warnings, but it did not issue citations.

Ads’ mixed messages

Online advertising for several of the businesses send mixed messages of what is for sale. The ads included Asian women in seductive poses. A review website, www.rubmaps.com, also describes illicit services rendered at some of the businesses, which raised public suspicion.

Several local business people said the rumors about massage businesses are hurting the downtown’s image.

One massage business owner told The Tribune that he operates a legitimate business and said his own business is harmed by police sweeps.

Suspicions about prostitution establishments posing as massage businesses aren’t new, authorities say.

“It is here,” Sheriff’s Cmdr. Brian Hascall said, referring to prostitution.

“We do what we have to to keep it in check and investigate it as it comes to our attention,’’ he added. “But it is not something overbearing like the other crimes that happen day-to-day like the robberies, gang- and drug-related crimes that take our attention, at least in this county.”

The issue was last brought to light locally in 2007 when a woman was arrested on misdemeanor prostitution at an Atascadero massage business.

And, about four years ago, police said, a Paso Robles massage business didn’t receive a renewed license from the city after a plumber found its pipes clogged with condoms and reported it to police.

Complaints are tough to investigate because they’re based on circumstantial evidence and innuendo, Paso Robles police said.

Enforcement challenges

One of the massage businesses caught up in Thursday’s sweep had a sign in a small front room indicating that no sexual acts were allowed. In other rooms, massage tables were covered in sheets and towels with boxes of tissue, baby oil, antibacterial gel and mouthwash.

“There’s definitely suspicious stuff going on there — the windows are covered and there are lots of hand sanitizer and lacey negligees,” Detective Michael Rickerd said of one business, but he could find no evidence to support prostitution charges.

The challenges associated with proving these crimes leave authorities more options to investigate complaints through administrative means such as checking for immigration papers and proper business licensing.

“We’ve sent officers in in the past, and it’s little help,” Paso Robles police Lt. Ty Lewis said. That’s because the employees are trained to wait for the customers to initiate sexual contact, but it’s illegal for an officer to do that, he said.

Police are working on a new city ordinance that requires massage therapists to be licensed by the state. It would also require background checks and clothing requirements, among other rules.

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