Do new massage parlor regulations go far enough?
Operating out of strip mall storefronts with drawn curtains, some Oklahoma City massage parlors offer more than just rub downs.
A new state law that took effect May 1 requires massage therapists to obtain licenses and sets minimum training requirements, but some say the law doesn't go far enough to prevent prostitution and human trafficking within the industry.
The new state law requires massage therapists to obtain a license from the Oklahoma State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering. However, there are still no state licensing requirements for massage parlor establishments or their owners.
"Licensing the businesses absolutely would help," said Michael Snowden, agent-in-charge of the Human Trafficking Division for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
The women at illicit massage parlors frequently only work for tips, giving them more incentive to provide sex acts in exchange for additional money, Snowden said.
It's difficult to gather enough evidence of human trafficking at massage parlors to prosecute the business owners, but it definitely exists, Snowden said.
While it's common for massage workers to be arrested during police vice unit undercover operations, the business owners are rarely prosecuted.
"We have to prove force, fraud and coercion, and that requires the cooperation of the victim," Snowden said. "If she cooperates, she fears that she will lose her job, her work visa and she faces deportation."
While the new massage therapist licensing law can help law enforcement differentiate the legitimate massage parlors from the illicit ones, there is still more work to be done, Snowden said.
"Nobody suffers from that lack of regulations more than the victims and the legitimate providers," he said. "There's a stigma attached to massage parlors and there shouldn't be."
There are a lot of legitimate massage parlors that do good work, he said.
Oklahoma City police Lt. Doug Kimberlin, with the department's vice enforcement unit, said keeping on top of illicit activity at massage parlors is an ongoing challenge for the department.
One ill-reputed massage parlor will close its doors, but another will immediately open elsewhere in the city.
Many of the women who work in Oklahoma City's massage parlors come from China and enter the United States on six-month tourist visas, which they overstay, he said.
"They enter the country through New York or San Francisco and then migrate inward," he said.
The women frequently "self-deport" once charged with a prostitution-related offense, Kimberlin said.
"Sometimes their employer pays for them to leave," Kimberlin said. "They don't want the women to cooperate or testify in court. A lot of them leave the state."
A woman may lose her job after a prostitution related arrest because the business owner wants to avoid prosecution. The women frequently just go to work for another Oklahoma City massage parlor.
"The owners try to hold onto plausible deniability," Kimberlin said.
One Oklahoma City owner, Binghua Lu, continues to operate two massage parlors where police have made recent prostitution-related arrests.
Oklahoma City police first arrested Ying Wang, 54, in November 2015 at Prestige Massage, 7864 S Western Ave., after she allegedly agreed to perform a sex act on an undercover police detective in exchange for $40. Police arrested Wang again in June at the same massage parlor for a similar offense.
On June 8, police arrested Guizhen Lu, 52, on suspicion of offering to engage in prostitution at the China Rose Health Center, 546 E Memorial Rd.
The Oklahoma City Police Department's vice unit had received complaints about the business and Guizhen Lu allegedly offered a sex act to an undercover police detective in exchange for $60, according to a police affidavit.
Prestige Massage and China Rose Health Center parlors are both licensed with the city under the name Binghua Lu.
Attempts to contact Binghua Lu were unsuccessful. Staff who worked at both China Rose Health Center and Prestige Massage spoke limited English when contacted by The Oklahoman.
Once Oklahoma City police find evidence that a massage parlor is a haven for prostitution, the landlord and business owner can face fines from a municipal charge of maintaining a disorderly house. It's a broad offense that can include operating a business that sells alcohol to minors, offers illegal gambling or facilitates prostitution.
Most shopping center leases have a clause that prohibits illegal activity from taking place on the premises, and the massage parlors immediately get evicted.
"That shuts down about 90 percent of them," Kimberlin said.
Oklahoma City requires massage parlors to obtain a business license and the police department can apply to revoke a license if there is evidence of illegal activity taking place. Kimberlin would like to eventually see the state also require massage parlor owners to be licensed.
"It needs to all be taken care of in one place," he said.
In October 2016, Oklahoma City revoked the licenses of six massage parlors, including Relax Massage, 344 S Mustang Rd., after police found evidence of illicit activity taking place there. However, it took until February 2017 to fully shut the business down.
"It's a long process," Kimberlin said. "It took about a year to shut them down."
Another Oklahoma City massage parlor that also had its license revoked in October 2016 appears to have reopened in a new location with a new owner.
Angel Spa previously operated out of a strip mall at 8111 S Interstate 35.
Oklahoma City revoked its business license in 2016 after police found evidence of illicit activity there. Records show the owner at the time was Romie Brown.
"Their license was revoked because the police department had evidence they were involved in prostitution," said Kristy Yager, spokeswoman for Oklahoma City.
Another massage parlor called Angel Spa has since opened at 6909 W Hefner Road, posting ads on Craigslist and backpage.com advertising a "new owner" as well as "nice atmosphere, clean rooms and professional Chinese staff to serve you." One recent Craigslist ad included a photograph of two young, smiling Asian women.
The new location of Angel Spa is registered with Oklahoma City to a woman named Aijuan Huang.
In order to obtain a business license for a massage parlor in Oklahoma City, the owner must pass a background check, but there remains no state licensing for massage parlor owners in Oklahoma.
"The reason the business license was issued is that this particular person has no convictions on her background check," Yager said. "When she applied for her license under Angel Spa, we couldn't deny her a license because there were no convictions on her record."
Attempts to contact Huang were unsuccessful.
The Oklahoma State Board of Cosmetology and Barbering has so far registered about 2,000 massage therapists in the state, but it's been hard to get the word out to the state's thousands of massage practitioners, said Sherry Lewelling, executive director for the agency. Because massage therapists were not previously licensed in Oklahoma, there is no definitive database of names and contact information.
"We really started at ground zero," Lewelling said.
The agency also does not yet have the legal ability to issue fines to massage therapists who fail to obtain a license.
A bill requested by the Board of Cosmetology and Barbering that would have expanded licensing requirements to massage establishments failed in the Oklahoma Legislature this past session, but Lewelling is confident the issue can be revisited in the future.
Because cosmetology and massage can often be portals for human trafficking, the agency is aware of the need to report signs of illicit activity to law enforcement, Lewelling said.
"We are not authorized or equipped to handle human trafficking, but we can always share information when we see something," she said.
Mary Elizabeth LeBlanc, government relations chair for the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association, said she and other legitimate massage therapists have been advocating for state licensing for years.
"Being able to draw the line and establish who we are gives law enforcement another tool to check out businesses they think are a problem," she said.
Brianna Bailey joined The Oklahoman in January 2013 as a business writer. During her time at The Oklahoman, she has walked across Oklahoma City twice, once north-to-south down Western Avenue, and once east-to-west, tracing the old U.S. Route 66.... Read more ›