Illicit massage spas are exploiting weak city ordinances and lack of statewide oversight to run businesses that are fronts for prostitution, including in Petaluma.
On Rubmaps.com, a user-generated directory of massage spas with “happy endings,” clients can rate masseuses at four local businesses can rate masseuses on breast size, attractiveness and sexual services they are willing to perform.
On MyRedBook.com, a young Asian woman with bare shoulders strikes a provocative pose and promises customers at one Petaluma spa an “unrushed, full body massage with a soft touch.”
Most healthcare professionals, including chiropractors, acupuncturists, dentists, optometrists and occupational therapists have to be licensed, their certification overseen by the California Department of Consumer Affairs. But nothing similar is required for massage therapists, a loophole that poses a risk for both the workers and consumers, critics say.
“There is no requirement for certification in California unless you are in a city or county that requires a business to be certified, and most do not,” said Ahmos Netanel, chief executive officer of the California Massage Therapy Council (CAMTC), created in 2009 as a result of legislation aimed at regulating the industry and which offers certification for massage therapists who seek it out on their own.
Most Sonoma County cities have passed ordinances to rein in massage businesses. Healdsburg requires all therapists to be fingerprinted, provide a social security number and certificate of completion from a massage school. Rohnert Park requires masseuses to be certified with the CAMTC and Cotati asks that massage businesses to keep their doors open and prohibits beds or mattresses or therapists in skimpy clothes.
But Petaluma has nothing, one of only a few cities in the county which has no ordinance surrounding the massage industry. Indeed, the only thing required to open and operate a massage spa in town is a business permit from the city’s finance department, which is renewed each year so long as the business pays its taxes.
The lack of oversight has given rise to numerous Petaluma massage spas that police say may be engaging in criminal behavior, including prostitution.
In interviews with Patch, two of the spas listed on rubmaps.com-- denied any wrongdoing, while the others--Perapy Massage Center on Howard Street and Moonflower Massage on Petaluma Boulevard North did not return calls for comment. At Lavender Day Spa on Liberty Street, owner Mikko Eskonen said the only service his therapists provided was massage, although he acknowledged having "problem therapists" in the past and said that some customers have the wrong idea about his business.
"We have guys who come in every week asking for sex, but we turn them away," Eskonen said. "I trust my therapists. They are good girls."
Following complaints of excessive foot traffic and high turnover of clientele, detectives are now looking at several locations, although they would not give details due to the ongoing investigation.
“There are a lot of day spas that do very good work and provide a service, but there are a couple that skirt the law,” said to Lt. Dave Sears of the Petaluma Police Department. “And it’s our responsibility to make sure that everyone complies with the law.”
If a massage parlor ordinance was implemented, it could take on many forms. It could require that parlors be regularly inspected by the county health department like now happens in San Francisco or that each therapist is fingerprinted, like Napa, Healdsburg and many other cities do.
Basic monitoring of who is employed at massage spas and where they are coming from goes a long way toward weeding out therapists who are illegally working in the U.S. or are victims of human trafficking, Sears said.
“An ordinance would ensure you’re not employing known prostitutes or known criminals,” he said. “It would be similar to what we do with taxi drivers, requiring them to undergo a criminal check to get a business license.”
But cracking down on illegal activity at massage businesses is difficult, say law enforcement officials. For example, police officers can’t wear a wire because getting a massage involves getting undressed, while obtaining a search warrant takes resources and time.
“You can send in an officer and see if they get propositioned, but then it’s their word against the owner’s, who will just blame the employee and then fire them,” said Nick Sensley, a former lieutenant with the Santa Rosa Police Department and Truckee Police Chief who formed Cross Sector Solutions, which trains law enforcement on how to spot signs of human trafficking.
"The investigations can be done, but they require a special commitment to the problem.”
Besides sometimes being cover for prostitution and human trafficking, unregulated massage parlors are also dangerous for consumers, say owners of Petaluma massage spas.
“My therapists are professionals who have been to school and have at least 500 hours of training,” says Gina Drohan, owner of franchises in Petaluma, Cotati and Napa. “I think a lot of these questionable businesses don’t even come close.”
In addition, therapists at fly-by-night spas, which often change names and owners, don’t inquire about a client’s health history, something Drohan says is dangerous.
“If you’re a professional, you ask if someone is pregnant, if they are on blood thinners, if there is any medication that may have a contra indication for massage,” Drohan said. “To not do so is a health hazard.”
At one business recently visited by Patch and listed on Rubmaps.com, the masseuse said she had recently arrived from China, where she had worked as a teacher. The front door to the spa was locked, no health intake was done, payment was required upfront and in cash and there were no visible massage school certification posted on the wall.
Drohan, herself a certified massage therapist, has become an advocate for safe massage work and occasionally goes undercover to other massage parlors to see how they conduct business. And she’s horrified at what she has found and the lack of enforcement from both the police and city hall.
“Petaluma is so behind the times,” she says. “There are young girls who are getting sucked into this business and people are just closing their eyes to it.”
Heidi Archer, who, along with husband, Jacques, owns on Kentucky Street, which specializes in therapeutic massage and acupressure, says massage spas offering sexual services undermine legitimate businesses such as hers.
“I have seen Craigslist ads for businesses here in Petaluma where the women are posing provocatively,” Archer said. “Why would you have a picture of a therapist all draped up? That’s just not appropriate. Or the listings that advertise Tantric massage: There is no such thing. If they want to make prostitution legal, that’s fine, but don’t hide behind massage therapy.”
In a world of finite resources and infinite need, police departments and cities have to choose where to focus their priorities. And at the moment, imposing more stringent regulations with a citywide massage parlor ordinance does not appear to be a priority for Petaluma, say sources interviewed for this story.
“There is a liberal attitude about this that allows these businesses to exist,” said Vice Mayor Tiffany Renee. “Everybody knows what’s happening behind the curtain, but nobody knows whether the women behind are victims of trafficking…it takes real investigative work by police, but given the budget challenges we’ve faced, it just hasn’t happened.”
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