The L-shaped brick building seems innocuous enough.
Tucked between 39th Street and the Interstate 5 onramp, the multi-unit building greets people as they enter the Shumway neighborhood via H Street. A small blue sign with “Oriental Foot Massage” and a Portland telephone number is posted at the parking lot entrance.
But about six months ago, the business at 3811 H St. drew complaints from neighborhood leaders, according to police. Now it has become the subject of a Vancouver Police Department investigation and has landed on the radar of Washington health department inspectors.
Vancouver police reported finding an employee practicing reflexology at the business without a license, a misdemeanor, though the case remains unresolved. In a Dec. 27 letter to The Columbian, the owner of the business, Hui “Steven” Zhu, proclaimed his innocence.
Zhu said his English is limited, and the previous owner convinced him the business was operating legally. The previous owner only showed him the business’s finances to prove it was making good money, Zhu said.
Then suddenly — four days after meeting with a Columbian reporter — Zhu’s business vanished. He had packed up everything inside the building. The next day, he returned the building keys to his landlord.
Despite the vanishing act, police say its investigation will continue.
Police reports indicate neighbors have complained that the business was providing other services, including sex acts for money.
Police say they have not proven prostitution was taking place. Absent an undercover police operation, they say state laws make it difficult for police and state health officials to do anything more than temporarily halt operations at the Shumway facility and others like it.
And according to police, health officials and the sexually oriented websites where the Shumway business advertised, these businesses exist in all corners of the state. The websites reveal at least two dozen “spas,” “foot spas” and “Asian massage” parlors in Vancouver alone.
“It’s not unique to Vancouver,” said Don Painter, chief investigator for the Washington State Department of Health, which issues licenses and credentials for health practitioners. “It’s pretty much across the state.”
Lisa Ghormley first learned about the foot massage business about six months ago while getting a pedicure at a nail salon. The woman giving the pedicure mentioned a nearby foot spa business that was advertising on websites “you wouldn’t typically associate with licensed massage therapists.”
Alerted to the business, neighborhood leaders Ghormley and Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who is now a city councilor, began noticing what they considered to be “suspicious activity.” Two young Asian women worked there. The business only accepted cash payments and was open late into the evening. And clients, predominately men driving vehicles with Oregon license plates, parked several blocks away, in front of homes, and walked.
“It’s just very unusual,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “If it’s a professional business, you would park in the lot and go in. No big deal.”
And then there were the advertisements.
The business — which most recently operated as Rainbow Massage, but has also operated as Oriental Foot Massage and Regal Foot Spa — advertised on Craigslist and Backpage, as well as sexually oriented websites. The listings, which were reviewed by The Columbian, advertised “new beautiful girls” who provided a “relaxing and healing rub.” They offered “cute” girls who would treat the client “like a king.” Client reviews on the explicit websites detailed sexual services allegedly provided for “tips.”
Alarmed by what they saw, the neighbors contacted Vancouver police Cpl. Drue Russell, the assigned neighborhood police officer (his six-year rotation on the beat ended Dec. 31).
Over the next several months, Russell went to the business several times. He talked to the women working there and stopped customers as they left. Through those interviews and surveillance of the property, Russell learned several details about how the business operated.
Russell confirmed the men drove to the business, then circled the block a few times before parking down the street. Once inside, they paid $30 for 30 minutes of massage and $60 for 60 minutes, he said.
“The men I spoke with told me that they get foot and back massages,” Russell wrote in a Nov. 22 police report. “When I ask if the men receive more than a foot or back massage, none of the men denied receiving sexual favors from the women that work there.”
But the word of clients isn’t enough to pursue criminal charges.
“The hardest part about it, for prostitution, you almost have to commit the act to get the charge,” Russell said. And that would require lengthy, resource-intensive undercover operations, he said.
In his letter to The Columbian, Zhu said police have informed him neighbors complained about illegal activity, such as prostitution, at his business but he has “no idea why.”
Police say they were focusing on other ways to shut down, or at least slow, operations on H Street.
State law requires massage practitioners and reflexologists to be licensed in order to practice. The requirement is one tool police and health officials use to crack down on illicit massage businesses. Reflexology is a practice involving thumb and finger techniques used to stimulate reflexive points in the hands, feet and outer ears.
On Nov. 22, Russell and Vancouver police Cmdr. Amy Foster visited the business and found a female employee apparently practicing without a license. She ran from police but was quickly apprehended and brought back for questioning.
A photocopy of a Washington State Department of Health massage practitioner’s license was posted on the wall inside the business, but the license didn’t belong to the woman. During the visit, police also informed Zhu, who said he purchased the business two days earlier, that he could not operate his business without a licensed practitioner.
The business was closed for a week or so before reopening in early December.
The Vancouver Police Department launched an investigation into the business as a result of the incident. That investigation is ongoing, even though Zhu has closed the business, and no additional information about the case is available, spokeswoman Kim Kapp said.
The Washington State Department of Health is aware of the police action at the business. Once Vancouver police pass along information gathered during their investigation, the health department will pursue its own case, Painter said.
In his letter to The Columbian, Zhu claimed he had the needed license to operate.
“I do have the copy of the certified reflexology license in my office, but I kept the original at my home,” he wrote.
In the letter, Zhu said police “told me to bring the original back to my office and they will check on it again a few days later. So far they haven’t come back.”
According to the police report, however, the license was in the name of another woman, not the woman working when police arrived, who was identified in police documents as Xiulian Song. Song does not have reflexology credentials or a massage therapist license in the state of Washington, according to health department records.
Even if police and health officials can prove someone was working at the business without the proper credentials, that doesn’t mean they would’ve been able to close the business.
Health dept. limitations
The Washington State Department of Health oversees health care practitioners, including reflexologists and massage practitioners.
State law has long required massage practitioners to be licensed to work in Washington. Reflexologists were at one time required to attend massage school to practice in the state. But for about the last 10 years, the state has had no requirements for reflexologists.
That changed July 1, 2013.
In March 2012, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed Senate Bill 6103 into law. The bill requires certification for people who practice reflexology in Washington.
The bill also authorized the state health department to conduct unannounced inspections of facilities offering massage. Prior to the law’s passage, health officials could only inspect the facilities if a formal complaint had been filed against someone working there.
The new law stopped short of requiring massage businesses to obtain licenses from the health department.
Officials across state crack down on massage parlors
Law enforcement agencies in other areas of the state have cracked down on massage businesses in their communities for the past several years.
In August 2009, the King County Sheriff's Office conducted stings at four massage parlors in the Puget Sound area that they said were serving as fronts for prostitution. Four women were arrested on various charges, including promoting prostitution and money laundering.
In October 2010, detectives with the Seattle Police Department raided a massage parlor and then continued to operate it for a day, arresting six men who attempted to pay an undercover detective for sex. Two women working at the facility and the owner were also charged with prostitution-related offenses.
For four months, detectives conducted undercover operations at the Seattle parlor. In each case, women working there offered to touch the undercover detectives sexually for a fee, according to court records cited in a Seattlepi.com article. In one instance, the detective paid $40 for a massage from a woman who then asked for an additional $60 for a more intimate treatment, according to the article.
In July 2012, numerous law enforcement agencies raided eight massage parlors and spas across Spokane after a yearlong investigation into prostitution. Police estimated more than 200 women were involved in prostitution and other illegal activities.
And by August 2012, after a nine-month investigation, Bellevue police had shut down a dozen massage businesses and arrested 55 people on a range of charges, including massage without a license and prostitution.
As the businesses were run out of other Washington communities, health officials started seeing them move south to the Vancouver area, said Kristi Weeks, director of legal services for the state's Health Systems Quality Assurance division.
As Washington passed tougher laws, some of the businesses headed to Oregon. But health officials worry the businesses may soon end up back in our state.
Oregon's legislature recently required massage facilities to obtain a permit from the state, in addition to licensing practitioners. That law went into effect Jan. 1.
"There is a concern about the tougher Oregon law, which requires business licensing, that it will push the businesses back into Washington," Weeks said.
-- Marissa Harshman
“We can go in and do inspections of the facility, but that doesn’t give us any authority over the business,” Painter said.
Health officials want to make sure the people providing massage or reflexology services are properly trained and licensed so patients aren’t injured, said Kristi Weeks, director of legal services for the state’s Health Systems Quality Assurance division. They also want to ensure people claiming to be massage therapists or reflexologists are “not using health care as a front for illegal activities,” she said.
But, like police, the health department is limited in what it can do.
Illicit massage businesses stay ahead of officials by constantly changing. They’ll change names, owners and even locations often, Weeks said. The businesses also change employees often, moving the women working at the businesses up and down the West Coast, she said.
If health officials discover an unlicensed worker and try to take action, the woman will likely be moved to another business out of state before officials can react, Weeks said.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said.
And even when the state can take action, it has little effect on the business, Weeks said.
“This industry makes a lot of money,” she said. “Even with the fines we can levy when we’re successful, it’s just the cost of doing business for them.”
If the health department can prove someone is practicing massage or reflexology without a license, it has the authority to levy fines up to $1,000 for each day it can prove the person was violating the law. Even if the department is successful in levying a fine, it has to be able to find the person and collect the money, Weeks said.
“And as transient as these people are, that can be difficult,” she said.
No code violations
Russell initially took an interest in the business’s activities largely because it was located in a residential area not far from a middle school. Most of the similar businesses in the city are located in strip malls.
But while the location may be troubling to police and neighbors, the business wasn’t violating city code.
The current city code wouldn’t allow for a new business to be established in a residential area, unless it’s part of a mixed-use project, said Chad Eiken, Vancouver community and economic development director.
The Shumway property, however, had been grandfathered because it was in commercial use before the code changed. Businesses in the same category of commercial use can continue to operate in that space, even if the business ownership changes, Eiken said.
The neighbors appealed to the business’s property manager, Terry Phillips of The Phillips Group, for help. But Phillips said the business owner hadn’t been proven to be doing anything wrong and wasn’t violating his contract.
Before renting the property, Phillips runs background and credit checks on the applicants. Both people he has leased to at 3811 H St. have passed “with flying colors,” he said.
Phillips had heard rumors of prostitution occurring on the premises. He asked the owner about the rumors and the advertisements on sexually oriented websites. The owner said the advertisements were from previous tenants.
Phillips also made several unannounced visits to the business and “never once did I see anything inappropriate.” He didn’t enter any occupied rooms, he said.
In an effort to quell accusations, Phillips offered to let Zhu out of his lease without penalty. He and the property owner decided, despite a lack of evidence, it was better to ask the business to consider relocating than have the situation continue to escalate.
“The worst case is these people aren’t doing anything wrong and they’re run out of the neighborhood by vigilantes,” Phillips said.
A couple weeks later, Zhu notified Phillips he was accepting the offer. Zhu loaded a rental truck on Wednesday and returned his keys to Phillips on Thursday. Zhu told Phillips he was relocating to Olympia.
According to state business licenses, Zhu is the owner of another Clark County foot massage business, Chi Foot Spa, 6527 N.E. Highway 99. That business, however, hasn’t garnered the same attention from police or neighbors and remains in business.
Even though the business closed on H Street, Russell and the neighbors are under no illusions as to its future.
“Unfortunately, we would just be pushing it out of the neighborhood to somewhere else,” McEnerny-Ogle said.
Report: Massage businesses a 'crime network'
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization combating human trafficking, issued a report on Asian massage parlors in 2011.
The report detailed how brothels front as Asian massage parlors claiming to offer legitimate services such as massage and other health and spa services.
Typically, the massage parlors conceal the commercial sex operation by "registering and attempting to behave like legitimate business," according to the Polaris report. That includes paying rent to legitimate landlords, offering services that are legal, and using items commonly found in therapeutic massage parlors, such as massage tables.
One defining characteristic of Asian massage parlors is their location. They frequently operate in strip malls, office buildings and, occasionally, homes, according to Polaris. The businesses often use security cameras to screen and monitor clients as they enter and many have locked doors or use a buzzer system to control entry, according to the Polaris report.
Because the businesses are seemingly legitimate, they often advertise openly in newspapers, magazines, phone and online directories and on online community forums, such as Craigslist and Backpage. But they also advertise on sexually oriented websites and message boards, according to Polaris.
According to the report, the women working at the massage businesses are most often Asian women of diverse ethnicities and nationalities. They may have come to the U.S. on valid visas, fraudulent visas or may be undocumented and smuggled into the country, according to the Polaris report.
The levels of control and exploitation of the women working at the businesses varies, but in general, the businesses control the women through psychological abuse, threats, document confiscation, isolation, debt bondage or capitalizing on language barriers and their unfamiliarity with their surroundings, according to the report.
The report describes the massage parlors as an "extensive, sophisticated organized crime network with multiple controllers who act in concert with each other."
Vancouver police say they have found no evidence that anyone working at the Shumway business was doing so against her will.
-- Marissa Harshman