Police look into developing ordinance to regulate massage parlorsA recent undercover investigation at a local massage parlor has Woodbury Public Safety Department officials working on development of an ordinance that would regulate massage therapy businesses.
By: Hank Long, Woodbury Bulletin
A recent undercover investigation at a local massage parlor has Woodbury Public Safety Department officials working on development of an ordinance that would regulate massage therapy businesses.
The state does not currently have statutes to regulate massage parlors, but the city can institute ordinances to do just that, said Woodbury Police Capt. Kris Mienert.
“The city of Woodbury does not have a massage therapy ordinance, so that’s something we are working on,” Mienert said in an interview with the Bulletin last week.
Woodbury Mayor Bill Hargis said the city council has not yet heard from public safety officials on the development of such an ordinance.
“We will wait for the police and administration to make a report and recommendation to us,” Hargis said in an e-mail.
Woodbury police are continuing to investigate the business, Eastern Massage and Spa, located on Weir Drive, which the department has shut down temporarily after arresting two of its employees last month on suspicion of promotion of prostitution.
A district judge granted the city a temporary restraining order against Eastern Massage, which will keep the business from operating while Woodbury police continue their investigation to determine if there is a human trafficking element involved, Mienert said.
Police executed a search warrant on the business Oct. 29 and arrested two female employees at the business who the city attorney has charged with gross misdemeanor promotion of prostitution. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were present at the arrest and Woodbury police have since continued to communicate with the agency on the possible human trafficking element involved in the case, Mienert said.
The arrests followed an investigation dating back to June when a tip, originally reported to Minneapolis police, came in from a citizen concerned there may be illegal activities, possibly prostitution occurring at the business.
Looking for threshold
As part of the investigation Woodbury police went undercover and visited the business posing as customers. They paid for massage therapy services and during the encounters “employees engaged in sexual contact with the undercover officers in consideration for money,” a criminal complaint states.
The officers performing the undercover investigation were trained to know what signs to look for and to recognize when the encounter was crossing over into criminal activity, said Woodbury Public Safety director Lee Vague.
“They know the threshold they have to reach in order for a crime to occur,” Vague said. “But there is very specific parameters they operate under to make sure we are doing everything right.”
“That’s the training our investigators have to make sure that if we have someone going in an undercover capacity we are very confident they are going to perform that duty very professionally and they are going to know exactly what they need to build a solid case.”
Although the Woodbury Public Safety Department does not have a vice squad or sexual crimes unit, investigating prostitution cases is not unfamiliar territory for its officers, Vague said.
Possible human trafficking element
In Sept. 2008 Mienert and a team of Woodbury police investigators attended a human trafficking conference in St. Paul, where they learned about the connection that often occurs between human trafficking and prostitution and how the crimes can often be intertwined.
Mienert declined to reveal details of the human trafficking element related to the Oct. 29 arrests at Eastern Massage, but she did verify that the women who were arrested, were living in Woodbury, but it was not known exactly where they were dwelling.
When Fu Juan Zhai, 51 and Li Hue Wang, 46, were arrested and booked in the Washington County Jail their residential addresses were listed at the business.
The criminal complaint issued by the city attorney states Wang is from New York and Fujuan is from Illinois.
Mienert said police are investigating whether the alleged incident may be related to other recent massage parlor arrests similar in nature around the Twin Cities. In December 2008, Eagan police conducted an undercover investigation that resulted in the arrest of two female employees of a massage parlor. Both women were charged with promotion of prostitution.
Mienert said the Woodbury Public Safety Department’s ongoing investigation is looking for possible connections between other recent massage parlor arrests around the Twin Cities.
Vague said the goal of such investigations is to send a message that prostitution, which often is tied in with human trafficking crimes, is not acceptable in the city of Woodbury.
“If you educate yourself on prostitution and human trafficking you will find very quickly that it is not a victimless crime,” Vague said. “Peoples lives are very seriously affected by these crimes.