SoCal Connected on KCET

Massaging the Law: The Rise of Illicit Massage Parlors in SoCal

Original Airdate March 25, 2013; Updated May 21, 2014

Val Zavala: An undercover van is parked at a strip mall in Huntington Beach. These officers are waiting for word from their colleague, an undercover cop. The undercover officers inside the suspected prostitution business, although the sign says “Massage.” He has to strike a bargain, then he signals his buddies to move in.

No bullets, blood or bodies. At least no dead ones. The cop ones gather evidence and take pictures. The cuffs come out and the suspects are written up. Then they are walked off and hauled off to jail. The city known internationally as the birthplace of surfing is now a wash in happy endings.

Chief Ken Small: If you travel through our city you will notice that almost every corner has a massage parlor. And often massage parlors mid-block.

Val Zavala: Huntington Beach Police Chief Ken Small is struggling with a massage parlor explosion.

Chief Ken Small: We’ve gone from 9 to 65 massage parlors in the city.

Val Zavala: But Huntington Beach is not alone. Ventura is also trying to get a handle on their massage parlor tsunami. So is Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, South Pasadena, and Eagle Rock.

Business owner and resident Michael Nogueria says the spa opened up next to him, along with many others.

Michael Nogueria: I counted close to about a dozen up to this point. Now if you go down south on Eagle Rock Boulevard, you’ll see their signs. There’s about another 10 to 11 more massage parlors.

Val Zavala: So why are so many illegitimate massage parlors opening up? The problem started in Sacramento five years ago. That’s when a new law was passed. It took regulatory power from massage parlors away from city and put it in the hands of a new independent massage council.

Chief Ken Small: We’ve absolutely had our power taken away based on my dealings with the Massage Therapy Council.

Val Zavala: The California Massage Therapy Council certifies individual therapists rather than business owners. As long as an individual is certified, he or she can work without getting a local license. But that makes it very easy for massage parlors to open up without local control, and many are fronts for prostitution.
At an Eagle Rock neighborhood council meeting, the local police explained what they’re up against.

Dept. Mike Valdez: And see that’s the thing with the state license. They are mobile, so each individual is like a mini massage parlor on wheels. So you can open up a place in the Wilshire District and bring in three or four girls and you’ve got yourself a massage parlor. The business itself does not need the permit any longer. That’s what the state has done.

Val Zavala: Ahmos Netanel is the head of the California Massage Therapy Council.

Ahmos Netanel: But it’s very important to understand that there is a distinction and that is between illicit massage parlors, which are illegal. And there’s a difference between professional, honorable massage therapists who met very rigorous standards.

Val Zavala: Netanel argues that massage therapists should be treated just like attorneys or doctors, that they shouldn’t be restricted like liquor stores or smoke shops.

Ahmos Netanel: They need to be zoned in the same way that the city zones other professionals. Like an aesthetician, a physical therapist, occupational therapist, an accountant.

Chief Ken Small: In practice, none of these businesses operate like an accountant or any of the other businesses he mentioned. And I don’t think they should be treated the same way.

Val Zavala: Back at the Eagle Rock neighborhood council meeting, residents had the chance to confront Netanel.

Resident: Because of your organization, the standards we have, municipalities’ area no longer allowed to manage these businesses that we now have. As he said, 85 percentage of massage parlors in the area are illicit.

Ahmos Netanel: I’ve been a resident of the city of L.A. for 30 years, so I’m very much aware of what is happening.

Val Zavala: Netanel says he’s working with law enforcement and communities to get rid of what he calls “the bad apples.”

Ahmos Netanel: Anytime somebody gets arrested, we get notified on a daily basis. If someone gets certified through CMBC, that person gets arrested. The next day we are being notified by the Department of Justice and FBI. And if that is the case, anything deed…a person engaged in unprofessional conduct, they will get denied.

Val Zavala: But we found that may not always happen. Two of the women arrested for prostitution in the Huntington Beach raids were state certified. 3 weeks later, after their arrest, we found they were still active on the Council’s website. If the problem started in Sacramento, it’s also where the solution lies. Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez represents the Eagle Rock area and has been talking to the massage therapy council.

Assemblymember Jimmy Gomez: For us, if the Council wants to have a serious discussion on how to keep the legitimate massage parlors in business and help us weed out the bad ones, we’re willing to do that.

Val Zavala: That discussion did happen. The result? A bill that would return significant power to cities and local authorities, including the all-important power to regulate massage parlors through land use and zoning. But until that bill passes, if it does, raids like this one will still be needed to keep the illegitimate massage parlors reined in.

Several Southern California cities have seen an overwhelming increase in the number of massage parlors in the past few years.

As KCET's Lata Pandya reports, many local leaders and community members have voiced their support for a state bill that would better regulate the massaging industry and restore control to cities and counties.

Huntington Beach alone has seen a 600 percent increase in the number of massage establishments over the span of three years.

Pandya reported that there have been 22 suspicious massage parlors in Eagle Rock -- two fewer than last year, according to the LAPD. On the other hand, Huntington Beach has seen an increase of nine more massage parlors since our last report.

In this segment, Val Zavala revisits a "SoCal Connected" investigation involving the increase of illicit massage parlors throughout Southern California.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Chief Ken Small, Huntington Beach Police Department
  • Michael Nogueira, Eagle Rock business owner
  • Detective Mike Valdez, Los Angeles Police Department
  • Ahmos Netanel, CEO, head of California Massage Therapy Council
  • Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez


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