SF to get tough on massage parlors

March 23, 2009 7:17:25 PM PDT
San Francisco will soon consider legislation that would make it easier for the city to shut down suspected brothels fronting as massage parlors.

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It's a bill inspired by some persistent parents, who took action in their neighborhood.

The Vicente Fitness and Health Care Spa opened its doors in August of last year in the Sunset District. Just a half block away is Dianne Feinstein Elementary School. Parents were suspicious right away.

Matt Mitguard decided to go undercover.

"I personally went in and tried to join but they said there is no fitness center there," said Mitguard.

"The two women who worked there didn't understand what a gym was," said Liu.

Mitguard and Liu told other parents the spa appeared to be a brothel, and the parents went to police.

In October of last year, just two months after the spa opened, undercover officers from the VICE Unit sent decoys inside.

The spa's specialty was deep tissue massage. But police say the massages went further than that.

"An undercover officer was solicited for an act of prostitution," said Captain Paul Chignell from SFPD Taraval Station.

Police cited the masseuse with a misdemeanor, but did not shut it down. A few weeks later, the spa closed on its own. A sign said it was being remodeled.

Two months later, it was back in business.

This time, the parents' anger spilled onto the street. They, and their children began picketing the spa.

"We don't want these types of businesses here. we want to keep our kids safe. That's why we're here," said parent Liz White.

Parents went back to police. In late January, police set up a sting. An employee was cited for soliciting an undercover officer. She was the second employee charged with prostitution in five months.

Still, the city did nothing to close it.

"Everybody in the neighborhood, everybody feels a sense of hopeless situation and who do we turn to to ask for help," said Lui.

The parents started doing their home work.

The only crackdown were federal raids four years earlier on massage parlors suspected of sex trafficking. Parents were shocked by the city's inability to shut down brothels fronting as parlors.

"There may or may not be a loophole in the laws that allow these organizations to continue operating," said San Francisco Supervisor Carmen Chu.

Parents contacted their district supervisor Carmen Chu. She promised to do something about it.

The City Health Department licenses massage parlors. It can also revoke those licenses at hearings --- but only for health code violations, not prostitution.

Public Health Director Mitch Katz says that's the job of police and the district attorney.

"That will be dealt with through the criminal justice system, which is right. Prostitution is illegal," said Katz.

But police say since they don't license the parlors, they can't revoke them. Only the Health Dept. can do that.

Last month, the parents found that the Vicente Fitness and Health Care Spa had closed again.

But parents were still apprehensive.

"You don't feel a sense of victory quite yet?" asked ABC7's Vic Lee.

"No, not at all. Not until we have a good answer that they're gone for good, no sign of opening on the window," said Liu.

Nevertheless, the parents won a significant victory.

Supervisor Chu will now introduce tough new legislation, and the parents did what city didn't do -- close down a suspected brothel that was half a block from their school.

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