MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In early March, after a yearlong investigation, the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office raided a Ramsey massage parlor.

The investigation of Sunlight Asian Massage included extensive surveillance, a review of bank records and two undercover cops who paid for “sexual acts.” The owner, Eswin Yoni Berrios, and manager, Lin Lin Li, were arrested and charged with profiting from the prostitution of their employees.

It was a red-letter case, but the truth is that long-term criminal investigations have not been fully effective at keeping illicit massage parlors out of Minnesota communities.

Close one sex parlor and, police say, the owner will often reopen elsewhere under a different name. Rubmaps.com, a sort of Yelp for massage parlor prostitution, lists hundreds of Minnesota businesses and lets users record their masseuse’s breast size and their ability to purchase “kissing” and more explicit services.

Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Hennepin, Ramsey and Anoka counties said they don’t keep statistics on massage business prosecutions or arrests. But in the last few years, the difficulty of dispelling massage parlor prostitution through traditional police methods has prompted some cities to experiment with a new enforcement approach.

‘Hard to investigate’

Distinguishing a front for prostitution from a legitimate massage therapy business is no great analytic feat, said Joy Friedman, the outreach director at Breaking Free, a St. Paul non-profit that helps women leave sex trafficking.

She said massage parlors are often guarded by muscular bouncers peering from behind blackened windows. The parlors aren’t shy about advertising in classified ads and on sites like Backpage.com. And they’re known to shamelessly promote sexual services, like “happy endings,” on printed price lists.

But as a branch of sex trafficking, massage parlors present a unique challenge for law enforcement. Police say investigations are costly, resource-intensive and time-consuming. And it’s difficult to link business owners to the prostitution taking place under their roof. As a result, experts say conventional crackdowns don’t typically happen unless communities complain.

“The illicit establishments are hard to investigate,” said Cmdr. Bruce Folkens, who leads the Minneapolis Police Department division responsible for sex crimes. “You’re talking about undercover officers and putting them in precarious situations.”

Friedman said massage parlors are inherently sheltered from police attention.

“Before an undercover cop at the front desk can get to the back rooms,” she said, “they have time to move a girl from one room to another. They can pass her out the back door. There’s a lot of cover.”

Like strip clubs, illicit massage parlors serve as a gateway into the world of sex trafficking.

“Girls are being misled into thinking all they’re going to have to do is wear lingerie and give a guy a backrub, but that’s not what happens in massage parlors,” Friedman said. “Younger individuals starved for financial needs take a job requiring high heels and short skirts and, next thing they know, they’re in the back room performing services.”

A shift in police thinking in recent years has led to a recognition that sex workers are not criminals but victims. Folkens said his job has changed from arresting prostitutes to a more rewarding mandate — “rescuing victims of sex trafficking.”

‘Constantly paranoid’

Until a couple years ago, all massage businesses in Minneapolis were classified in zoning code as “sexually oriented businesses,” so it’s no surprise that professional massage therapists are the most vocal opponents of the unlawful establishments.

“Some of the tips that come in are legitimate massage therapists who say, ‘I went to this place to get a job, and they started telling me the requirements of the job involved sex trafficking,’” Folkens said. “They literally flee the place and call us to let us know.”

While experts agree there is very little overlap between legal massage businesses and illegal sex parlors, reputable massage businesses can find themselves listed on crowd-sourced websites like Rubmaps and otherwise implicated in the public eye.

Jason Erickson, president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association, said the sexual shadow industry is frightening to trained massage therapists.

“They are constantly paranoid they are going to have guys coming in trying to push the boundaries,” he said.

A licensing solution

Minnesota is one of only six states that leaves licensing of massage therapy businesses to individual cities, and many municipalities require no formal licensure.

Minneapolis began licensing its massage businesses for the first time in July 2014 and has already seen success in shutting down illegal parlors without launching full-scale undercover criminal investigations.

In less than a year, the city has closed 13 unlicensed businesses, citing four of them for unlawful acts. Minneapolis has plans to expand sex trafficking training to city workers — teaching fire, housing and health inspectors to look out for warning signs, such as beds in commercial businesses.

Linda Roberts, the city’s top licensing executive, said that under the new requirements, police can enter any massage business they suspect of involvement in the sex trade.

“If you have a massage business, you have to allow an inspection,” she said. “You don’t have to have a search warrant.”

Most of the 190 applicants for the license are happy with the new requirements, despite an annual fee of $50 for home businesses and $140 for larger operations.

“Professional massage therapists have been working to separate ourselves from being associated with illegitimate and illegal practices for at least 50 years,” Erickson said.

Folkens said a number of metro area cities have adopted, or shown interest in adopting, similar licensing policies to Minneapolis.

Police have already discovered massage license applicants who were denied but then applied again under a different name. And Folkens said they’re sharing that type of information with neighboring cities.

“Whether it’s statewide legislation or individual communities, we’re getting there,” he said.

But Erickson, the massage association president, said that piecemeal regulation doesn’t cut it, and without a statewide credential system, illicit parlors can still just move somewhere else.

“Being able to establish some type of reasonable control over these illegitimate businesses is a bit like playing Whack-a-mole,” he said.

By Zac Farber

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