Two massage parlors, two identical raids, two different outcomes
| || |
CEDAR RAPIDS — Bei Fang Massage is positioned in a small white building on the back end of a pizza joint.
A piece of plywood, painted white with red letters — “Bei Fang Massage” — leans against it. Under a neon sign in its lone window, a paper reads “Open 9 to 9,” “Have sauna shower,” “7 days a week.”
Jennifer Yue Dougherty opened Bei Fang Massage in the northeast quadrant of Cedar Rapids in 2014, about two years after Marion police raided a parlor of hers on Seventh Avenue and arrested her on suspicion of prostitution, records show.
Despite prodding from police, Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden expressed reservations about the investigation in a memo and declined to prosecute the case against Dougherty.
Still, a Marion police lieutenant said he gave the Cedar Rapids Police Department a heads-up when Dougherty set up shop in the city.
Dougherty did not have an Iowa massage license when she operated the parlor in Marion, records show, and still does not have one — though she said in an interview she performs massages and wants to try to get one. Iowa Code states the practice of massage therapy that “involves manipulation of the muscle and connective tissue of the body” for pay “is strictly prohibited by unlicensed individuals.”
How is it possible for an unlicensed operator to run a massage parlor down the road from where her previous massage parlor was raided by police?
That’s the question a Linn County resident asked in March 2016 of the Iowa Board of Massage Therapy, urging the board to look into the parlor’s operation. The parlor may be “an erotic massage provider,” wrote the resident, whose name was redacted from the public record provided to The Gazette.
The answer, at least partly, lies in city regulations for massage parlors, which now are more lax in Cedar Rapids than in Marion.
In the wake of raids on Dougherty’s and another parlor in Marion, the Marion City Council added a provision to an ordinance requiring that a city license for a massage business be granted only if the massage workers have a state massage license — effectively shutting out Dougherty and the other parlor.
But Cedar Rapids has no such local rule.
In an interview, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said his officers have never been called to or had issues with Dougherty’s business. Jerman, who typically recommends ordinance changes on public safety issues, said he has not seen a need for one on massage licensing.
“However, if there is any information that illegal activity is occurring at any massage business in our community and there would be benefits to changing the ordinance to prevent crime, the police department would certainly consider it,” Jerman said.
MOVING DOWN THE ROAD
Dougherty opened Bei Fang Massage in Cedar Rapids in 2014, according to Secretary of State business records, where it’s filed under the name Beijing Massage Inc. as an Iowa for-profit corporation.
Business lately at Bei Fang Massage has not been great, Dougherty said in an interview.
When a reporter and photographer went to Bei Fang Massage to speak to Dougherty, she directed the journalists to sit in brown suede armchairs at the front of the small business. She said a young woman sitting there also was Bei Fang’s only other employee.
Business was so bad, “maybe she (will) leave tomorrow,” Dougherty said of her employee.
Dougherty said she doesn’t speak fluent English and communicated partly during the interview through a translation app on her phone.
Asked why she opened in Cedar Rapids after the Marion experience, Dougherty said she is good at giving massages. She said she practiced massage therapy in China before moving to the United States about seven years ago.
Records show she does not have a state massage license, but Dougherty said she does not “need it here” in Cedar Rapids — although she said she gives full body and deep tissue massages.
Still, she said she might get one. “I want to try,” she said.
Dougherty said she had a Wisconsin massage therapy license. She pointed to three certificates hanging above a desk. Though no Wisconsin license was posted, she showed a license from the Georgia Academy of Massage, a license from the California Acupuncture and Massage Institute of America and a license from an institute in China. Both institutes in California and Georgia have been blacklisted on the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork School Compliance list for at least six years, according to the list.
When the journalists returned for a follow-up interview a few days later, the licenses had been taken off the wall.
Dougherty showed parts of the parlor: a red runner rug crosses the neutral carpet to a backroom with deep red shag carpeting. Massage beds were visible through the door. Two tiled showers and a sauna in new condition were seen.
A price menu for massages was visible above the desk. A picture of a tropical island surrounded by blue ocean hangs on the wall, with Chinese ornamentation sprinkled through the business.
Dougherty continues to work out of the parlor, though Iowa Secretary of State documents show Beijing Massage Inc. was administratively dissolved in August 2016 for failure to file a biennial report.
Rubmaps.com, a website that allows its users to review “erotic massage parlors” in Cedar Rapids and elsewhere, contained 23 reviews as of Friday for Bei Fang Massage. Posts to Rub Maps may be suggested by any user, and Dougherty said she doesn’t know about the website.
She said she wishes customers would understand the parlor does not provide sex acts for money.
“They say, ‘Do happy ending,’ I say, ‘No do,’” she said, raising her voice. “Everybody call me, everybody want to do this.”
In 2012, Marion Police Lt. Scott Elam said the department received calls from business owners in Uptown Marion. They were concerned about Asian Massage, on Seventh Avenue, and Massage Heaven, on Tenth Street.
Neighboring workers saw mostly male customers entering the parlors, according to a letter from Elam to Vander Sanden. Customers would have to be let in by employees as the doors were usually locked, he wrote.
Neither parlor owner had a license from the Iowa Board of Massage Therapy.
During the afternoon of Oct. 19, 2012, Marion police sent a wired confidential informer first into Massage Heaven, then into Asian Massage — Dougherty’s business.
While receiving a massage at Massage Heaven, the informer asked the employee, identified in records as Hongmei Hu, for a sex act. After using her hands to masturbate the informer, Hu asked for and received a $20 tip, police records show.
Later, while receiving a massage from Dougherty at Asian Massage, the informer asked her to touch his groin. After negotiating for a $40 tip, Dougherty performed the act, according to police records.
Marion police began investigating each parlor for human trafficking. They arrested Hu and Dougherty on suspicion of prostitution and keeping a disorderly house. Another employee at Massage Heaven and an employee at Asian Massage were arrested on suspicion of keeping a disorderly house.
But the County Attorney’s Office formally filed charges only against Hu — not Dougherty.
Vander Sanden had “serious questions and reservations” about the sting, according to a memo regarding Hu’s case. The memo was sent to Elam on Nov. 5, 2012.
The county attorney also told Marion police in the letter that he needed to know the identity of the confidential informer in Hu’s case.
Elam responded 11 days later with additional information about the sting and the informer’s information, according to his letter. Elam also asked that the identity of the informer — who was not a police officer — remain anonymous unless “absolutely necessary.” Sharing his identity could impede his use in future stings, a police record stated.
And Elam closed with his own question.
“It was the exact same scenario, a massage parlor that we had heard was performing sex acts. We used the same informant on the same day,” Elam wrote to Vander Sanden. “I’m confused as to why the charge was filed against Hu, but not filed against Dougherty. Please contact me if you have any further concerns.”
CHARGES NOT FILED
In an interview with The Gazette, Vander Sanden sought to explain why a case was brought against Hu but not against Dougherty.
The police department’s recommended charges against both Hu and Dougherty came in on a late Friday afternoon, and each was to have her initial appearance in court on Saturday morning. Hu had her initial appearance and the charges were filed. Dougherty posted bail and was scheduled to appear in court later.
“When charges come in on the weekend, I’m not usually working and we don’t have the resources to scrutinize them like we do during the week,” Vander Sanden said. “I personally reviewed the Dougherty charge. If I’d have seen that other (Hu’s) charge come through, too, I’d have denied it at the very start.”
From police reports, it seemed as if the informer had initiated the sex acts with Hu and Dougherty, Vander Sanden said. Vander Sanden said he was concerned the defense in both cases could argue entrapment — that law enforcement may have coerced someone to commit a crime.
In a Nov. 5, 2012 letter, Vander Sanden asked police why the sex acts were allowed to be completed in each instance.
By allowing that to happen, “there was no question about what was going on in the business, no issue of language barrier,” Elam responded.
As Hu’s case moved through prosecution despite Vander Sanden’s concerns, Vander Sanden said his office learned the informer had moved to North Carolina. Attorneys obtained his account by conducting a deposition over the phone.
But Vander Sanden said he did not pursue further information for Dougherty.
“When I learned that our informant had moved to North Carolina, I didn’t think it was a good use of taxpayer money to follow through on investigating the case when I saw there were some problems factually,” Vander Sanden said in the interview. “I have a hard time justifying the taxpayer expense for a misdemeanor charge when we’re trying to concentrate our efforts on vigorous prosecution of crimes of violence.”
By the end of February 2013, Hu pleaded guilty to the prostitution charge and was ordered to pay a $625 fine, according to court documents.
Hu and others associated with Massage Heaven could not be located for comment.
On December 2012, the Marion City Council revoked city licenses for the owner of Massage Heaven and for Dougherty at Asian Massage. But in January 2013, Marion police received a tip that Dougherty still was operating her massage business.
At the end of January 2013, a plainclothes officer entered Dougherty’s parlor and negotiated for a half-hour back massage, police said. Dougherty agreed.
Dougherty was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of operating a public amusement without a license, according to a Jan. 24, 2013, Marion police news release. The disposition of that charge could not be found in court records.
In early June 2013, the Marion City Council revised an ordinance to prohibit massage parlors from practicing in Marion without a state license.
The Iowa Board of Massage Therapy can issue a civil penalty for someone practicing massage therapy, without a license, said Tony Alden, board executive of the Iowa Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Professional Licensure. The penalty cannot exceed $1,000 per incident.
An Iowa license is intended to ensure that the Iowa Board of Massage Therapy has reviewed and certified the licensee’s training and testing.
But for complaints it receives of “nefarious activity,” Alden said the board typically alerts county attorneys.
“It is a criminal issue and not a massage issue. The people who are pretending to be massage therapists are the problem,” he said. “We’ve also seen from other stories that there’s concern of human trafficking under the guise of a massage business.”
After discussing the 2015 letter from the Linn County resident, the massage board sent Vander Sanden a letter in September 2016 about Dougherty’s parlor.
“Based on the complaint, it appears that the illegal activity may have occurred in Linn County,” the letter said.
Vander Sanden said he wouldn’t have been able to begin a case based on that letter. When he receives similar advisory letters, he said, he typically passes them along to law enforcement.
“We don’t have the resources to conduct our own investigation,” he said. “We cannot prosecute cases in which we ourselves are witnesses. We ask law enforcement to do an investigation.”
Alden said the board never received a response to its letter.