Two operators of a local foot massage parlor were arrested Thursday on suspicion of running a prostitution business, the Bellingham Police Department said Friday.
Xiaohua An, 58, and Yi Gao, 39, operators of Bellingham Foot Spa, 177 Telegraph Road, were arrested Thursday night, Bellingham Police Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said Friday. Both were booked into the Whatcom County jail on suspicion of promoting prostitution and leading organized crime.
The Bellingham and Ferndale police departments, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security were involved in the investigation, Vander Yacht said.
Tips and investigation
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According to charging papers for An, the Bellingham Police Department was tipped off about the spa in April and May 2015, when it received two letters claiming prostitution was going on there. The letters gave no return address, and police had no way to contact the sender, records say.
In October 2015, charging papers say, a Whatcom County Health Department employee filed a report saying a man had told the employee he had contracted chlamydia during a visit to the spa. The man’s appointment reportedly began with a massage and led to oral sex. He declined intercourse, the health department employee reported.
In March, a man filed another police report accusing spa managers of human trafficking and illegal sex acts at the spa, charging papers say. He reported going to the spa and receiving a sex act after a massage. The man reportedly went back to the spa, but denied sexual contact after the massage.
During the second visit, the man asked the woman giving the massage if she liked her job; she said she hated it. When he asked why she didn’t leave, she indicated that she was “stuck there,” records say.
Detectives launched an investigation in May this year. As they watched the spa, police noticed it served mostly men who would generally stay for about an hour at a time, records say. The men would park away from the front of the spa even when plenty of parking spaces were available in front of the business.
An undercover detective visited the spa that month, charging papers say. He reported seeing a female employee, dressed in a tight red dress and wearing bright red lipstick, escort a man into the waiting area from a room in the back.
The man handed cash to the woman, who handed the money to an older female, later identified as An. An, the detective reported, took a stack of cash from her purse and handed back change to the other woman. It was apparent, the detective said in a report, that An was in charge of operations at the spa.
In September, detectives sent a confidential informant to the spa with an audio recording device and enough cash for a massage and a tip, charging papers say. Once inside, the informant spoke with a man later identified as Gao, who told a female employee to take the informant to a private massage room.
At some point during the massage, the woman grabbed the informant’s private parts, according to court documents. When he asked how much it would cost, the woman told the informant $50. The man declined the extra service and ended the massage, court papers say. He also reported hearing heavy breathing from a nearby room.
Later, in the waiting room, the informant again asked the woman how much the extra service would cost. The woman handed the man a price slip indicating $60 for the massage and an extra $50 for a sex act. The man handed the woman $80 and left.
Detectives sent another informant with a wire to the spa in October. During the massage, the woman began touching the man’s private parts, and he asked how much that would cost. The woman told him it was free since it was his first time, and finished the service. The informant left.
The informant later reported seeing a man who entered the spa before him order a 90-minute full body massage, and then hearing grunting from an adjacent room.
This month, two detectives working undercover entered the spa and, after receiving massages, reported being offered sexual services, charging papers say. Both detectives declined.
An, according to charging papers, appeared to be the supervisor of the women. Gao, the papers add, told detectives he was the “spa manager.”
A person named Anon Song, records say, appears to own the spa. The name is also listed with the business in the Washington Secretary of State’s corporations listing.
Detectives, charging papers say, traced Song’s name to an email address and posts on a website called ChineseInLA.com. The posts, records say, appeared to solicit applicants for masseuse positions at Bellingham Foot Spa. They list salaries for female employees as high as three times what men could make, seemingly to attract women in their 40s, records say.
Court documents accuse An, Gao and Song of recruiting the women, housing them in a Bellingham home about a mile from the spa and taking them to and from the spa.
Police arrested Gao and An without incident as they were driving in north Bellingham Thursday, Vander Yacht said. Neither made any statement to police. Gao had not been formally charged as of Friday.
Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis signed an order Thursday to freeze An’s bank accounts.
Detectives were looking for Song, Vander Yacht said, adding that more arrests and charges could come.
“Suffice it to say that the investigation does not stop/conclude merely because arrests have been made,” he said in an email.
At least four victims
Police contacted four women suspected of being victims of human trafficking, Vander Yacht said. Police are working with organizations and advocacy groups to get the women help, he added.
In many prostitution cases, victims are recruited through promises of a job with a good wage, Vander Yacht said. They’re often controlled through debt, threats and psychological manipulation, and cultural and language barriers make it difficult for victims to find help.
“A very difficult aspect of these investigations is that most of the time, the women, or men, do not see themselves as victims of human trafficking,” Vander Yacht said in a statement. “These exploited people are broken down over time to accept this way of living. Lack of self-identification does not mean they have not been trafficked.”
The two each made initial appearances before Superior Court Commissioner Alfred Heydrich Friday, both speaking Mandarin through an interpreter.
When Heydrich read the charges that prosecutors planned to file against Gao – leading organized crime and promoting prostitution in the second degree – Gao disputed them at first.
“I did not do anything like this,” he said through the interpreter as William Johnston, Gao’s private attorney, stood nearby. Gao repeated, “I didn’t do anything,” before saying he understood the charges.
An also said she understood her charges, which were the same as Gao’s.
Deputy Prosecutor Evan Jones told the court that when the two were arrested Thursday, they appeared to be headed to Bellingham International Airport, and An reportedly had $18,000 in cash. An has flown to and from the airport many times recently, Jones said.
Emily Beschen, An’s attorney from the Law Offices of Robert D. Butler, later said An had been visiting her sick mother in California, and planned to go there Thursday to bring her back to Bellingham. An, a Chinese citizen, told the court she hadn’t been to China since she came to the U.S. about 10 years ago.
Heydrich set bail for both at $50,000.