Manager of Bellingham foot spa avoids jail time in sex trafficking case

Xiaohua An, center, makes her first appearance in Whatcom County Superior Court on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, in Bellingham.
Xiaohua An, center, makes her first appearance in Whatcom County Superior Court on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, in Bellingham.

The manager of a Chinese foot spa won’t serve time in jail after detectives spent months investigating her massage business as a hub for sex trafficking, a Whatcom County judge ruled this week.

Xiaohua An, 59, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor Thursday for permitting prostitution at the Bellingham Foot Spa, 177 Telegraph Road. Charging papers and defense arguments paint two opposing pictures of An’s role in the business, and whether she was aware employees offered customers more than a massage. All of the masseuses were recent immigrants from China who spoke little or no English.

Police received a tip about the business in spring of 2015, when an anonymous letter accused the spa of prostitution. Another letter with similar handwriting arrived weeks later. Police took a third report when a man said he contracted Chlamydia from a masseuse who performed a sex act on him.

Another man told police in March 2016 that a masseuse performed a sex act on him, and when he went back, she started to do it again but he stopped her. According to his report, the masseuse told him she hated her job, but felt she was “stuck” working there. No money was exchanged, and this was two out of many visits by a longtime customer, according to the defense.

Police ramped up their investigation in May 2016. Around that time a detective assigned to the case had just attended an FBI agent’s seminar on prostitution in “Asian massage parlors,” court records show. Over the next six months, authorities carried out surveillance on the spa and its manager, An, who goes by “Annie.”

A detective walked into the spa and noted An appeared to handle the business’ money. One masseuse wore bright lipstick and a tight red dress, the detective reported. Later, on separate days in fall, two undercover informants went into the foot spa wearing hidden microphones, and were offered sex acts. One of the men let the woman complete the act, and he reported hearing sexual grunts in a room next door, according to charging papers.

In November, two undercover detectives visited the spa, and – though there was a language barrier – reported two workers offered sexual services, which they declined. Officers arrested An and Yi Gao, who helped run the spa. The two spent a night in jail before posting bond.

Police arrested two employees of the Bellingham Foot Spa, 177 Telegraph Road, on suspicion of running a prostitution business in November 2016. Philip A. Dwyer

Both were charged with second-degree promoting prostitution and leading organized crime, a class A felony, the same level as armed robbery or murder. Gao, a 40-year-old man, is still awaiting trial.

The business had been registered under the name of An’s son, Anan Song. (Anan is spelled Anon in some records.) He hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Police confiscated the phones of all the employees, more than $40,000, and 200 items linked to the business. Most of that cash came from lockers belonging to the four masseuses who worked there, said An’s defense attorney, Emily Beschen. The phones revealed the day-to-day interactions of the workers, but nothing to hint at organized prostitution, or any crime, according to the defense.

Police reports outline one masseuse’s story of how she came to Bellingham: She was a textile worker in China, who flew to Los Angeles with plans to stay for a week. She relocated to Bellingham when she saw an ad about a masseuse job on WeChat, a Chinese version of Facebook. According to her account, her boss told her not to touch clients’ privates. She felt free to leave at any time. She insisted it wasn’t true that sex acts were happening in the spa. She said she thought An was nice. The women lived in her apartment. Most of them were around 40 years old and referred to An as “Big Sister.” Meanwhile, the women worked 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, the worker told police.

Other masseuses gave nearly identical accounts to police, Beschen said.

According to the defense, An hadn’t been keeping a close eye on the business for about a year because her sister had been suffering from a terminal illness. She cooperated with police, and spoke with officers for hours when they arrested her.

Xiaohua An, 58, makes her first appearance in Whatcom County Superior Court on Friday, Nov. 18, in Bellingham. An is charged with leading organized crime and second degree promoting prostitution.

“Annie was negligent in monitoring activities at the spa over the past year,” Beschen told a judge in court. “Her negligence allowed spa employees to behave in a manner that Annie is incredibly shameful (of), and does not reflect her as a business woman or as a person.”

Early on, police lost contact with the women, a major obstacle, said the Deputy Prosecutor Evan Jones. The two sides reached a plea deal where An admitted to the misdemeanor, forfeited the cash seized from the business, and agreed to pay $1,450 in fines. She can have the conviction wiped from her record if she stays out of trouble for one year.

Superior Court Judge Deborra Garrett approved the plea deal. A Mandarin interpreter relayed court proceedings to An on Thursday.

An, a former police officer in China, moved to the U.S. in 2006. She opened the foot spa a few years later. She had no criminal record and is in the country legally.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb