FEDERAL WAY - This city has become a mecca for massage parlors.
Federal Way tops the list in King County when it comes to "the ones with the neon signs on the main drag, open 24 hours a day, with girls dressed in Spandex and teddies, as opposed to a smock," says Sgt. John Lindner of the King County police vice unit.
Thirty massage businesses are registered with the city, but that number includes both legitimate, therapeutic massage practices and those that are fronts for prostitution. Nine are known to be owned or operated by people with past criminal involvement.
Police say there are several reasons for Federal Way's status as a massage-parlor hot spot. The city has an ample supply of empty strip-mall storefronts as well as a business-friendly approach that requires only a minimum of information from entrepreneurs.
And unlike cities such as Seattle, Kent, Tukwila, Bellevue and Des Moines, Federal Way has no ordinances regulating massage businesses. Police think that when law enforcement closes in on illegitimate operations in those areas, they just move to Federal Way.
GOLDEN TOUCH JUST CHANGED CITIES
Lindner estimates there are about three times as many massage businesses in Federal Way now as there were in 1989, the year before the city incorporated.
Take the case of The Golden Touch Massage Parlor, which opened in May 1992 in Kent. It closed down five months later after three employees were charged with prostitution and the owner was cited for operating a massage parlor without a license.
A few months later, The Golden Touch II opened in Federal Way. It remained in business until this September, when its owners, Michael Larry Landry and Rochelle C. King, were arrested on charges of promoting prostitution.
According to King County Superior Court documents, several adult women and three teenage girls - one 14 at the time - worked at the alleged prostitution front.
When it comes to illegal massage parlors, Federal Way does "have the lion's share of them. When Federal Way elected not to have a massage law, what they didn't realize was they left the door open," Lindner said.
OTHER CITIES REQUIRE INSPECTIONS
City officials are chagrined.
"We don't want to be known as the massage-parlor capital of King County," said Federal Way Mayor Mary Gates. "It's something we haven't (recently) discussed, but we may need to be looking at the problem."
Federal Way's problem may be tied to its lack of a specific ordinance that would require, among other things, regular inspections and extensive background checks.
When a 1991 state law was enacted, the city elected to rely solely on it. It tells cities that they cannot charge massage practitioners more for licenses or have different licensing requirements than those that apply to physical and occupational therapists. The result is that there's no additional revenue generated by a higher license fee to pay for massage-parlor inspections and background checks.
But Lindner said cities that do manage to find the revenue to do as little as inspect massage facilities can tip off police to illegal activity.
"God knows a lot of massage parlors and lots of legitimate masseurs and masseuses are taking the rap for ones who front for prostitution," he said. "But it's really not hard to figure out if it's legitimate."
DES MOINES TAKES A HARD LINE
Des Moines City Attorney James Gorham said he can determine the difference between a legitimate therapeutic-massage operation and a potential prostitution front by the building's floor plans. The prostitution fronts will usually have a number of small booths, he said.
Under a Des Moines ordinance, massage practitioners must provide detailed professional and personal information, and they must disclose any criminal history. It also requires a police background check and holds the owner of the establishment liable if any employee engages in prostitution, whether or not the owner knew about it at the time.
Since the state law requires that massage therapists not be treated differently, Des Moines gives the city manager the power to exempt applicants he thinks are legitimate massage practitioners from the criminal background checks and other requirements. He bases that exemption on the applicant's professional training, experience and whether or not the business provides massages based on physician recommendations.
The ordinance might be at the edge of the state law, Gorham admits. But, he said, the city intends to continue enforcing it unless it's successfully challenged in court.
And, he points out, as far as he knows, Des Moines has no massage parlors fronting for prostitution.
TANNING, LINGERIE SHOPS ALSO USED
While a number of cities' long-standing massage-parlor ordinances may not stand up in court if challenged, police say having the ordinances on the books - and a city's reputation for enforcing them - are a deterrent.
While massage parlors are the most common prostitution fronts, police say there are others.
Recently, two employees of X-OticTan, a Federal Way tanning and lingerie showroom, were charged with prostitution and the facility was shut down for failing to have an adult-entertainment license.
In the past, the Federal Way area has had its share of prostitution-connected body painting, erotic-photo businesses and escort services - which can consist of as little as a phone number at a private residence, police say.
When Golden Touch moved to Federal Way, Landry and King's two Bellevue-based escort services came, too, court documents indicated. One teenage girl, working for Eve's Garden Escort, made 100 prostitution-connected calls, the documents allege.
LEGITIMATE FIRMS COOPERATING
The therapeutic-massage industry can't distance itself far enough from the businesses serving as prostitution fronts.
The King County police vice unit and the Washington chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association are proposing changes to the state law.
The changes, which are still being drafted, would include license revocation for anyone convicted of prostitution and legal definitions as to what constitutes a massage.
"Prostitution is not what we're about," said Lori Bielinski, second vice president of the 1,300-member professional association. "We are working with the state and demanding zero tolerance on this."