8 Investigates: Are ‘Storefronts for Sex’ thriving along Tampa’s Kennedy Blvd?

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) –— Tampa’s Kennedy Boulevard is home to nearly a dozen state-licensed “health spas” that feature late hours, rear door parking and in some cases massage services that police detectives say amount to organized prostitution.

“They’re essentially a brothel,” said the Tampa police detective who often leads undercover prostitution investigations into these massage parlors.

The women who staff those Kennedy Boulevard spas often work under visas from Korea and dress in lingerie or other sexually provocative work clothes. “A skintight dress, a miniskirt,” according to the undercover detective. The detective says unlike mainstream licensed massage therapists, the women typically remove their own clothing, jump on the massage table and straddle their clients during “therapeutic” rubdowns.

But, our analysis of Tampa police records involving eight of those spas over a 5-year period reveals only four cases where police said they successfully gathered enough evidence to charge someone for prostitution and just two instances that actually resulted in arrests. None of those businesses were forced to close. The last forced closing we could find happened five years ago and involved a spa on nearby Henderson Blvd.

Investigators tell us catching a sketchy masseuse in the act of committing a sex crime is tricky business. “We’re not the typical john,” said the detective. “We can’t go in there and get naked.” He said the women are well-schooled in spotting cops and pressure undercover detectives to strip down and shower before the massage. The detective says they then use a system of erotically suggestive gestures to describe their illicit services and “air draw” the cost of those services with their fingers to communicate how much it will cost.

Undercover Prostitution Stings Only Take Place on a Complaint-Driven Basis

Beat cops on the Tampa police force have checked some of the spas for valid massage licenses as many as 60 times over the past five years, but undercover prostitution stings only take place on a complaint-driven basis.

“We work when we get these complaints,” the detective sad. “We work to close them down.”

Complaints or not, we discovered there are ten “health spas” on Kennedy Boulevard with names like Lucky, Kim’s, Yoshiko, Magic, Seven Star, Orange, Crystal, Bamboo. There are even more spas around the corner on Dale Mabry Highway. Our investigation shows they have little to fear from Tampa police or the Florida Department of Health, which regulates massage businesses and practitioners statewide.

Public records show the “health spas” almost always pass state health inspections, even when records show that state inspectors suspect workers are living inside — something the workers are not legally allowed to do. We also discovered examples of where the Florida DOH was slow to act even when licensed massage therapists have sex crime convictions.

In one such case, Jacksonville police busted a licensed massage therapist named Kyung Mahaffey during a sex sting at the Southside Tan & Spa on August 19, 2009. According to the police report, Jacksonville police arrested Mahaffey after she “offered to have sexual intercourse or oral sex with him (investigator) in exchange for an additional $100.”

The Florida Department of Health didn’t even begin disciplinary action against Mahaffey until five years later. Mahaffey’s case then spent two more years winding its way through the Florida DOH regulatory system before that state agency finally revoked her state massage license on September 16, 2016. By then, more than seven years had passed since Jacksonville police busted Mahaffey for prostitution.

Business Owners are Steps Ahead of Police

Our review of five years of Tampa police records involving eight “health spas” on Kennedy Blvd show a similar pattern of ineffectiveness. The business owners and the women who work there often appear to be several steps ahead of well-intended, but hobbled prostitution watchdogs on the Tampa police force as well as city code enforcers.

For starters, employees inside the “health spas” literally see them coming.  Our investigation reveals that surveillance cameras typically guard every exterior entrance. We saw closed circuit monitors located in lobbies next to ATM machines, behind front desks that are usually shielded by small windows with thick glass and curtains, even in a back bedroom. Spa customers are typically afforded discrete back door parking and entry away from the prying eyes of passing motorists.

Once inside, police say customers are pressured to strip naked and take showers prior to their massage treatments which investigators say is a way to expose undercover detectives wearing recording devices. The women know undercover detectives can’t allow a sex act to take place, so when undercover detectives make excuses after an offer of sexual favors the workers are tipped off and sometimes vanish before officers return to make an arrest.

When Tampa code enforcement regulators work with police to try to shut down suspect spas as “nuisance businesses,” investigators say those facilities often change ownership or names and the code enforcement process has to begin from scratch.

Tampa police typically send “racketeering letters” to business and property owners after prostitution stings to announce they’re under scrutiny, but we didn’t find any examples of criminal racketeering cases filed by the Hillsborough State Attorney against the “health spas” in Kennedy Boulevard. Hillsborough prosecutors insist it’s up to police to investigate and bring those cases to them.

Crackdown on Massage Parlors Fails

Tampa City Council members started a publicized campaign to crack down on the massage parlors back in 2012, but ended up deferring to the state’s effort to put more muscle into human trafficking laws. “We waited to see what the Legislature was going to do specifically about human trafficking,” said Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez. ”We have not followed up on it and that is our fault on council and my fault specifically.”

In 2012, Suarez told a Tampa Tribune reporter he was concerned about sex-driven massage parlors getting a “toehold” in Tampa. In 2013 police raided a spa on Henderson that police chief Jane castor called a case of “human trafficking” and “modern day slavery.” Now, the red flags are everywhere that illicit spas that so worried council member Suarez. . We visited four of the Kennedy Boulevard “health spas” with histories of prostitution investigations or arrests to inquire about what actually goes on inside. We didn’t get past the front door or lobby in three of them. “What kind of services to you offer,” I asked one spa employee. “Just massage,” she replied. I asked the masseuse why she was dressed in lingerie, but she just waved me off saying she didn’t want to be on TV or give me her name or state license number. At another Kennedy Boulevard spa, two massage customers exited through the back door and left in a hurry moments after we knocked on the front door.

A housekeeper did invite us –along with our camera– to inspect a fourth massage parlor, the Yoshiko Health Spa at 4231 Kennedy Blvd. Yoshiko has a shower stall located off a main hallway and seven spartan massage rooms, each equipped with a small table and door for privacy. We discovered a woman hiding in an eighth room that was equipped with a king-size bed. It was filled with personal belongings and resembled a bedroom, even though staff members are prohibited by law from living in the spas.

The woman hiding from our camera in that room refused to identify herself, but insisted she lived at a nearby apartment. The housekeeper pointed to a state massage license that she said belonged to the masseuse. But, according to Florida Department of Health records, the owner of that massage license is currently located in Georgia and had not checked in to work at any Florida massage business as required by DOH regulations.

Tampa police records reveal that street cops have visited Yoshiko 60 times since September 27, 2012, mostly to verify that workers have valid state massage licenses or for “field interrogations.”

On April 30, 2016, an undercover detective who went into Yoshiko posing as a customer reported that a masseuse offered to commit acts of prostitution on him ranging in cost from $60 to $160. There was no arrest because the masseuse was gone when officers returned to arrest her. “This case is inactive until the suspect is identified,” the report says. Investigators also concluded —like we did— that one or more staff members appeared to be living inside the Yoshiko, contrary to the law.

Why is That Woman Wearing Lingerie?

We showed some of the video we shot inside Yoshiko and other spas to Tampa City Council Member Guido Maniscalco, who was troubled by what he saw. “This is out of control,” said Maniscalco. “Your investigation is showing us what’s going on behind the scenes—why is that woman wearing lingerie, why is she not in scrubs?”

Maniscalco has now called for Tampa police to make a presentation to the Tampa City Council on May 18 to explain what’s going on inside the Kennedy Boulevard spas, and what police are doing to curb the prostitution trade inside some of those businesses.

It’s a complicated problem with no easy solutions. Tampa police tell us they try to make racketeering cases, but suspects have a habit of vanishing. They pursue civil action against managers and owners to shut them down as a “nuisance business,” but the facilities change names and ownership. That forces the code enforcement process to start over.

Police say sketchy “health spa” owners know how the game is played. So far, they’ve have had little trouble staying ahead of city efforts to curb illegal activity that has been witnessed time and again by undercover detectives.

Mansicalco hopes a fresh approach will yield better results. It all starts May 18, when the Tampa City Council takes up the issue anew after his call for a briefing from Tampa police. “This is an opportunity to remedy something that’s very, very wrong in the city,” Maniscalco said. “The red flags are there.”

Tampa resident Brandon Pierpont lives five minutes away from Kennedy Blvd. and says city leaders can’t take action to reel in illegal activity at “health spas” soon enough. Pierpont visited Kim’s Spa last year to buy his girlfriend a pedicure for her birthday.

“I walked thinking it would be a nice place,” Pierpont said. He ended up calling Tampa police to report that he suspected the business was a front for prostitution. “It’s not only offensive to everyone who lives in the Tampa Bay area, it’s also threatening to the women,” Pierpont said.

Six months after Pierpont registered his complaint, Tampa police conducted an undercover sting in accordance with their department’s policy of “complaint-driven” enforcement against illegal activity inside the Kennedy Blvd. “health spas.” But when they returned to arrest the masseuse who they say offered a detective sexual services, she was gone. Kim’s Spa has since re-opened under a new name, FL Bay Spa. “I think the entire city’s being victimized by this,” Pierpont said. “I think it makes us look trashy and endangers us.”

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