In the dark underground world of sex trafficking, acts of prostitution and its victims, the women forced to work in the sex trade, are often concealed in a single business: brothels posing as massage parlors.
Tucked back in a fairly quaint and non-descript little strip mall off East F Street in Oakdale is an Asian massage parlor that, from its ads, suggests their staff of beautiful Asian women offer a range of massage services tailored to your needs and are at the ready to release the stresses of life by way of healing hands.
How far those hands would go in satisfying customers was the $60 question – or $80 if you wanted an hour.
Claim Form Sparks Leader Investigation
After several months of complaints to Oakdale officials and police, local attorney Michael Abbott and his clients, Arlin and Tammy Nusbaum of Nature’s Rx, have said they’ve had it and filed a monetary claim with the city for its failure to enforce a city ordinance on massage parlors that operate as fronts to prostitution and brothels.
According to an obtained copy of the complaint, the Nusbaums moved their vitamin and natural food business to the same complex as Island Spa in 2013 and noticed a significant drop in business due customers who felt intimidated by “a brothel” in the area and the seedy clientele associated with Island Spa.
The Nusbaums requested the Oakdale Police to take action to close the business, which is illicit in their eyes, but never saw any action taken.
Island Spa continued to operate as it did after their complaints were made.
“Our business has been gravely hurt by this,” Arlin Nusbaum said. “Our customers become aware of what they do and think we somehow condone it by being there in the same complex or they will be associated with Island Spa if their car is seen in the lot.”
Nusbaum said there were some late night incidents when they were setting up their business when cars would pull in front of the spa and drop off Asian girls. He said moments later, luxury-style cars would pull up and men would go inside. He told of another night of seeing an Asian girl, looking to be no more than 18 years old, outside the business late at night smoking a cigarette between a flow of men going into and leaving the business.
“The more we heard about and saw going on over there, we couldn’t believe it,” said Tammy Nusbaum, noting all male activity in-and-out of the business. “All the red flags were right there.”
“It’s kind of scandalous,” said Abbott. “Here we have a whorehouse in Oakdale that’s just being allowed to run.”
Due to the drop in their business and shady activity in the area, the Nusbaums were forced to spend extra money to move to a different location on East F Street.
Police Are Cognizant
Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins said he was aware of the complaints and suspicions of Island Spa.
According to Jenkins, the department has conducted surveillances and worked to deter customer activity at Island Spa, but no one has been arrested associated with the massage parlor.
The department may conduct other activity into the spa but Jenkins would not say if it was a result of the Nusbaums’ complaint.
Jenkins said he believed Island Spa was part of a larger company that even had its own attorneys and bookkeepers.
Oakdale is not alone in the plight of illicit massage parlors as other city officials throughout California have to accept the parlors as legitimate unless proven otherwise due to a controversial state law that once regulated and protected the businesses.
The law, passed in 2009, established the California Massage Therapy Council, a nonprofit charged with issuing voluntary permits for all massage therapists in the state. The law also prohibited cities from restricting licensed massage parlors and technicians unless they applied the same regulations to other licensed professional businesses like doctors or chiropractors.
In other words, if the business had a council licensed “therapist” it couldn’t be regulated by ordinance alone. Several believe the 2009 law encouraged illegal activities such as human trafficking and prostitution.
Enter the Asian massage parlor such as Island Spa. The drive-thru restaurant of the massage industry – fast, convenient, and no reservations or appointments needed.
However in January of this year, the Massage Therapy Act went into effect and now allows cities and counties to regulate businesses that employ certified massage practitioners.
Oakdale has yet to take action on its ordinances.
Reporter Visit To Island Spa
According to adult Web forums such as “Rub Map” that specialize in the underground world of erotic massage parlors, Island Spa is one of the most reviewed and highest-rated locations in the area outside of Modesto. Besides talking up experiences at the spa, people commented on the site about the physical attributes of the masseuses, their willingness to perform certain sex acts along with the cost and ways to ask for those acts.
A visit to Island Spa one afternoon showed the tiny shop looking more like a miniature check cashing business than a questionable body rub establishment, with its closet-sized foyer that housed a glass window above a money exchange slot, surveillance cameras, and a security door leading into the rest of the parlor.
A computer printed paper sign announced its only services: $60 for 45 minutes or $80 for an hour massage, cash only.
In the waiting room I buzzed the door button and was soon met by a perky and very flirtatious Asian woman named “J” (whose rating status and willingness to perform had been commented on in Rub Map). She invited me in stating that she “remembered” me from another visit.
Having my “in” with J, I decided to go with her lead that I was a returning customer. (It didn’t hurt my cause that my wrist was in a cast that I told her was a work injury from falling at the warehouse I worked at to take away from any suspicions).
Once inside, J’s hands were playfully rubbing my clothed body, talking about how “fun” I was.
(The suspicious part of me sensed she may also have been checking for “a wire.”)
J took my three $20 bills, led me to a private room, and introduced me to my masseuse, a younger Asian woman named Jung who spoke limited English and later told me she was from Korea.
After I undressed and partially covered myself with a towel, Jung started my massage which was no more than her rubbing my shoulders and back area with a lotion.
In various resorts on vacation, I’ve had professional spa massages, but I’ve never had one where the masseuse straddled my backside doing a portion of the rubbing with her inner thighs or rubbing her chest area against me like Jung’s style in what I would assume could be described as a reverse lap dance.
After about 15 minutes on the table/bed, Jung asked if there was anything else I wanted. She told me I could “tip” her for anything else.
When I inquired what that could include, she offered a few supplementary services not listed on the main menu making a stroking motion with her hand and whispering, “$60 this and $100 for this,” bringing a semi-fist to her mouth.
The communication was clear; she was talking about sex acts and outlining the prices for services rendered.
Having a clear understanding of what Island Spa was about, I kept my journalistic integrity and our encounter was shortly ended when I said her prices were too high.
Part Of A Larger Problem – Human Trafficking
Oakdale’s Island Spa is typical of the Asian massage front contributing to human trafficking within a storefront business.
In a 2014 Urban Institute report, the parlors help facilitate human sex trafficking of young women, mostly Korean, who come to this country expecting to start a bright new life, and instead spend years in virtual slavery, without control over their own lives, trying to work off massive debt incurred by the supposed cost of immigrating here.
The women trafficked in massage parlors either have some form of existing debt or have been handed exhorted fees by their traffickers which they are expected to pay.
In the case of existing debt, victims may be enticed by what seems to be a legitimate job opportunity, only to find themselves in a massage parlor situation where they only receive a small portion of the massage cost and the “tips” going toward their debt.
Other times, traffickers claim that victims owe them for things such as food, “security” or transportation, and that they must “do what it takes” to please their customers for “tips” – sex acts.
The operators of the businesses have a sophisticated structure, often interacting between several parlors, shuttling the women to different locations to meet the needs of clients.
An investigation into the trade also revealed that human traffickers were also selling phony massage school transcripts so workers could pose as legitimate therapists and work or operate massage parlor front brothels under the 2009 law.
Abbott said the Nusbaums seek to recover their losses from having been induced to leave the location, their lost profits while there, and the costs of relocation.
“From long before this complaint was filed, the City of Oakdale knew Island Spa was and is a brothel,” said Abbott. “They were directed to websites by the Nusbaums which rated Island Spa and its providers according to their sexual attributes and sex acts offered.”
Abbott and the Nusbaums said they felt nothing was done by the city to “abate a nuisance” and plan to file civil litigation if their claim is denied.
In addition, Jan Noble, owner of Holistic Life Institute School of Massage, across the drive from Island Spa, said she is also considering moving to a new location because of the same reasons the Nusbaums.
As for now, with Island Spa’s activities revealed, it will be up to the city on what action to take.