In the past year, men from Amherst to Westlake drove to Warren, where they paid for a variety of sex acts at eight massage parlors, investigators say. The customers helped make the city the region’s hub of health spas, businesses that have thrived in a community that has struggled since its industrial base collapsed.
But earlier this month, Warren boarded up the eight parlors, claiming they were nuisances linked to prostitution. The closings came days after law enforcement officers raided the spas, sweeping up condoms, business papers and a money trail that could lead prosecutors to file racketeering charges, according to court records and interviews.
The raids stemmed from a yearlong criminal investigation by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office and Warren police that involved officers placing cameras near the massage parlors and interviewing former workers at two of the spas. Investigators also obtained statements from customers.
The customers said they paid a fee of about $40 to get in and about $50 to $300 to young women for different sex acts, according to court records. The city subpoenaed some of the customers to testify at a hearing Monday in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court, where Warren’s law department will seek to keep the businesses closed.
Authorities found nearly $100,000 in cash at the businesses, according to records. That included $22,850 in a fake floor at the Tokyo Spa. Investigators also gathered laptops, hard drives, cell phones and passports of women who worked at the businesses.
Community activists feared the spas involved human trafficking. They spent months urging Warren City Hall to dig into the issue, saying the city had gained an ugly reputation from the businesses.
“It’s a stain on the city,” said Jean Waris, who helped lead the fight. “They say first impressions are lasting. We don’t want people coming to Warren and getting that impression.”
A defense attorney says the city has more important issues to worry about than massage parlors. Lawyer Gary Rich, who represents the Hot Sun Spa, said law enforcement should have prioritized the city’s needs.
“I have great respect for the attorney general, but I put forward that the city of Warren would have been much better served if, rather than spending a year on massage parlors, authorities would have investigated drugs and criminal activity here,” Rich said.
“Drugs and crime are rampant here. Our schools are on academic watch. Our roads are crumbling. We’re hemorrhaging jobs. Our housing stock is deteriorating. And they’re looking at massage parlors?”
Hicks, a former Warren police officer, said he heard similar lines when he patrolled the city’s streets. When he arrested a drunken driver, the driver wanted to know why Hicks wasn’t spending his time chasing more dangerous drug dealers.
Customers drive from Cuyahoga, other counties to Warren
In search warrant affidavits, an agent of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation said officers tracked down customers from Pepper Pike, Shaker Heights, Richfield, Parma, Cleveland, Columbia Station and Wadsworth, as well as several from the Mahoning Valley. Some said they learned of the spas in ads in The Plain Dealer and other newspapers.
Investigators also are looking into allegations of human trafficking, as massage parlor workers reportedly were driven to Warren from New York, where some had landed from Korea, according to the search warrant affidavits. But it is not yet clear whether the allegations are true.
They also have gained information on “jockeys,” or people who drove the women for shopping and errands, as well as to and from other massage parlors in other cities, according to Hicks and the affidavits.
One man from North Bloomfield, a small town in northern Trumbull County, said he knew having sex at the spas was illegal, but he also said the businesses provided a service “to guys that have no other outlet.”
Al Bansky, the state agent who wrote the affidavits for the search warrants, jumped on the line. In the documents, he said he was seeking a judge’s permission to search the businesses “to ensure that Warren, Ohio, will cease to be the ‘outlet’ capital of prostitution. . . .”
The city’s reputation has taken off, thanks in part to the Internet. Activists have pulled reviews about Warren spas from 2010 that were found on a web site devoted to massage parlors. The reviews include women’s measurements and their attitudes toward customers.
In one post, an anonymous customer rated Warren’s spas.
“I’ve been to Asian massage parlors in Houston, Tampa, Toledo and others,” the review said. “Pretty good service most times, but until you’ve been around, you have no idea how great Warren is. Head and shoulders above the rest.”
For years, Elyria dealt with massage parlors in its downtown. Elyria is about the size of Warren. Both cities are off the Ohio Turnpike, making it relatively easy for people who drive long distances.
In the early 1990s, Elyria police raided three massage parlors in the city. The raids, led by then-police Lt. Dennis Will, allowed county prosecutors to convict some employees with racketeering.
“They told us that getting caught is the price of doing business,” said Will, who today is the Lorain County prosecutor. “They only packed up and left after we charged them with racketeering, and they saw the kinds of sentences that some people were getting.”
In 1987, Cleveland City Council passed a law that required massage parlor operators to be fingerprinted by police. They had to provide details of their work histories and any criminal records. The workers at the businesses also had to provide similar information, take blood tests and be fingerprinted.
The massage parlors had to be licensed by the city, and its workers had to be licensed masseuses by the state. City officials said the law has kept the businesses from moving here.
In Warren, the massage parlors began to take hold in the 1990s. They offered recreational massages, not the therapeutic types that are licensed by the State Medical Board.
In 2000, the city had six businesses. It also had several billboards promoting the health spas along the arteries that led to the city.
That year, a former manager of the Bella Health Spa pleaded guilty to lying to a federal grand jury that was investigating money laundering and prostitution. The spa has since closed. The manager was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Cleveland to probation for three years.
The investigation continued in Pennsylvania, where federal prosecutors accused a group of people of skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from 17 massage parlors across the country, according to court documents. Two of the men convicted, Robert Urquhart and David Amos, had their sentences sealed by a federal judge in Philadelphia. A federal prosecutor refused to comment on the cases.
But such investigations are rare in the Mahoning Valley.
One reason is manpower. Warren’s police department is understaffed because of budget constraints and cannot afford to devote detectives to a vice unit, Hicks said. In June 2011, Warren Police Chief Timothy Bowers asked DeWine’s office for help.
Driving to Warren from Mansfield
With remote cameras placed on public property outside the spas, state agents began tracking down the men who frequented the businesses and details about those who ran them. They found that many of the customers were from outside Warren, that men were driving long distances to stop at the massage parlors. State agents even found a man from near Mansfield who made the two-hour trek to Warren, according to the search warrant affidavits.
By 2012, the number of massage parlors in the city grew to 10. Activists from the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative and Waris’ Northeast Ohio Coalition on Rescue and Restore, which fights human trafficking, continued their battle to close the businesses.
Warren City Council passed an ordinance in January that calls for the spas to close from midnight to 6 a.m. Massage workers also have to get 100 hours of training from an accredited school of massage therapy. And the city required workers to pay $640 in fees for annual licensing, Rich said.
The spas fought back.
Rich, the lawyer who represents the Hot Sun Spa, took on other spas as clients to challenge the city law in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court. In February, Rich said, a city police official testified at a court hearing on the ordinance that there were no criminal complaints at the health spas. A city health official also testified, saying there were no serious health violations, Rich said.
But the investigation told a different story. Agents began tracking down customers of the health spas, who gave statements. They also interviewed a woman who worked at two health spas. She told investigators that she knew a lot of the women who worked at other spas in the city and “that all of the Warren spas are sex-related,” according to the search warrant affidavits.
The affidavits show the woman said one of the businesses, the Ocean Spa, took in an average of $1,500 per day, seven days a week, or about $546,000 a year. She said the spas charged up to $300 for sex.
On May 30, 60 state agents and Warren police raided eight massage parlors — the Gemini Health Spa; Tokyo Spa; Moon Night Spa; Fuji Spa; Ocean Spa; Hong Kong Spa; Hot Sun Spa; and the Fantacy Spa.
Two parlors in Warren were not raided. One recently changed ownership, while authorities could not get enough probable cause to search the other, the Sunny Spa on East Market Street. Authorities said the spa and a nearby bar share a common entranceway, and it impossible to determine which business the customers had frequented.
During the raids, state agents found passports, computer jump drives, surveillance equipment, foreign currency and large bags of condoms.
“Obviously, this isn’t a local mom and pop operation,” Hicks said. “These places are all linked. We found that they are moving women from location to location. There is some type of inner-connectability here. How deep it goes is what investigators are looking into.”
Hicks said the city is seeking to put the spas out of business, much like boarding up drug houses. About 10 days after the raids, Hicks and Warren Mayor Doug Franklin boarded up the eight parlors, placing yellow, police tape over the doors. Local media snapped up the footage.
“We have been at the center of things here (with massage parlors), and it isn’t anything to be proud of,” Hicks said