The door chime gives a loud screech before you enter the dark lobby of Space Oil Massage, located just off Interstate 90 in Spokane Valley. A faint, sweet smell of lotion hangs in the air. A sign on the wall reminds customers that there is "No sex, no touching and no harassment."
It's been weeks since law enforcement raided Space Oil on July 12 looking for evidence of sex trafficking and prostitution. Yet with no arrests, the businesses are still open. Inside, a camera points at the entrance. Sounds of running water and chirping birds play on a loop. A woman, who speaks little English, rushes from the back to set up a massage.
When the Inlander asks if the owner is available to speak about the police investigation, the woman hands over a card that was buried at the bottom of a binder.
"Coco doesn't work here anymore," it says.
Coco, owner Kelan Johnson later explains, was "the most popular" girl in the shop. Now, Johnson says, she's in California, "just taking personal time off."
From April through June, law enforcement — including the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, FBI, Homeland Security Investigations and Washington State Patrol — received multiple anonymous tips that the women working at Space Oil sought help from authorities because they were being forced to perform sex acts for money, according to search warrants.
On July 12, an agent with Homeland Security conducted an undercover operation at Space Oil. He reported that a woman touched his genitals and offered sexual acts for money. Later that night, authorities raided Space Oil, seizing cash, cell phones and taking pictures of a large trash can filled with tissues of what appeared to have dried semen, according to a warrant filed in Spokane County Superior Court.
Johnson denies that any of his massage parlors — Space Oil, Crystal Sea and 3 Pier Oil — are involved in any kind of prostitution. But court documents from the investigation paint a different picture: Not only are Johnson's three businesses allegedly involved in criminal activity, but investigators believe they could be part of a larger network of illicit massage parlors trafficking women.
Washington State Patrol Lt. James Mjor, who's overseeing the investigation, confirms to the Inlander that officials believe the case is bigger than those three businesses.
"We haven't ruled out that they're linked nationally," Mjor says.
Johnson leans back in his chair on the patio at Crystal Sea Massage, located on Division Street in Spokane. He sits by his wife, Aiming Yang-Johnson, whom he married last year.
She was involved in massage parlors and spas before, in China, before coming to the U.S., he says. In 2016, court records show, Aiming Yang spent a night in jail for prostitution in Twin Falls.
"When I met her a year ago, she asked me if I would ever be interested in running one of these shops. She said the real money is in owning the shop," Johnson says.
The couple was aware that eight illicit massage parlors were raided in a Spokane sting operation in 2012. That's why they put up "house rules" so as to "deter the girls from ever going down that avenue," he says. They opened Crystal Sea Massage on Jan. 19, 2018.
Meanwhile, the very same day, Jan. 19, Homeland Security received a tip about a "suspicious" massage parlor in Spokane. The parlor was located at 319 Indiana Ave., according to court documents. That's the location of Evergreen Massage and Aromatherapy, a business not owned by Johnson.
The tip triggered an investigation. Homeland Security, "using open source media, physical surveillance, and law enforcement databases ... linked several massage businesses and the respective employees together," court documents say.
The night of Feb. 18, Washington State Patrol Detective Sgt. Dan McDonald kept a watch on Crystal Sea, having found a post on backpage.com advertising new girls who would be arriving that night. He saw multiple women who wore fur coats and no pants walk in and out of the spa, loading stuff into a car and driving to a warehouse. The next day, Feb. 19, Space Oil Massage opened. (Johnson and Yang-Johnson would later open a third parlor, 3 Pier Oil, on July 9.)
Johnson claims the only advertising they ever did was on Yelp, Google and Yahoo. The Yelp advertisements feature pictures of Asian women. In one picture, a woman is winking and puts her index finger up to her mouth as if to tell someone to be quiet. "My time is 9 am - 10:30 pm," it reads. Another photo shows a woman called Coco making a heart with her hands. It says she's from Shanghai, China. The same picture advertises "two girls" at $120 per hour.
But ads for their businesses also showed up on websites like backpage.com before authorities seized it over sex trafficking ads, court documents say. They also appeared on similar websites like adultlook.com where "johns" find where to pay for sex.
At least seven other Spokane-area massage parlors had advertisements on either adultlook.com or rubmaps.com, the Inlander has found. Mjor, speaking generally, says appearing on those websites is a red flag that could indicate an illegitimate business.
On July 12, when an agent went undercover into Space Oil, asking for a massage, the masseuse at one point touched his genitals. She offered oral sex by acting out the motion to the undercover agent, and the two made arrangements to meet up later in the evening. Instead, that evening, law enforcement raided the establishment, court records say.
Detectives interviewed Yang-Johnson during the raid. When they asked for Yang-Johnson's phone, she deleted a text thread before handing it over, court documents say. On her phone, they found a video of a topless Asian woman performing oral sex on a man.
Yang-Johnson told investigators she recruits girls through WeChat, a messaging app that's been used in other cases for human trafficking and child exploitation. Throughout the interview, detectives found Yang-Johnson to be "deceptive," records state. She withheld information or pretended she didn't understand English, investigators say.
Still, Johnson denies any such activities have taken place at his businesses. Rather, he refers to "bullying" from customers who ask for sexual favors from women. This entire investigation, he says, was brought on by undercover officers "trying some of this bullying to see how far it would go."
Then, on July 25, the Washington State Patrol obtained a second search warrant.
Even when law enforcement arrests massage parlor owners for promoting prostitution or trafficking, they can get off with little-to-no time in jail.
In 2012, a yearlong operation conducted by local and federal law enforcement ended with several arrests of spa owners. But none of them served more than two days in jail. That includes Chin Sim Day, who owned Oriental Spa North, and who had a previous conviction of promoting prostitution from the 1980s, according to Department of Corrections records. Day also had the cash and other property taken in the raid returned to her.
It's why Mjor says the State Patrol's focus is on nailing people with charges of human trafficking and money laundering that carry stiffer penalties.
"You can rescue women, and you can put criminal charges on suspects and get a couple months, maybe years in prison. But the more we can prove money laundering and have that taken away and put into victim advocacy, that's where we're gonna make the most impact," he says. "And that's very time consuming."
Sex trafficking in massage parlors is widespread across the country, Mjor says. It's a hard thing to track, but a report released earlier this year by Polaris, an anti-human trafficking organization, estimates that there are more than 9,000 illicit massage parlors currently open for business in the U.S. But, Mjor says, law enforcement devotes minimal resources to it. Spokane, he says, is "no different than any other metro area" when it comes to sex trafficking.
"It's actually a pretty large business that typically goes unnoticed and unsighted," he says.
That's why, on Jan. 1, the Washington State Patrol launched a new effort to help local law enforcement agencies proactively go after labor and sex trafficking. Whether it's sex trafficking or labor trafficking, the pattern is the same, Mjor says. Women are recruited to the U.S. and promised a good life, intending to seek citizenship. When they get here, it's not what they expected, and they are isolated and manipulated into working or performing sex acts for money. An analysis by Polaris found more than 17,500 Mandarin-language websites ads fraudulently recruiting women into massage jobs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.
From cases he's worked on in Western Washington, Mjor says massage parlors are often linked to those in California. The women are moved around, staying at one massage parlor for a few months before being sent to the next place, so they're never comfortable.
Women being exploited don't always outwardly show signs of it, says Erin Williams Hueter, Inland Northwest director of Lutheran Community Services, which helps victims of sexual assault and trafficking.
When the women find out they're expected to perform sexual acts, they fear consequences for speaking out, she says. They might be told they'll be the ones arrested or deported. They might be told their family at home will be harmed if they run away.
"And where are they gonna go? They don't speak the language. They don't know the area," Williams Hueter says. "Those natural fears are being played up by the people exploiting them."
The parking lots at Space Oil and Crystal Sea are usually empty. Employees in businesses nearby typically avoid the massage parlors. But business hasn't totally died, Johnson says.
Coverage from local TV stations has helped, he says. Shortly after the first raid on Space Oil, the spa had zero customers one day. After KXLY aired an interview with Johnson, that changed.
"We picked back up to 18 or 20 people," he says. "It propped us back up."
He maintains he has nothing to hide. But he can't explain why several people called Crime Check to report that women were being forced to perform sex acts. He says there's an in-house investigation on who said those things.
And when the Inlander asks to interview one of the women working at Crystal Sea, his mood turns. He doesn't want any negative news coverage.
If there is?
"We will find ways to deal with you people," he says. ♦