Local massage parlors face allegations of prostitution

Crystal Massage on Shattuck Avenue and Berkeley Alouette on University Avenue were served with cease and desist notices in April,

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Three Berkeley massage parlors may be closed for good after city officials ruled that explicit online reviews support allegations of prostitution.

Crystal Massage on Shattuck Avenue, as well as Acupressure Health Center and Berkeley Alouette — both located on University Avenue — were served with cease and desist notices in April, and use permits for all three were revoked during a Zoning Adjustments Board hearing. Crystal Massage later signed a consent form and voluntarily gave up its permit with 120 days to vacate.

Berkeley City Council will review the board’s recommendation sometime in July.

According to city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, the remaining two parlors have not yet signed consent forms but may have vacated their spaces anyway. However, in a telephone call to Crystal Massage on Friday, an employee who answered the phone said they were still open.

Clunies-Ross also said the owners of the commercial properties may face legal penalties for their tenants’ actions.

At the zoning board’s April 26 meeting, Berkeley Code Enforcement Supervisor Gregory Daniel and Deputy City Attorney Laura McKinney presented numerous reviews from Rubmaps and myRedBook, online guides to adult services. Rubmaps reviews feature anonymous users recounting sexual experiences and provide intimate details about the women’s bodies.

“When you are referring to their body part of ‘kitty’ as ‘natural,’ as ‘trimmed,’ as ‘partially shaved,’ what else is that?” said board member Deborah Matthews.

According to McKinney, the online reviews, which span several years, provide enough evidence to prove that the three massage parlors were engaging in prostitution.

Attorneys representing the three massage parlors attended the hearing and condemned the findings as hearsay and said there was insufficient evidence.

Henry Hu, representative for Acupressure Health Center, called the online reviews “unfounded” and “malicious,” arguing that they could have been created by competing establishments.

But McKinney pointed out that there were reviews for other Berkeley parlors as well.

“If a legitimate business was concerned about it being painted in a negative light or in a light that was engaging in illegal conduct, they would have taken some action to eliminate themselves from these websites,” she said at the hearing.

Both Berkeley Alouette and Accupressure Health Center advertise on myRedBook. Berkeley Alouette’s advertisement reads, in part: “We want to get our hands on RB gentlemen.” Although Crystal Massage does not have a similar listing on the site, its ads have appeared in the back pages of East Bay Express, next to advertisements for escort services.

Joseph Morehead, the attorney representing Crystal Massage, said at the hearing that the revocation of the use permits will result in unfair consequences for his clients.

“They will lose their jobs,” Morehead said. “They will lose their occupations without any type of due process.”

Daniel said the investigation began after two other Berkeley massage parlors, South Sea Studio and Healing Hands Massage, were shuttered in 2011.

“After we did shut those two down, we noticed there was a sudden rise in the number of massage parlor applications being submitted,” Daniel said. “In most instances the same person would come back with a different woman.”

According to Daniel, the three establishments were also in violation of a city code which requires all masseuses to be licensed. He also discovered women working at the parlors who were not listed on the city establishment permits.

Although Rubmaps lists a total of 16 massage parlors in the city, Berkeley Police Department  spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said law enforcement does not always have the resources to investigate. Of the massage parlors closed down within the last few years, many were handled by city government instead of undercover officers.

“We often will enlist the city to approach the massage parlor with the zoning or business license angle because it’s more successful,” Kusmiss said.

Following the closure of the three parlors, nervous chatter appeared on the Bay Area message board on myRedBook, as users expressed outrage and warned each other to be careful.

Although City Council has yet to review the recommendation, board members like Michael Alvarez Cohen believe the zoning violations alone are damning enough.

“We can quibble about these staff reports and the accuracy,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of evidence that these people have not met the requirements of their permit. Just on that alone, we can move forward.”

A May 29 amendment to the chapter of the municipal code concerning massage establishment permits will make it a challenge for the parlors to re-apply for permits if theirs have ever been revoked, and requests could even be denied outright.

View the zoning board agenda involving the hearing here: