In the first sting operation of its kind for the Seattle Police Department’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit, detectives set up shop in a massage parlor they had shut down in the spring. They never expected the volume of business they got from men seeking sex.
One man reached up her skirt the moment he crossed the threshold of the tiny storefront on Roosevelt Way Northeast in Seattle’s University District.
Later, as he sat in handcuffs in the vacant apartment above the ground-floor massage parlor, he prayed aloud, begging to be let go and asking someone to call his pastor.
His pleas went unanswered.
So did the cries of help from a guy in his 20s, who screamed that his life was over as he slipped the grasp of a Seattle police officer during his escort to a transport van for the ride to the King County Jail. With his hands cuffed behind his back, he didn’t run far before he was caught.
Yet another man who was arrested for sexual exploitation on Sunday returned Monday. He stood across the street and used his cellphone to video record the goings-on at the sting location of the undercover police operation — and earned himself a second charge for obstruction.
All told, members of the Seattle Police Department’s Vice & High Risk Victims Unit arrested 204 men during the 10-day operation that began July 5, netting more than $22,000 in cash — money the men handed over expecting to be sexually serviced by a handful of undercover female officers, or UCs.
“We never anticipated this volume,” Sgt. Tom Umporowicz said of the brisk business at the police-operated Euro Spa, the first sting operation of its kind in the city. He estimated court fines from the operation — $2,733 for a first-time offender, with repeat offenders paying more — will total at least $550,000.
Formerly known as Bamboo Spa, the business was shut down in May by Umporowicz and his squad, along with a second location, Cherry Spa, a few blocks north on Roosevelt. He said the businesses had been the subject of an anonymous vice complaint a couple of months earlier, which prompted an undercover investigation into prostitution at both massage parlors.
“People complain about these massage parlors all the time,” Umporowicz said. “It’s not like we’ve focused on something where no one else sees a problem.”
King County prosecutors charged the businesses’ owner, 38-year-old Ling Gao, with two counts of second-degree promoting prostitution in connection with two of the five Chinese nationals she is accused of prostituting from the two locations. Though she claimed “business is very slow” and “makes no money,” detectives seized $24,561 in cash and numerous receipts for Western Union money transfers to China from her apartment in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, charging papers say.
The woman who owns the building that housed Bamboo Spa “was horrified” to learn her property was allegedly being used for criminal activity — and readily agreed to allow the vice unit to set up shop there, Umporowicz said.
He had a sign made up, announcing the grand opening of Euro Spa and offering the services of a “Western European Masseuse.” The sign is decorated with the silhouetted images of a woman crouching in high heels.
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The interior — with a cramped reception area up front and two small rooms, each with a massage table and cherry blossoms painted on the walls — remains unchanged from its time as Bamboo Spa, with the cops using equipment and supplies they seized as evidence in the case against Gao.
Umporowicz’s detectives posted ads for Euro Spa on backpage.com, a website notorious for advertising escorts and massage parlors in thinly veiled posts for paid sex.
For the “average john,” hiring an escort “is a crapshoot … because you don’t know who is going to show up at the door,” Umporowicz said. Picking up a woman on Aurora Avenue North is also risky since “you could easily get … ripped off and you’re more visible to law enforcement,” he said.
“Most of these guys going to massage parlors think they’re fairly safe. And the sure thing is always part of the dynamic,” Umporowicz said, noting that not a single woman came into Euro Spa for a massage.
The men his unit has arrested over the past week and a half have come from all walks of life, he said. Two bus drivers, six architects, dozens of technology employees, construction workers, two surgeons, a dentist, a nurse, a journalist, a couple of attorneys, an executive with a sports-management company and an aspiring law- enforcement officer are among the customers who’ve been caught up in the police sting, according to Umporowicz.
The unit also arrested a registered sex offender and a man carrying a large stash of drugs, he said.
At the request of some of the men, detectives have retrieved wedding rings, firearms and cellphones from their cars and kept an eye on one man’s dog during the roughly four hours he was in jail.
One detective even recognized a couple of guys who had already attended the class he teaches as part of the city’s “john school,” which is offered through a diversion program for men after their first sex-buying offense.
In many of the vice unit’s earlier stings, men were arrested then released, later receiving summonses in the mail. But Umporowicz’s chain of command has stressed that whenever police resources allow, there should be mandatory jail bookings for men arrested for sexual exploitation. It’s the relatively new name adopted by the City Attorney’s Office for the misdemeanor crime of what used to be known as patronizing a prostitute.
The hope is that the experience of changing into orange jail garb, being photographed and fingerprinted, and undergoing the jail’s process of verifying names, addresses and phone numbers will serve as a future deterrent for men arrested during the sting, Umporowicz said.
Still, a good 90 percent of the men arrested claimed they had “just come in for a massage,” he said.
But Umporowicz said he had coached all of his UCs to be blatant in their offers of sexual services to the men who called to set up appointments or arrived at Euro Spa as “walk-ins.” The men were all informed of the prices up front: $100 for “an adult hand massage,” with oral sex costing $140 and full sex, $200.
Over the course of the operation, several men walked out, either because they were looking for legitimate massages or because they were disappointed there weren’t any Asian women working there, according to Umporowicz and a veteran UC who the unit’s detectives refer to as “the vice queen.”
Dressed in a tight tank top, a short skirt and four-inch heels, the UC is a detective in one of SPD’s other specialty units but regularly works with the vice unit during prostitution stings.
“She’s three times better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said one of Umporowicz’s vice detectives, praising his colleague’s “silver tongue” in making men comfortable to agree to pay for sex.
“When I’m talking to them up front, I’m also doing this,” the UC said, using her hand to mime a sex act, “so it’s very obvious.”
“Umpy says they (customers) think they’re God’s gift to women, and I try to make them feel that,” said the UC, referring to Umporowicz by his unit nickname. “I don’t get freaked out by the words and the language and what they want to do. I’m not shocked by anything.”
Working the Euro Spa sting has given her a new appreciation for how little respect is shown to “all these girls from these other countries” who often work 12- or 14-hour days in massage parlors and don’t keep any of the money they bring into a business.
Some of the men have groped her while others have demanded a “line up” to select their pick of the UCs — and just about all of them have tried to haggle over price, she said.
“Some guys won’t even hand me the money — they throw it on the bed or they throw it on the floor,” she said. “It’s degrading … They would never treat their wives or girlfriends or someone they were trying to pick up in a bar like that.”