Early Tuesday afternoon, law enforcement officers raided numerous locations across Spokane in an operation dubbed "Red Light" to crack down on prostitution in local massage parlors.
Multiple locations, including spas, massage parlors and private residences were hit by nearly simultaneously-executed raids around noon by 200 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies including the Airway Heights Police Department, Kalispel Tribal Police, Washington State Gambling Commission, Homeland Security Investigations, US Border Patrol, United States Marshals, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, Spokane Valley Police Department, Spokane Police Department, Liberty Lake Police Department and the Cheney Police Department.
There are eight massage parlors and spas operating in the Spokane area that were targeted by Tuesday's raids, including:
• Far East Oriental Spa - 213 E. Sprague
• Oriental Spa South - S. 515 Maple Street
• Montana's Spa - 7413 E. Trent Avenue
• Starlight Spa - 2829 N. Market
• Joe-Jean's Oriental Health Spa - 2712 N. Division
• Absolute Spa - 9415 E. Trent Avenue
• Oriental Spa - 827 E. Francis
• Asian Health Spa - 3130 N. Division
The search warrants were conducted based a 12 to 14 month-long investigation into prostitution, promoting prostitution, money laundering, criminal profiteering and controlled substances.
The raids took place at noon on Tuesday at all eight spa locations in Spokane and six homes, including one in Moses Lake. The owners of five of the spas were taken into custody and numerous items were seized as evidence.
One only had to look at the sign at the Far East Oriental Spa on Sprague Avenue directs customers to the "private" entrance on the back of the store to know what was going on inside. However infiltrating the operation and getting enough evidence to execute Operation "Red Light" was a lot more difficult.
Investigators say the Far East Oriental Spa, along with seven others across the city, was a front for prostitution, something auto detailer Pat McSpadden, who works across the street, has know about for years.
"Some of them can be good looking girls. They're not your average girl. I hate to stereotype anybody but they are not your typical Sprague girl," he said.
14 months ago some of the women tried to set up shop inside the Northern Quest Casino, but the Kalispel Tribal Police caught on quickly and turned to the Airway Heights Police Department's help to get the prostitutes out of the casino. At that point Chief Lee Bennett's department took over as the lead agency in the investigation.
"They became the lead agency in this year-long investigation, and through the course of that investigation they were able to determine that eight of our local spas were not really spas at all," Spokane Police spokesperson Officer Jennifer DeRuwe said.
So where one might expect to find massage tables, investigators instead found beds and sex toys.
"Each of these spas were different. In talking with the undercover officers and our (confidential informants) they all work about the same where a customer will come in, pay a door fee. Once that door fee is paid, then depending on what type of service that customer wants the price goes from there," Chief Bennett said.
The price easily approached $200 per session and they were pocketing as much as $10,000 a month. In addition to raiding the eight spas, investigators also raided the spa owners' homes to seize their properties as the proceeds of the prostitution rings.
"We're taking items both for criminal profiteering through ill-gotten gain as well as evidentiary items that we are seizing and storing in property rooms," Chief Bennett said.
Bennett said more than 200 women were involved in prostitution and illegal activities with the spas. Most of the women are in their 20's to 40's and there is a possibility underage girls were used.
"We don't believe anyone was going in for a massage," Bennett said.
Officers also scared several clients inside the spas during the raids. Those individuals were identified but not arrested.
Chief Bennett stressed that the investigation is not over. They will be following up with more phone calls, interviews, working with the judge in the case and they're also hoping that people call with tips.
Tuesday's raids at massage parlors across the city are just the latest effort, which has ranged in the past from lunchtime stings along Sprague Avenue to the 2007 apprehension of a prolific Spokane madam, to break prostitution rings operating in the area for many years.
Earlier this year, Spokane's Gang Enforcement Team executed search warrants at hotels in Spokane and Airway Heights, targeting a traveling group of prostitutes and pimps from Central California who had come to Spokane.
The more commonplace stings, however, are the ones Spokane police do along Sprague Avenue between Division and Havana where they'll employ an undercover female officer who will attempt to attract customers. In 2010, the Spokane Police Department reported there were as many as 100 known prostitutes who use the Sprague corridor to troll for clients.
One of the larger busts in recent years involved the shutdown of a prostitution ring that had been laundering money at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights.
Cheryl Larson, the madam behind the ring, ran five different escort services that openly advertised in the Yellow Pages. Larson admitted after her 2007 arrest that her business, which she had run for 14 years, was a front for prostitution and she had been using Northern Quest Casino as a location to introduce her prostitutes to potential customers.