Let’s say you’re having lunch at the Villa Sombrero on York Boulevard, the Highland Park restaurant where families regularly celebrate birthdays and reunions in an old-world atmosphere. Across the street, next to a dental office and a traffic school, is an establishment with a red-colored metal door. If you look carefully, you'll notice that it’s an unremarkable place in every way—except that it attracts a steady stream of customers, almost every one of them male and more or less middle-aged.
“Come in, We’re Open,” reads the only sign outside the business. Wedged crudely between the metal bars on the door, the invitation is slightly misleading because nobody can enter unless they’re buzzed in.
Last Thursday, I walked into this business and found myself in a place that was a strange mix of the residential and the commercial. It was, for all practical purposes, a “massage parlor”—but it was a far cry from the luxury spas in vacation resorts where I have gone on a number of occasions to get my muscles kneaded.
For me, visiting this massage parlor was different in one other respect: I was accompanied by LAPD undercover officers in grungy T-shirts, with semiautomatic Glock pistols tucked into their jeans or long baggy shorts. They were part of the LAPD’s vice division conducting what they call a “police operation” against illegal massage parlors in the city that either don’t have the necessary permits to operate or are indulging in alleged prostitution.
Within Northeast L.A., I was told, the most recent drive against massage parlors before the one I was witnessing occurred two weeks ago. In raids on 10 establishments, eight people were ordered to comply with the city’s permit requirements and two people were arrested for ignoring previous warnings to run their businesses with proper permits, according to Officer Robert Berumen of the LAPD’s detective support and vice division. All the raids were conducted along Colorado Boulevard, from the 2 freeway to Eagle Rock.
From late March to early April, at least nine people were arrested for running massage parlors without proper documentation in Eagle Rock—and one woman was arrested for alleged prostitution.
For those residents of the The Rock who don’t yet know about the proliferation of massage parlors, here’s the lowdown: Eagle Rock has become something of a haven for the massage industry. Indeed, no longer is the neighborhood on the map only for its disproportionate share of the city’s medical marijuana dispensaries—a problem that the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council voted last January to bring to the attention of the federal government.
A quick google search turns up as many as 26 massage parlors within the 90041 Eagle Rock zip code alone—and they all solicit customers online. (See the attached pdf for details.) In fact, “prostitution isn’t on the streets anymore,” says Berumen, a veteran of the LAPD’s vice squad. “It’s in buildings, residences, offices—because of the internet you don’t have to be out there trying to attract customers.”
Prostitution, the suspects, is much more widespread than the number of arrests might suggest. In fact, at the ERNC’s monthly board meeting in March, Paul Habib, an official from the office of , said that cracking down on illegal massage parlors in and around Eagle Rock is one of Huizar’s top priorities.
My journey began at the LAPD Northeast division headquarters on San Fernando Road. After being briefed by a couple of detectives about what kind of access I would have to the operation, we left in as many as 10 unmarked vehicles, including a number of SUVs.
I was riding in a Prius, a good choice for undercover operations because it blends in well with traffic. What’s more, the car’s engine can barely be heard on hot days like today—even with the air conditioner on, detectives can park and discreetly watch a particular location without lowering the car's windows.
During our drive to York Boulevard, the two detectives assigned to accompany me—Officers Priest and Gillanni—point out several massage parlors on the way. “They pop up daily,” says Priest, explaining that massage parlors are a highly transitory type of establishment. “If a business doesn’t do well it closes and goes somewhere else,” says Priest, adding that most massage parlors in the area are located north of York Boulevard in Eagle Rock and Highland Park.
The massage parlor we’re headed to is located on 6114 York Blvd., and this will be the second time it’s being investigated. An undercover officer who had been to the parlor some time ago felt there was something fishy going on. We park our Prius on the northwest side of Branch Street, which intersects York and gives us a view of the massage parlor.
After some back and forth with his colleagues on the radio, Priest announces that an undercover officer is on his way to the massage parlor. I catch a glimpse of a bespectacled African American in a purple shirt sauntering east on the south side of York Boulevard, looking as inconspicuous as possible. He turns, just before the traffic school and dental office, and disappears from view.
“A lot of these operations are about just waiting—a lot of waiting,” explains Priest, who is dressed in a black T-shirt and light-gray trousers. Both Priest and Gillanni know the northeast area and its criminal history well. And they miss nothing—definitely not the bulky man with a shaved head standing across the street, waiting expectantly for someone or something.
A minute after the man disappears into a duplex, an SUV pulls into the driveway—followed by a sedan two minutes later. “Uh-oh, the shipment has arrived,” mutters Priest jocularly. “Someone’s going to get yelled at.”
By now, the African American undercover officer has entered the massage parlor. We wait patiently to find out if he will manage to get a “violation”—an offer or agreement on the part of the masseuse to perform a sexual act—or if the raid will end in something less dramatic.
Priest and Gillanni pass the time by making small talk. “They never found that guy who did that killing out here,” Priest says, referring to a murder that evidently occurred in a house a few years ago just blocks away from where we’re parked on Branch Street.
The details of the incident could have been straight out of a movie: The alleged murderer put the victim’s body in a car and was driving through Pasadena in an apparent effort to dispose the corpse when he got into an accident. “The car wouldn’t run, so he left his body in it and ran,” says Priest, adding that the Pasadena police have yet to find him.
“These massages last 30 minutes, so we got another 10 minutes left,” says Gillanni, looking at his wristwatch. “The plan is that even if he [the officer in the massage parlor] doesn’t get a violation, we’re going to go in and do a permit check.”
After a few minutes and some more small talk—this time about sports—the police radio crackles and Priest puts the hand-held Motorola device to his ear. “I think they said they’ve got a violation,” he announces.
TOMORROW: Part II of An Afternoon With the LAPD’s Vice Squad