Prostitution rumors lead to closing of massage shop

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2007 - 4:49 PM

Owner Jeremy Hansen says his Massage Room Wellness Center in southwest Minneapolis did not engage in sex for money.

Tucked among a strip of small businesses and a trendy restaurant in a quiet southwest Minneapolis neighborhood, The Massage Room Wellness Center operated with little fanfare since March.

Swedish Massage: $70 for an hour. Deep Tissue: 10 bucks more. Gift certificates also available.

Owner Jeremy Hansen checked the backgrounds of the therapists, hiring only those who provided certification or proof of an acceptable level of training.

He heard the occasional customer complaint about an unsatisfactory massage, but took pride knowing he was bringing a helpful service to the community surrounding W. 54th Street and Penn Avenue S.

But then neighbors and business owners started to wonder why the majority of the center's clientele were men and if Hansen knew about the provocative clothing worn by several therapists. In August, an undercover officer alleged he was offered sex for money during a massage session.

Though the woman has yet to be charged, a few weeks later, Hansen's landlord received a letter from the city threatening closure of her building for a year if there was any more illegal activity.

So Hansen got the boot, and he now fears a similar business he operates in downtown Minneapolis could be unfairly damaged.

"If the therapist did something, that would make me sick. But she repeatedly told me nothing happened," Hansen said. "My stomach has been in knots over this."

The case has led to an internal affairs investigation. Surveillance video from the center showed the undercover officer standing naked in front of the arrested woman and another therapist after the bust. Hansen said the women were "disgusted by this," and it was clear the officer had time to cover up before dealing with them.

Lt. Don Banham, who supervises the officer, forwarded the video to the internal affairs unit to determine if any disciplinary action will be taken.

But Banham had no doubt police should have investigated Hansen's business at 5410 Penn Av. S. He said police received numerous phone calls and e-mails questioning the legitimacy of the wellness center, and it was a hot topic of conversation at monthly meetings of the Armatage Neighborhood Association. After days of surveillance, Banham had an undercover officer pose as a customer the evening of Aug. 29.

"The officer established language and behavior that he felt was inappropriate and consistent with what would be a prostitution offer," he said. "The offer our officer received augmented all the complaints."

A man in another room in the center was cited for loitering. The woman's case has been presented to the city attorney's office for review for potential charges, Banham said.

"We were very pleased at the police response because we were stunned at what was going on," said Noah Schuchman, president of the Armatage Neighborhood Association.

Hansen is miffed that neighborhood gossip eventually led to the end of his business. Before the bust, he would have liked the chance to talk to police, residents and business owners to clear up any misunderstandings.

Hansen complained that police haven't been sharing enough information about what happened that night. Since then, Banham has had at least two meetings and several phone conversations with Hansen to address issues. They discussed better ways to handle his business, including more thorough employee background checks.

"Maybe he needs to look at what was going on at his establishment and not reject the possibility some employees engaged in inappropriate behavior," Banham said.

Hansen adamantly denies any illegal activity at the center.

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