Minneapolis City Council members voted Tuesday to deny a business license for Orchid Massage and Spa on grounds that it was a thinly veiled house of prostitution.
The owner, Julia Wang, denied that she allows sex acts to occur in her south Minneapolis business, and was in tears outside council chambers after the vote.
“I’m a citizen,” she said. “I have children to raise.”
City investigators told council members that Wang’s business was suspicious in several ways.
Neighbors complained that customers parked blocks away when they visited. Wang didn’t have employment records for a woman who was watching the business on the day of an inspection, and told inspectors she’d just met the woman that day.
When investigators visited in November, they noted a boarded-up front window, an “unwelcoming, unkempt” interior, a lot of food and cooking equipment and an unusual amount of clothing and other goods, leading them to conclude that employees used the business as a long-term residence, a sign of sex trafficking.
The internet footprint of the business is conspicuous. Wang advertised on BackPage.com, a website well-known for hawking commercial sex, and claimed to have “hot Asian masseuses” and free showers. The massage business has been reviewed on RubMaps, a website that bills itself as a place for customers to review massage parlors “where fantasy meets reality.”
But none of this is evidence of sex trafficking, Wang and her lawyers said Tuesday. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to leave the store in the charge of a woman she’d met that morning while she ran an errand, but that’s what Wang did, her lawyer Randall Tigue said, and it was not a violation of a city ordinance.
Wang said she keeps food there because she and her employees — all independent contractors — like to make a hot lunch each day.
Wang, who moved to the U.S. from China in 2003 and has since gained citizenship, bought the massage business in spring 2015. The storefront is near the corner of 50th Street and 34th Avenue South, in a neighborhood a few blocks west of Minnehaha Park.
In a key piece of evidence Tuesday, city staff said Wang admitted sex acts may have occurred at her business in the past. Wang, who listened to the hearing with the help of an interpreter, said her words have been twisted.
She can’t guarantee it has never happened, but she doesn’t tolerate it, she said.
“Not on my watch,” she said. “I’m trying my best not to have anything like that happen in my store.”
The Community Development and Regulatory Services Committee’s vote to deny Wang’s license was unanimous. One of her lawyers, Ryan Kaess, said if the full City Council decides to deny Wang’s business license, she will appeal the decision to the state Court of Appeals.
“There were never any sexual services in this place. None. Zilch,” Kaess said.