- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Montgomery County, Md., frustrated by prostitution operations that flourish despite police crackdowns and criminal prosecutions, is trying a different tactic: Civil lawsuits designed to hit flesh peddlers in the pocketbook.

The county last week filed civil lawsuits against two "massage" parlors in Wheaton that officials say are prostitution fronts. Those suits, officials hope, are the first step in eliminating 17 other parlors all suspected prostitution operations in Rockville, West Potomac, Germantown and Gaithersburg.

"I think it is the only thing that is going to be effective," said Assistant County Attorney James C. Savage. "If we are successful with these two cases, we can use it as a remedy in the other cases."

Montgomery County modeled their lawsuits, Mr. Savage said, on a similar effort undertaken 14 years ago in Prince George's County.

Maryland's Court of Special Appeals in 1986 ruled that local courts could find such businesses in contempt if they persist in prostitution after police have successfully convicted prostitutes in those businesses.

"It effectively closed down those operations," said Sean Wallace, now county attorney for Prince George's County.

The first two Montgomery County lawsuits are aimed at the owners and operators of Spa Capri in the 11300 block of Amherst Avenue and the A-One-T, a brick house across from Wheaton Plaza in the 2900 block of University Boulevard West.

If a judge rules in the county's favor in March, as officials expect, owners-operators of those businesses will lose bonds of $10,000 and $100,000 if prostitution continues to occur in those properties.

The owners-operators will have to allow unscheduled searches by authorities. They will have to record the names, addresses and drivers licenses of the customers and list the services provided by parlor employees.

The lawsuits and criminal convictions of Spa Capri prostitutes in District Court on Dec. 7 indicate that prostitutes working there are originally from Asia. Many are based in New York, but are moved from house to house and city to city.

At least three women testified in December that they had no training in massage therapy and "in fact, were employed as cooks at restaurants in New York," Assistant State's Attorney Kristen Bender stated.

The women are recent immigrants who "were marginally employable," the lawsuits state.

"They are brought in by the carload," Miss Bender said. "They are cycled. That makes it more difficult to prosecute."

The bogus massage parlors must be making lots of money because they are buying ads every day in newspapers, usually in the sports sections. "No legitimate business could afford those ads," Mr. Savage said. "They are notoriously public."

Bogus massage parlors are easy to spot. They typically stay open late, customers stay about 45 minutes and they are all male.

"Women seek massages more than men," Mr. Savage explained.

"All of the individuals observed entering the location were males," police stated in the lawsuits.

A neighbor woman went into A-One-T in September. She was greeted by a female who was dressed in a nightgown. "The woman came out and said, 'That's nothing but a sex shop,' " Mr. Savage said.

After a month of surveillance, police raided A-One-T. They seized $800 and arrested two women, charging them with prostitution and being present in a bawdyhouse.

A-One-T was found guilty of operating a house of prostitution during the months of September and October 2000.

The same day, Oct. 5, police raided Spa Capri, seizing $7,954 and a supply of condoms and arresting four women. The spa consists of six cubicles with massage tables, a shower with a massage table and a room with several mattresses laid out on the floor.

"I saw a refrigerator and hot plate and suitcases containing female garments and cosmetics. It appeared that the occupants were using the business location as an area for their residence," said police Officer Michael Herbert.

"[The immigrant women] are looking for money to get by," Mr. Savage said. "They're being victimized as well."

By Maryland law, massage therapists must complete 500 hours of instruction and be licensed. But there is an exception that does not require licensing when registered as a health club with the office of Maryland's attorney general.

The prostitution problem is "fairly long-standing" in Montgomery County, Miss Bender said, explaining that the State's Attorney's Office became aware of it last summer soon after setting up a community prosecution system.

Complaints come from residents and businesses near the so-called massage parlors. They complain about loud or boisterous customers and express concerns about the safety of neighborhood children.

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said he is optimistic about the new effort.

"By targeting the owners rather than the employees, we stand a better chance of putting a permanent stop to prostitution in Montgomery County," Mr. Duncan said.

A-One-T defendants named in the lawsuit are Jean O. Ham, of Laurel; Lillianne Nguyen, of Potomac; Lillian Tran and Minh Hong, of Silver Spring; Kimi Docherty, of Rockville, and Jung S. Kim, of Fairfax.

Spa Capri defendants are Joanne Fullerton, and Hudson Realty, of Wheaton; Coco Health and Fitness Inc., and Eun Hwa Lee, of Germantown; Hyang Yim Vindal, of Alexandria, and Ok Kim, Hae B. Cook, Na Lee, and Ju Ha, all of Wheaton.

Eun Hwa Lee, owner of Coco Health and Fitness, testified at the District Court trial. She said all employees were required to sign "an acknowledgment form" prohibiting sexual activities. She said Hae B. Cook was fired the day after the raid when Eun Hwa Lee learned about sexual charges.

Yesterday, none of the defendants could be contacted, or had filed answers to the lawsuits in Circuit Court. The cases are scheduled for hearing March 8.

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