When a man approached Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry in his front yard several months ago, he wasn't expecting the conversation to lead to an undercover sting exposing massage parlors as fronts for prostitution.
The man told Landry he had arrived at a massage parlor in Denham Springs looking for legitimate treatment from a licensed masseuse only to have "a scantily clad woman" greet him. He had suspicions the business was a front for commercial sex.
Concerned, Landry spoke with the Denham Springs police chief, Shannon Womack, who organized an operation to investigate the businesses. Undercover detectives scoped out three massage parlors: Green Land Spa on South Range Avenue, Apple Spa on Florida Boulevard West and Massage Life on Hummell Street.
At all three businesses, an employee tried to offer sexual services to the undercover officers for money, according to Chief Womack. The discovery led the city council to consider a new law that will restrict illegal activity in similar establishments.
"There’s no secret that there’s sex trafficking going on in this country and there’s no secret that massage parlors are ways for these young ladies to be abused," Landry said. "There are not enough local ordinances for us to properly manage those kinds of facilities."
Detectives say they found no evidence of human trafficking, which requires evidence of coercion and can be hard to prove without victim cooperation. Although in many cases, according to Womack, massage parlors engage in human trafficking to staff their businesses.
The investigation also discovered the massage parlors were using "blatantly sexual advertising" on "Backpage-like websites," the chief said, referencing a now-defunct online platform that used to run classified ads for commercial sex.
Authorities said charges are pending for both the business owners for keeping a disorderly place and the masseuses for prostitution by massage.
About a month ago, East Baton Rouge Parish deputies conducted their own sprawling investigation of massage parlors in the area, making several arrests on money laundering, criminal conspiracy, promoting prostitution and pandering counts.
As in the Denham Springs sweep, none of the arrestees face human trafficking charges. But deputies accused one of the defendants of "aiding in the concealment and transportation of individuals" involved in "possible human trafficking through acts of illicit massage."Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.
According to the Denham Springs police chief, one of the owners facing potential charges in their operation was also the owner of a parlor investigated in Baton Rouge. His name was not immediately available.
A recent legislative audit found the regulation system for massage parlors was a mess. During a two-year period, the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy had dismissed or closed investigations of 74% of complaints that included allegations of unprofessional conduct, sexually suggestive ads and signs of human trafficking, the audit found.
While board officials said they leave human trafficking investigations to law enforcement, auditors concluded the board had failed to establish criteria for dismissing cases and was not reviewing the decisions of its three-member investigating committee. Other states exercise tougher oversight, the audit found.
The Denham Springs ordinance would include restricting massage parlors from operating between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., as well as prevent their businesses from hanging curtains, closing blinds or tinting the windows to hide the front reception area, among other guidelines.
It would also require owners to post a clear list of services offered that masseurs cannot deviate from, and that they keep a "complete and legible written record" of each appointment, according to the ordinance draft.
Violations could include a fine and imprisonment for no more than 60 days.
"In no way is this intended to hurt any legitimate masseuse," Landry said.
Louisiana already has a state law that ensures massage parlors have licensed personnel, and prevents "a sexually oriented business" from registering and operating as a massage establishment. The state's criminal code also specifically restricts anyone working in a massage parlor from engaging in sexual activity.
The next city council meeting, which takes place Tuesday, will include an open hearing so residents can voice their opinions on whether the ordinance should pass.