Last charges in massage parlor case to be dropped Only 2 of 13 women successfully prosecuted

April 04, 1996|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,SUN STAFF

It was controversial from the start -- police officers paying masseuses to perform illegal sex acts.

Now it has become embarrassing as the Howard County state's attorney said yesterday she would drop charges against nine women of Korean descent accused of committing the sex acts.

State's Attorney Marna McLendon said it was difficult to prosecute the sex cases under the county's current massage-parlor licensing law -- though the 1994 law originally was intended to do just that.

"I'm hoping we will never be in the same position again and that there will be changes in the law," Ms. McLendon said.

Police now have little to show for a seven-month-long, $4,260 investigation of massage parlors that ended with the highly publicized arrests of parlor employees.

Charges will have been dismissed in 11 of the 13 cases. On- ly two of the 13 women charged in last year's investigation were successfully prosecuted. women agreed to surrender their licenses for a year in exchange for having their cases placed on the District Court's inactive docket.

Howard County police "have absolutely nothing to show for it," said Michael P. May, an attorney who represented two of the women whose cases were dismissed in Howard Circuit Court last week. "It's an awful waste of taxpayer money for absolutely nothing."

Vincent Guida, who represents the nine cases that will be dropped in District Court, added: "It is a good move for them to [not prosecute], and to treat this as a licensing violation and not as a criminal violation."

Police Chief James N. Robey would not comment on yesterday's decision by prosecutors.

The investigation began with some residents' complaints that massage parlors in eastern Howard County were dens of prostitution.

Police responded with an investigation that involved dozens of visits to the parlors by officers who paid about $100 per massage -- a total cost of $4,260.

The probe ended in October, with the 13 women charged with such violations as exposing their "erogenous areas," allowing customers to expose themselves and massaging the officers' private parts.

But the prospect of trial proved more uncomfortable for the police than it did for the defendants.

Mr. May and Clarke F. Ahlers, the defense lawyers for the two women scheduled for trial last week, sought to call as a witness the wife of one of the officers to try to impeach the officer's credibility. When a judge allowed that move, Chief Robey immediately asked prosecutors to drop the case.

Defense lawyers, in another effort to embarrass the police force, also asked for a nude photograph of another officer to find out why he wrote in a report that a masseuse "gasped" when he disrobed. The judge denied that request.

In a statement issued last week, Chief Robey expressed disappointment over the outcome of the criminal cases dismissed Friday, but he noted that the county has fined the owners of five of the massage parlors and suspended their licenses for 30 days.

The five owners paid about $3,000 each in fines and agreed to reimburse the county for the cost of massages for police officers. A sixth massage parlor in the probe has gone out of business.

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga said this week he is considering legislation that would make it difficult for the massage parlors not staffed by trained therapists to operate in Howard County.

Mr. Feaga said a provision could prohibit untrained technicians from massaging customers of the opposite sex.

He said he was waiting for the outcome of pending legislation in the General Assembly that would distinguish trained massage therapists from the "massage technicians" that have been the source of the county's headaches.

This is not the first time that Howard County has attempted in recent years to investigate massage parlors suspected of allowing illegal sex acts.

In May 1993, county police raided a spa on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, leading to the convictions of three women on prostitution charges. The women were ordered to pay $150 in fines and complete six months of probation.

In January 1994, police and the FBI raided three county massage parlors, arresting five women after an eight-month investigation. In those cases, the department paid informants to engage in sex acts.

Despite the legal setbacks in the most recent probe, F. Todd Taylor, an assistant county solicitor, defended the county's law, approved in February 1994 to license massage parlors and employees.

"The law did exactly what it set out to do. It provided a mechanism to resolve the illicit activity that went on," Mr. Taylor said. "Now the owners realize they can lose their license. If they lose their license, they'll be out of business."

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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