The arrest last week of the owners of massage businesses in Nevada City and Auburn highlighted a murky world of possible sex trafficking that seemed unlikely in this small Gold Rush community.
But while the investigation is ongoing, Auburn Police Chief John Ruffcorn said evidence seized during the July 9 warrant searches confirmed that some of the workers were forced into prostitution.
Xiu Jie “Julie” Feng, 48, and Phillip Hudson, 57, were arrested by a multi-jurisdictional force from Placer County, Nevada City, Auburn and the state Department of Justice after warrants were served at a residence and two massage businesses.
Nevada City Police Chief Tim Foley said his department had been receiving complaints about Oriental Health Therapy, in the 300 block of Railroad Avenue. Earlier this year. Nevada City Police Officer Scott Goin started investigating the allegations, and Auburn Police detectives had been looking into similar allegations at Asian Massage Therapy & Foot in Auburn.
It was determined that Feng and Hudson co-owned the businesses; Feng is the only person listed with a massage license at both businesses, but her license reportedly is fraudulent.
“Whenever you look at pimping and prostitution, there is a possibility of human trafficking,” Ruffcorn said. “We decided that was happening there, so we expedited the warrants to remove (the workers) from that situation.
“We know people were there who were indentured to perform sexual acts,” Ruffcorn continued. “The concern here is the victims … We need to figure out how they got here. There are a lot of moving parts; we might find they are all here legally. We need to make sure they get services — we’re being very methodical.”
According to Ruffcorn, his department is working with state and federal agencies on the complex investigation, looking into visas and passports.
Feng was arrested on suspicion of pimping, pandering, human trafficking and conspiracy, while Hudson was arrested on suspicion of pimping, pandering and conspiracy.
They will be prosecuted in Placer County, but a criminal complaint has not yet been filed, according to the District Attorney’s office.
Ruffcorn refused to be more specific about what led his department to charge Feng with trafficking, citing the ongoing investigation.
“If you have a massage parlor, the possibility exists,” he said. “We’re chasing down (information) that could lead to other jurisdictions.”
When local massage therapist Jessa Krissovich started working on a fundraiser a few months ago to raise awareness of sex trafficking, she said, everyone she talked to thought she was crazy.
“People were looking at me and saying, that doesn’t happen here,” Krissovich said.
Krissovich said she had long suspected the Nevada City massage business was not legitimate. Tip-offs to prostitution fronts, she said, include advertising in the back pages of weeklies, on Craigslist and on websites devoted to erotic massage.
“No professional therapist will be advertising in the erotic section,” she said.
Krissovich lives in Grass Valley and opened her business, Natural Wellness Massage, in Auburn a year ago after moving here from Reno.
“Coming from bigger cities, I’m more aware of the issue,” she said. “It’s a big topic in my profession.”
Krissovich said that woman often are groomed for prostitution from a very young age, or forced into it to pay debts.
“They think they’re criminals when they’re the victims,” she said.
The Sacramento area has been overwhelmed by complaints regarding massage parlors, according to Krissovich, who noted the organized crime element to the prostitution fronts.
“You can only sell drugs once, but you can sell a woman over and over again,” she said. “A lot of these places will just shut down and open again in another location,”
She decided — months before the recent arrests made headlines — to host a fundraiser dedicated to raising awareness of human trafficking.
“I’ve been very upset over the whole issue,” she said. “It bothered me so much, I felt I had to do something.”
Krissovich has organized Massage 4 Hope, scheduled for Oct. 4-5, with massage therapists donating their time and with all proceeds going to benefit Courage Worldwide, a Roseville-based organization that houses girls rescued from commercial sexual exploitation.
According to Stephanie Midthun, the Community Resource Director for Courage Worldwide, the organization currently has one home in Placer County and one in Tanzania.
“We are prototyping the homes, we plan to open more around the world,” she said. “At the Placer house, we have six beds — we had to turn away 45 girls since January because we were full. Our goal is to expand to 60 beds.” Midthun said Courage Worldwide is currently in the fundraising and permitting process for that expansion.
“We get girls from all over the nation, but predominantly from California,” she said. “We have had girls from cities, and from rural areas — it’s everywhere. People are shocked that it’s literally in their backyard. But this is happening, really, in every city.”
For more information on the Massage 4 Hope fundraiser, call 530-415-4110 or go to AuburnMassageTherapist.com.
For more information on Courage Houses, go to www.courageworldwide.org; members of that organization will be speaking at Twin Cities Church on Nov. 18.
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.