Massage parlors are more than just the punch line for a joke. Some are known to be havens for crime. For months, FactFinder 12 Investigators have worked to learn more about massage parlor activities in Wichita.
A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court charges three people with operating a human trafficking ring out of several Wichita massage parlors. According to the July 2013 complaint, suspect Gary Kidgell told an investigator he and his wife moved to Wichita from California after learning about the massage business and the city’s “lack of massage parlor regulations.”
Wichita Police say they’ve identified 29 businesses that are fronts for prostitution, money laundering and other crimes. Some of these places post provocative ads on Craigslist. Other websites list places in the city that offer more than just massages. Clients share reviews and talk in graphic detail about the price of sexual services.
“Something where you are manipulating another person's body should be under the direction of something, says certified massage therapist Jennifer Gaylord. “I mean you have to have a license to cut someone's hair."
Gaylord has hundreds of hours of training. Her business, Spiritouch, has an "A" rating with the Better Business Bureau. She says places that offer sexual services give all healing therapists a bad name.
When Gaylord opened her business in 2009, she went to the City of Wichita to get a license. She was “shocked” to learn it wasn’t required.
However, FactFinder 12 learned city law does require a license. Details are outlined in a strongly worded 1978 ordinance – an ordinance the city has chosen not to enforce for more than a decade.
Section 3.56 of the city code requires a massage business be licensed and pay a $500 fee. All employees who give massages must pay for a yearly permit. Failure to have a license or permit is punishable by up to a year in jail.
The ordinance spells out specific training and health requirements It requires police to investigate all applicants. There's a subsection devoted to sexual contact that even prohibits a person from performing a massage on a member of the opposite sex.
In accordance with the Kansas Open Records Act, FactFinder 12 asked the City of Wichita to provide licensing information for massage businesses for the past three years. The city responded with an email reading “no documents exist”. The city legal department also answered “none” when asked how much money has been collected for licensing fees and how many citations were issued since 2011.
Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebensdorf says the city stopped issuing licenses and permits around the year 2000 because of concerns it exposed the city to lawsuits.
“We advised the police department that the ordinance was not enforceable and therefore you cannot issue a citation under it,” says Rebensdorf.
In 2003, the city tried to rewrite the law to put more focus on training and certification and less focus on criminalizing the industry. The 2003 council voted it down unanimously. Efforts to pass statewide licensing restrictions have also failed.
“It is a concern and we're being proactive about how we address it as an organization," says Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams. Williams doesn't think police need a licensing requirement to stop the criminal activity in massage parlors. He says the formation of a vice unit in 2008 and the addition of more resources to that unit last year have helped police control things.
Since 2008, WPD has investigated 29 massage businesses for criminal activity. Detectives have made 14 arrests for prostitution in 2003. They made 16 in the previous three years combined. Williams says that's proof the expanded approach is working.
“Our hands aren't tied as far as dealing with criminal activity. We're taking care of business," he says.