Javier De Jesus always thought it was strange that someone blacked out all the windows at the massage parlor across the street from his home, but was shocked when police said the busy studio was actually a front for prostitution.
He figured the Sunflower Spa was just a popular place for a massage.
“I had no idea, but it’s not good for the neighborhood, something like that,” De Jesus said.
At a news conference Thursday, Merced police confirmed making at least 34 arrests and citations since Sept. 18 during three undercover sting operations aimed at taking down suspected brothels and other areas known for prostitution. At least 24 of those arrested were customers or “johns,” police said.
One of those raids targeted the Sunflower Spa at 1014 W. 18th St. across from De Jesus’ home. “It’s very odd, strange,” De Jesus said. “It’s very good (that police) did that.”
Chief Norman Andrade said allegations against those arrested or cited in the case range from solicitation and assault to sex-trafficking a minor and attempted murder. The arrests were the product of a five-month investigation.
Andrade said recent spikes in sex crimes at two motels on West 16th Street – the Gateway Motel and Siesta Motel – triggered the stings, along with “rampant prostitution” in the area.
An incident involving a 17-year-old girl allegedly forced into prostitution also helped launch the investigation, and led to the arrests of two suspects: Anthony Brown, 30, and Christina Romero, 31.
Police were further motivated by a Sept. 15 incident in which three gang members were arrested after allegedly shooting a prostitute who refused to make change on a $100 bill. Officers also mentioned the June 19 stabbing of a man during an argument over a cellphone that he apparently tried to trade for sexual favors.
In response to the violence, five undercover officers posed as prostitutes and customers for sting operations Sept. 18 and 21 and Oct. 3-4. Lt. Tom Trindad said it remains unclear how many separate sex-trade operations were uncovered during the investigation. “Some of the women were operating independently, but some we believe may have been controlled by a pimp,” Trindad said. “We’re still working to determine how many may have been involved with people controlling their operations.”
Pravin Kumar Gandhi, owner of the Siesta Motel at 1347 W. 16th St., said he was not aware of any illegal activities going on inside his business. “I just rent the rooms,” Gandhi said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “The people have IDs, they pay the money, they stay here and go inside, and what they do, I don’t know anything about it.”
Gandhi said he would “always cooperate with police 100 percent.”
According to city business records, the owner of the Gateway Motel at 1407 W. 16th St. is Rajendar Presad, who did not return telephone calls seeking comment Thursday.
Less than a mile from the motels, police arrested two women they said were connected to a possible organized sex-trade operation at the Sunflower Spa massage parlor. Cuc Kim Nguyen and Thuy Tran were cited and released at the parlor, police reported.
Investigators said customers would pay for a massage and the masseuse would then offer “additional services” for more money. “We believe there was a connection, and the owners may have known what was going on,” Trindad said. “We’re still investigating.”
According to city business records, owner Zhu Ji has operated the spa since last year. Efforts to reach Ji by telephone and at the now-shuttered business were not successful.
Toni Quercia owns the Dash of Color beauty salon across from the the parlor. She was happy that the police shut it down. “There were guys coming and going all day and all night; it didn’t seem to matter what time it was,” Quercia said.
She recalled sitting outside with her young granddaughter when a man approached asking about “the back room” of a massage parlor. “It scared the crud out of me,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave here in the dark at night.”
Police also targeted Red Book, which they described as an online “dating service” business. Officers cited Arnee Butler, Melissa Wynne, Champagne Anderson and Caramia Morales for illegal activities, authorities said.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said sex trade exposes neighborhoods to a variety of troubling crimes, including theft and violence. “These are high-crime areas. The idea that these are victimless crimes is certainly counter to the evidence we have,” Morse said. “It invites more assaults, more drug trafficking and diminishes the quality of life of a neighborhood.”
Morse said criminal charges have yet to be filed against any of those arrested in connection with the three undercover stings, but said that would likely change once all the police reports are filed with his office.
Police are planning similar future efforts to reduce sex crimes in Merced.