After years of violations, penalties and criminal investigations, City Attorney Dennis Herrera is seeking to shutter Queens Health Center and its illicit activities
SAN FRANCISCO (Feb. 14, 2017)—City Attorney Dennis Herrera is suing the owners of a Financial District massage parlor for operating a covert brothel and violating an egregious number of local laws and the California Red Light Abatement Law. Queens Health Center has been operating as a brothel out of 325 Kearny St. since at least April 2010 despite numerous violations, administrative penalties, and law enforcement investigations conducted to stop its unlawful activity.
The complaint filed in San Francisco Superior Court today names Queens Health Center owner Jie Qin Zhou and, through their trustee, Frank B. Iavarone, a series of trusts that have owned the property. The suit alleges that the defendants are in violation of the California Red Light Abatement Law (Penal Code sections 11225-11235) and have engaged in unfair and unlawful business practices. This is the first time in recent history that the city has filed a civil suit under a violation of the Red Light Abatement Law to shutter a place of prostitution. The city has used that law to shut down illegal gambling dens, most recently in 2015.
“Massage parlors operating as fronts for prostitution are a blight on our neighborhoods and put women and the community at risk,” Herrera said. “Queen’s Health Center is one of the worst offenders. Over the years, city agencies have found multiple violations, issued fines and even suspended its business permit. But the business owner, Jie Qin Zhou, has repeatedly come up with new ways to hide and flout the law. No more.
“This lawsuit sends a clear message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. It will also deter other would-be brothel owners from exploiting women. And it puts property owners on notice that they have a responsibility to ensure their commercial tenants are not exploiting women. I want to be clear: This lawsuit takes on the business owner and the property owner—the people who profit off the exploitation of women. I want to thank the Department of Public Health and the San Francisco Police Department for all their assistance in this case. Their outstanding work has allowed us to build a strong case, and we hope to shutter this unlawful operation once and for all.”
Department of Public Health inspectors have repeatedly cited the business owner for health code violations dating back to 2010.
“Women who work in massage parlors must be protected against coercion and exploitation,” said San Francisco Director of Health Barbara Garcia. “I’m proud of our health inspectors and their dedication to protect these workers, in partnership with law enforcement.”
Supervisor Katy Tang, who has made protecting massage workers and weeding out massage parlors engaged in illicit activity one of her signature issues, applauded the lawsuit.
“It is troubling when restaurants and other legitimate businesses have a harder time getting permits and staying open in San Francisco as compared to illegal businesses fronting as massage establishments,” Tang said. “Most importantly, I want to ensure that anyone who is working at a massage business is treated properly and paid adequately, and there is no human trafficking occurring.”
According to the complaint and declarations of police officers, investigators and health inspectors, Queens Health Center has regularly solicited prostitution since 2010 through lurid advertisements on backpage.com, craigslist and other online and print sources known for soliciting erotic services. The advertisements depict scantily clad women in provocative clothing and highlight the ethnicities of the women available for customers to choose from for their “massages.” Queens is also included on an online review website that allows prostitution customers to anonymously comment on and rate services received from prostituted massage practitioners.
On several occasions, Department of Public Health inspectors made findings of prostitution, lewd conduct and improper attire at the parlor and issued numerous violations of the health code regulating massage practices. These include employing unlicensed massage practitioners, a nude massage practitioner and nude customer together inside a massage room, and a May 2013 inspection where 10 massage practitioners were all found wearing lingerie. Lingerie was also found at the location on separate inspections.
Police investigations resulted in similar findings that prostitution was rampant. In May 2014 the San Francisco Police Department interviewed multiple massage customers who stated that they were present for the purpose of purchasing sex and had paid for sex at the parlor before. On at least three undercover operations, massage practitioners solicited the undercover officers for sexual intercourse.
In addition, Queens Health Center has implemented various tactics to hide their illegal activity from authorities and prevent them from entering the premises. Security cameras outside the building and a buzzer system are used to control entry. Doorstops inside the massage room doors are maintained to delay inspectors entry or keep law enforcement from gaining access to the room. The parlor also used a light switch system to warn practitioners when law enforcement or inspectors were present. Lights in each of the operating rooms were controlled from a switch in a common area that could be flipped on and off to warn the practitioners.
Even after the Department of Public Health suspended Queens’ massage license for 60 days over the summer of 2016, Queens re-opened and went right back to exploiting women, as subsequent undercover operations discovered.
Given the defendants outright refusal to follow the law and to stop the prostitution, Herrera is asking the court to do several things. They include: close the business for a year; sell the business’ fixtures and movable property at auction, with proceeds going to fund enforcement; and levy monetary penalties against the property owner and business owner. Those penalties include up to $25,000 for allowing prostitution to occur on the premises; at least $200 for each day in violation of the Planning Code; and $2,500 for each unlawful business act.
The case is: City and County of San Francisco and People of the State of California v. Queens Health Center et al., San Francisco Superior Court case no. CGC-17-557054, filed Feb. 14, 2017. Additional documentation from the case is available on the City Attorney’s website at: https://www.sfcityattorney.org/.
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