Upland Now Beset With Uptick In Massage Parlors Doubling As Cheap Brothels

Upland, which has long touted itself as the City Of Gracious Living, more recently finds itself beleaguered with a somewhat less flattering reputation as the host of a handful of low class houses of ill repute.
These houses of prostitution are not the more resplendent establishments of earlier American tradition with velour-upholstered couches and a piano player on the ground floor with comfortable rooms upstairs where one might actually spend the night if so inclined but rather the quick, in-and-out and you’re out the door with $40 or $50 less in your pocket variety.
Perhaps the most obvious signal of the prostitution trade’s advent in Upland is one that has existed for years, the Tropical Lei Theater near the western extreme of the city on Foothill Blvd. In its earlier manifestation as an adult bookstore, it became the battleground over locking doors on its video-viewing booths, where the city said prostitution activity was ongoing. The city eventually won that first round, but the bookstore has been displaced by a topless bottomless female review, where it is no secret customers, for a fee, can get themselves taken care of.
The other factor boosting the flesh trade in Upland stems from the more than half- century long tradition of massage establishments in San Bernardino County serving as fronts for prostitution operations and the more recent trend of massage businesses setting up operation in Upland.
At least since the 1970s, a large number of massage parlors have proliferated in and around the unincorporated areas of Bloomington, Devore, Red Mountain and Muscoy as well as in the unincorporated county land surrounding, between and adjoining the Ontario, Montclair and Chino. The illicit prostitution trade was able to flourish in some measure with the indulgence and under the protection of the sheriff’s department, as several successive sheriffs and operators of houses of ill repute throughout the far flung county had worked out a modus vivendi, which included bribes, payoffs, graft, political support and other arrangements of accommodation. Vestiges of that more open era yet survive, as the bordellos that are thinly veiled as massage parlors along the span of Mission Boulevard in the unincorporated county area bordering Ontario and Montclair north of Chino attest.
In recent years, societal and demographic shifts have resulted in the sex trade in the particular form involving massage parlors expanding out of the unincorporated county areas into cities. Nowadays, internet and websites and blogs pointedly reference the availability of sex for sale, providing in some cases exacting specificity as to services rendered and locale. Relatively recently there has been a significant rise in the number of Asian immigrants operating such establishments in San Bernardino County. Because political and jurisdictional nuance is lost on many of these new practitioners of the prostitution trade, they have established their operations in city’s such as Upland. A manifestation of this new reality loomed into view roughly a decade ago when massage parlor operators set up their operations not in the unincorporated county districts distant from the county seat where the lax enforcement activity of the sheriff’s department and the county code enforcement division would allow them to operate in the shadows, but rather in the business districts of incorporated municipalities, which are subject to the more concentrated and focused scrutiny of local officials and the enforcement activity of police departments rather than the sheriff’s department. In such locales, the activity could not remain unremarked for long.
In Upland, “massage parlors,” many of them owned and operated by Asian immigrants, are proliferating along West Foothill Boulevard, in relatively close proximity to the Tropical Lei, as well as south of Foothill on Central Avenue.
Reports are that prostitution activity at many of those locations are ongoing.
“I believe the reports you are getting are accurate,” said Upland Police Captain Ken Bonson. “There is indication some of the city’s massage businesses serve as fronts for prostitution. We have several active investigations ongoing.”
Bonson said success in obtaining sufficient evidence to make any sort of case is hit and miss and that generally there is greater success at catching the woman engaged in the activity than in making a case against the actual operators of the establishments.
“The challenge is getting the owner,” Bonson said. “If we can get some proof the owner is involved, we can go through a process where we can revoke their conditional use permit.”
Almost invariably, Bonson said, when a woman is snared, the owner of the business will maintain he or she had no knowledge of the activity and that the prostitute was acting on her own, then making a show of firing the offending woman.
“That sounds believable if it is just one or a few, but when we know there are three or five at one location, it is obvious to me that at the very least the owner knows and is not doing anything about it,” Bonson said.
Despite that facade of innocence the owners attempt to perpetuate, they are in reality, Bonson said, part of a sophisticated “network where the women rotate from place to place. If they are arrested, they are sent to another city and someone from that city comes in to replace them. They move around. We may know what is happening but being able to prove it is something else.”
The California Legislature enacted Assembly Bill 1147, known as the Massage Therapy Act on September 18, 2014, significantly revising state law in a way that made licensing of massage therapists a function of the the California Massage Therapy Council, located in Sacramento. The act, which took effect a year ago today, on January 1, 2015, greatly limited local oversight of the massage license certificate holders and their conduct.
“Cities used to regulate massage parlors,” Bonson said. “We had inspections with all types of criteria. We’re talking about a background check, a health test, fingerprinting. The practitioner had to take a written test to prove they know something about massage therapy. Now, if they are licensed by the state, the city cannot revoke their licenses. This is challenging for us and it is challenging for the legitimate places.”
Bonson said that “Code enforcement can still regulate these business to some degree. We can still, for example, make sure that these businesses have a public restroom available, but we have no authority over who is licensed and who isn’t.
Obviously, prostitution laws can be enforced but they are pretty good about not taking chances in the way they operate. We can send an undercover officer in, and we have, but usually if the officer tries to discuss something directly they immediately shut down.”
Bonson said intent to engage in prostitution is difficult or impossible to obtain beforehand and is complicated by the consideration that during many or even most legitimate massage sessions the customers are told to undress. An implicit rather than explicit protocol attends these illicit encounters, Bonson said, which includes payment that is coded as a gratuity.
“There isn’t really any discussion about it,” Bonson said. “The customer will get the massage with a happy ending, so to speak, and the masseuse gets a tip after the services are rendered, in addition to the normal hourly rate. Oftentimes in our investigations we end up spinning our wheels.”
Bonson said there is some desire on the part of certain elements of the community to have the police department act, but that some others consider it to be “a victimless crime. But that is not really the case. When you look into it, you will see there is a
human trafficking element to this. I don’t have proof that is the case in our city, but when you talk to some of these women, you can come away with the impression they are not doing what they are doing voluntarily.”
Bonson said an undercover operation in December inside the Tropical Lei had netted an arrest of a woman on suspicion of engaging in prostitution.

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