Newton Police arrested one woman and discovered only one valid state massage license at Sakura Massage on Monday during a site visit. The following day, the business doors were locked and the massage therapy business was closed during normal business hours.
Police Chief Rob Burdess said the business, which regularly advertises its services on sex-trafficking advertising site Backpage, had recently applied for the city’s massage therapy business license.
The application, acquired by Newton Daily News through a public records request, shows the business listed one state-licensed therapist twice, as the only employees at the parlor. Additionally, the name of the business was listed as “Sakura Acupressure.” Burdess said these discrepancies led an officer to stop at the business, 2617 First Ave. E. Suite 3, which is owned by Fanlin Meng.
On Monday afternoon, 48-year-old Yan Shulan was arrested at Sakura Massage when an officer discovered she was giving a massage and was unable to show a valid license. According to Burdess, the only valid license at the parlor belongs to Guo Ping Hu, who was not present during the site visit. The officer also found a license posted on the wall, a photocopy, which was invalid and likely posted as a way to appear compliant, Burdess said.
Shulan, who had a passport from the People’s Republic of China, said she had been in the United States since October, but arrived in Newton on Sunday. She didn’t have any other papers, according to the officer, and a male customer confirmed to the officer he had received a 60-minute massage from Shulan where she reportedly massaged his back, shoulders and arms.
Burdess said since Shulan had no ties to Newton and is a potential flight risk she was arrested and taken to the Jasper County Jail. However, Shulan was released Monday on a $1,000 bond.
While Sakura Massage was closed for business on Tuesday, it’s unclear whether the business will re-open. Burdess said the arrest does not impact its business operations or closure at this point.
“I’d like to say that we closed it down or did something amazing to close it down but that’s literally all that happened ... she was charged with a serious misdemeanor,” Burdess said.
State law now allows local governments to set regulations for massage therapy businesses and the City of Newton adopted its ordinance on Jan. 2. The city is still in the process of reviewing Sakura Massage’s application to become a licensed massage therapy business, Burdess said.
The “red flags” on the application and Shulan’s charge could lead to the denial of the city license, although that determination has not been made yet.
According to the city’s ordinance, applicants will be denied a massage therapy business license if it allows unlicensed individuals to perform services and promotes its services on websites that are known to advertise services that are illegal.
Burdess said Sakura Massage does continue to advertise on Backpage, a classified advertising website known for illegal activity, such as prostitution and human trafficking.
“We haven’t made an official determination yet … we haven’t denied it yet or given notification to the owners yet,” Burdess said.
Sakura Massage opened in October on the east side of Newton. Scott Farver, who owns and leases the building space to Sakura Massage, declined an interview in October about concerns raised by local residents about the business, saying he didn’t understand why Newton Daily News was contacting him about the business.
“It’s not my business, I don’t go there, I don’t know,” Farver said. “I’m not into the social media stuff but I know there’s social media stuff and I think you go straight to the horse’s mouth to that business owner with questions.”
Workers at Sakura Massage did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.
No criminal evidence suggests human trafficking at the Newton business, however, illegal activities at massage parlors have led to more regulation in Iowa. The nonprofit Newton Says No to Human Trafficking and other human trafficking coalitions around the state pushed for the repeal of the Iowa Code section giving local communities the power to address illicit massage parlors in a more timely and effective manner.
Linda Pierce, who co-founded Newton Says No to Human Trafficking, said when she found out about Sakura Massage posting advertisements on Backpage, she immediately reported it to law enforcement.
“We jumped on it first thing and we copied the City of Johnston’s ordinance,” Pierce said. “I think we are pretty progressive here in Newton.”
Pierce said she believes there are still things to be done to fight human trafficking in Newton. The committee has been working in the community for five years and has recently reached out to local hotels to raise awareness.
“We definitely want to promote if you see something, say something and report it to police,” Pierce said.
Burdess said the police investigation is ongoing.
Contact Kayla Singletary at 641-792-3121 ext. 6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org