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Following Police Raid, Westerville Cracks Down On Massage Businesses

Adora Namigadde
A February 2 police raid led to the closure of the Crystal Asian Massage parlor in Westerville.

April Zobel owns In the Bag Massage in Westerville, a small medical massage therapy clinic in a nondescript office park. A few chairs and a flat-screen television greet visitors who enter the lobby.

A city ordinance will place new restrictions on people employed in the massage industry. But Zobel didn't know that until she stumbled upon the news through a community Facebook page

“To me, it’s a quick bandage to make the community happy,” Zobel says. “And while I understand the thinking behind that, it’s not a long-term solution.”

The changes come after the February 2 police raid and closure of Crystal Asian Massage on Main Street, which some residents worried was a front for prostitution or human trafficking. Community concerns were on full display at a city council meeting the next week, where more than 100 residents showed up in support of new restrictions on the massage industry.

So beginning February 16, massage therapists in Westerville are required to hold a license from the State Medical Board of Ohio. Westerville City Council also voted 7-0 to pass a 90-day moratorium on all new massage business in the city.

Zobel’s been in business since 2003, and the new law would make some changes to who she can hire.

Right now, three of Zobel's 17 massage practioners are unlicensed. They're what the industry calls technicians. They can only perform what's called relaxation massage, not medical massage. 

The technicians earn less than licensed massage therapists while they gain experience and clientele in the massage industry.

“For me, it’s actually a great tool for my business, and I’ve been doing this for years. I’ll hire massage technicians,” Zobel says. “These are people who are either students, they’re still in school, or for whatever reason they’ve graduated from massage therapy school but have not yet got their license.”

Months Of Investigations

Authorities began their investigation last May, after officers received anonymous tips about suspicious activity inside Crystal Asian Massage. On February 2, police raided the spa and detained two women thought to work there.

Westerville code enforcement officer Bryan Wagner says it is now closed due to property maintenance violations.

“That search warrant execution resulted in two females being detained for questioning and interviewed by the Salvation Army and Asian American Services Department,” Wagner says.

The city would not comment on why the women were detained or the nature of the anonymous complaints it received. The Salvation Army Recovery team that interviewed the women suspected they were victims of human trafficking.

According to the State Medical Board of Ohio, the board licenses individual massage therapists, not businesses. The board does not have the authority to regulate relaxation massage.

No charges have been filed, but Crystal Asian Massage remains under investigation.  

“Residents had expressed concern to the city regarding the way in which some of these massage establishments in the community were advertising on the internet,” Wagner says. “The community was concerned that some of these advertisements were being located on websites that were associated with illegal activity.”

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Laura Palovich-Binder, who runs Water For The Soul Massage Therapy and Wellness Center, says the new law helps legitimize the industry.

On Postix, a website for classifieds, a February 4 ad associated with Crystal Asian Massage’s former address states: "We Have New Professional, beautiful oriental Technician with amazing Asian Service.”

In a February 2 press conference, Lieutenant Charles Chandler would not specify what complaints led to the investigation, nor would he state the reason for the search warrant for Crystal Asian Massage.

“We wanted to make sure that the workers here were being treated with dignity and respect,” Chandler said.

The manager of Crystal Asian Massage also operates Orchid Asian Spa, which planned to open on Otterbein Ave. in Westerville. Orchid Asian Spa was issued an eviction notice February 5 by its property owner, according to city officials.

“Crystal Asian Massage and other businesses alleged to not be operating within the boundaries of all applicable laws and regulations are and have been on our radar," said Chandler in a press release.  

Licensed Therapists Relieved

Relaxation massage parlors and others who operate without a state license might be upset, but those already licensed say the new law adds a layer of credibility.

Licensed massage therapist Laura Palovich-Binder runs Water For The Soul Massage Therapy and Wellness Center. She says the new law helps legitimize the industry.

“I’ve had to throw people out of my office because of their inappropriate behavior,” Palovich-Binder says. “And it can be kind of scary at times. And it’s sad you have to put up with that, but that is something that I’ve had to put up with.”

Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Nick Panos, who runs Nick Panos Massage, says the new law was a “long-time coming.”

Licensed massage therapist Nick Panos, who runs Nick Panos Massage, says the new law was a “long-time coming.”

“We are licensed massage therapists,” Panos says. “Those three initials behind our names cost us tens of thousands of dollars.”

Zobel met with Westerville City Council last week, and she remains hopeful members are working to accommodate her business as they work on more regulations. She says a representative from the American Massage Therapy Association whom she spoke with on the phone suggested a potential tiered massage license system in the city.

But officials will not elaborate on what exactly those regulations could be.

During the 90-day moratorium on new massage businesses in Westerville, city council continues meeting with massage therapists to help them write more rules for the industry.

Licensed therapists make up a majority of the industry, at least in Westerville. City officials say there are more than 20 “totally legitimate establishments,” and just three that are raising questions.

Correction: This story was edited to clarify aspects of April Zobel's business

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.