In a one-story business park a block south of Walnut Hill Lane, in northwest Dallas, the neon sign at Seventh Heaven Relaxation Therapy glows “Open.” On this October morning, though, the place should be closed, per the city’s order. Dallas police Lt. Christina Smith finds a young Asian woman inside who seems hardly to understand her, even though Smith is talking in that slow, elevated way people do when struggling with a language barrier.
“This has to be closed. You need to tell Miss Foster. You need to be gone,” Smith explains to the woman.
Then another young woman, slight and wearing a nightshirt, steps out of a makeshift dorm room. Thin mats cover the entire floor.
“See, they’re living in here,” says Melissa Miles, a city lawyer working with Smith. Typically, she says as she moves into the galley kitchen, a den mother cooks for the house in addition to distributing condoms and collecting the customers’ cover charge. One of Smith’s undercover detectives visited Seventh Heaven in July and paid $60 to stay for an hour. “Full-service” sex costs $200, he was told, according to an arrest report.
Billing itself as a “relaxation studio” offering “private Asian-style hot showers” and such, the business comprises seven small rooms arranged along three narrow hallways. Each numbered room has a whirlpool tub, a narrow platform bed, and mirrors galore. A disinfectant haze hangs in the air. A few years ago, a sandwich shop operated here, but this area has seen better times, although not necessarily more profitable ones. Two spas on Northwest Highway lease their spaces for $15,000 per month.
Smith and Miles have closed approximately 30 storefront brothels in what has to be one of the most successful vice operations in recent city history. For the first time in anyone’s memory, Harry Hines Boulevard is cathouse free. Of nearly 50 massage parlors and spas known to be operating in Dallas three years ago, approximately 15 are open today. Aloha, Cleopatra, Tokyo Sauna, Golden Flower, Royal Sauna, and Oasis are among the shuttered. Asian Tan on Northwest Highway is now a tire store. Where Venus and Caesar once stood, in view of the Boy Scouts’ regional office, a payday loan shop now can be found. Nearly all the spas that remain are in the city’s sights, Miles says.
“Smith and Miles hung the moon,” says state Rep. Rafael Anchia, who organized a task force to combat the mushrooming sex trade in his district. “I’m so proud of the work they’ve done.”
Smith and Miles teamed up about two and a half years ago. “We have such similar energy and personalities and ideas about things, so it makes it easy,” Miles says. “It’s rare that our energies clash.” It is difficult to say whether they began bonding around their work or the skydiving they took up after a few months on the job together. It was the 43-year-old Smith’s idea to try jumping out of planes. Miles, 45, has gone in for 200 more jumps, despite her fear of heights.
Both women say the underlying problem at the brothels is exploitation. “It doesn’t matter what you think about prostitution. This business model lends itself to children becoming victims and women being tricked into immigration scams,” says Miles, explaining how most are staffed by Koreans and other Asian nationals with valid visas. “They come here thinking they’re going to get some type of legitimate work, and then they’re damaged goods and they can’t go home.”
It’s fairly easy for police to tag women working in the spas with prostitution charges or citations for massaging without a state-required license. It’s more difficult to close a business, even if it is a criminal enterprise. The city had been filing civil lawsuits against various massage parlors to have them declared public nuisances, but that amounted, in Miles’ words, to “aiming a cannon at a flea.” A dozen spas would open in the time it took to close one or two with all the hearings, motions, appeals, and opportunities for delay.
Smith and Miles developed a new approach that began giving the city the upper hand. They would present their evidence of prostitution and unlicensed massage to the city building officials and request the business’s certificate of occupancy be revoked, a decision that could lead to padlocking doors if the business fails to comply.
“You play their game and you’re chasing ghosts,” Miles says. The spas, she says, often file paperwork with phantom addresses and fake names. One on her current list of targets receives its mail at a Brooklyn, New York, post office box, from which nobody volunteers to respond.
“There’s beauty in the simplicity of it. It’s genius,” Anchia says. The city revokes the occupancy certificate, notifies the name on the paperwork, and someone has to come forward, take credit for the business, and fight the city’s decision at the city board of adjustment. In many cases, they just close, Smith says. Others, including Seventh Heaven and two spas on Northwest Highway, dig in for a fight.
In a near-empty Dallas City Council chamber on an October afternoon, 47-year-old Mi Suk Foster, dressed in black fishnet stockings and toting a huge Louis Vuitton shoulder bag, and 63-year-old Larry Keller show up to defend Seventh Heaven. The hearing turns out to be more rollicking than the usual run of building-setback and tree-cutting disputes. Keller, who listed himself as owner-operator of Seventh Heaven on a city application last spring, does all the talking as Foster, who filed its doing-business-as form with the county, looks on. Keller, a shambling sort in saggy gray pants, describes Foster as the true owner of the business and his common-law wife as the sworn, quasi-judicial hearing gets underway. (He later admits he is legally married to a different woman, who confirms that fact when reached at the house they co-own in Plano. Records show that Foster owns a 2009 Mercedes CLS 550 and a house adjacent to the 13th green at Hackberry Creek Country Club in north Irving.)
Keller goes on to tell the board that Seventh Heaven has nothing to do with hookers or massages. Instead, he says, they practice reiki. “Reiki is a matter of drawing the life force, making the chakra, the center of the body, aware of the life force. It is a very light touch during meditation,” he explains as board members listen raptly.
They can believe that, or they can believe Det. Thomas Peterson. Before rejecting Seventh Heaven’s appeal, the board hears Peterson describe his mid-September visit to the relaxation studio. Peterson says he was ushered to a room by an Asian female dressed in a white bra-and-panty set. She asked him for $200, then “removed her top and began giving me a massage with lotions and oils,” he says. “When she removed the panties, I gave the signal right there for the arrest team to come in.”
Four days after the board sided with Miles, and two days after she and Smith found the “Open” sign still glowing at Seventh Heaven, Keller fired back with a lawsuit seeking to back off the city. It will be up to a judge to decide what happens next (a hearing was set for early December). For the time being, then, chakras are still being made aware of the life force on Electronic Lane. Maybe by reiki. Or maybe by young Asian women in white bra-and-panty sets.
“What you are getting now is indignance,” says Miles, who has not lost a case like this yet. “They’re indignant that anyone has a problem with their business. But we do.”