WOODBURY, Minn. — It took less than an hour for a Washington County jury to convict a White Bear Lake woman last week on charges related to running illicit massage parlors in Woodbury and White Bear Lake.
Shixun Lan, 53, of White Bear Lake, was convicted on four felony sex-trafficking charges, including promoting prostitution and receiving profits from prostitution. Lan owned and operated Woodbury Wellness in Woodbury and White Orchid Spa in White Bear Lake.
“The fact that this brothel was active in two cities, in bustling shopping centers open to the public — and in broad daylight — is a testament of what these traffickers will do for money,” Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said. “Our office will continue to aggressively prosecute these cases to achieve justice for the victims with no voice.”
Lan began operating Woodbury Wellness in May 2017 after city officials approved plans for the massage business. Soon thereafter, according to the criminal complaint, she began advertising in the massage section of Backpage.com, showing photos of Asian females and the inside of the business.
From June through September 2018, members of the East Metro Human Trafficking Task Force conducted surveillance and saw mostly men entering and leaving the businesses. Two women appeared to be living inside.
Woodbury Wellness also operated at odd hours — from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. — another potential sign of sex trafficking, officials said.
Investigators saw Lan transporting women to her house in White Bear Lake and to the White Orchid Spa in White Bear Lake. She also made trips to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Customers interviewed by police
Several customers, interviewed during traffic stops after leaving Woodbury Wellness, told investigators their interactions with the massage therapists, most of whom were from China, involved sexual activity, according to the criminal complaint.
One man said he had been there five or six times and had “tipped” three different women $40 after sexual acts; another man said he been offered sexual acts by two other employees at Woodbury Wellness on other occasions, the complaint states.
In September 2018, an off-duty Washington County sheriff’s investigator saw condom wrappers fall out of a trash bag a woman carried to the dumpster behind the business, said Imran Ali, the assistant criminal division chief of the Washington County Attorney’s Office and the director of the East Metro Sex Trafficking Task Force.
Search warrants executed a few days later by members of the task force using ultraviolet lights showed “bodily fluids” in every massage room, the complaint states.
Three woman who were at Woodbury Wellness and White Orchid Spa denied providing sexual acts to customers. One woman, who did not have a license to be a massage therapist in Woodbury, was in possession of a large amount of cash, according to the complaint.
Lan was arrested outside a bank in Woodbury and declined to speak with investigators. She had more than $7,000 cash on her.
Lan was taken into custody after her conviction last week and is being held without bail at the Washington County Jail. Her sentencing is scheduled for 10 a.m. March 6 in front of Washington County District Judge Richard Ilkka. She could face up to 15 years in prison and up to a $60,000 fine.
A call for statewide licensing
Minnesota is one of just four states that does not regulate massage therapy at a statewide level, said Ron Precht, senior manager of communications at the American Massage Therapy Association.
Instead, regulation of massage businesses falls to local municipalities, which can create “gaping holes that traffickers use to their advantage,” Precht said.
Without a statewide licensing system, “people who do not behave appropriately … can just move down the street,” he said.
Ali, director of the task force, said he hopes that Lan’s conviction will send a message to the Minnesota Legislature that the issue of licensing must be addressed.
“I don’t know how many more times we have to look at an article in the newspaper about another massage parlor being shut down and someone being convicted of trafficking for someone to pay attention,” he said. “This is an issue in any city that has massage parlors. It’s not just confined to here in the metro. We’ve assisted in investigations around the state — big and small cities. Something really needs to be done.”