SIOUX CITY | On the evening of Aug. 30, an undercover Sioux City Police detective walked into Red Dragon Body Therapy on Hamilton Boulevard and paid for a massage.
During the course of his visit, the female massage therapist agreed to perform a sex act for money, according to a police account of the incident. She was soon arrested.
The 50-year-old woman was charged with prostitution and booked into the Woodbury County Jail. The charge has since been dismissed as police continue to investigate the incident, with suspicion that human trafficking was involved. The Red Dragon is now shut down.
Police say a complaint from a nearby businesses led to the investigation.
"They said things just didn't look right," Police Detective Bruce Hokel said.
Currently, Hokel said, police rely mostly on submitted complaints to spur their investigations into activity such as prostitution, human trafficking and drug dealing out of businesses claiming to offer legitimate massages.
Being proactive can be difficult, he said, as police lack a way to systematically monitor and track such businesses, their owners, employees and licensing statuses as they cycle in and out of the city, he said.
"One of the biggest problems we have right now is it's very difficult to find who's all responsible, who works there," he said.
But Hokel said a new proposed ordinance that would require licenses for all massage therapy businesses within the city limits would provide a valuable intelligence tool in monitoring who is working at each business. It also would give the police more power of enforcement.
"An ordinance like this would really assist us in at least laying the groundwork for who would be the business owner, who should be managing it, who should be licensed of people that are there doing the massages," Hokel said. "We'll have a better idea of who's here and how long they're here, where they're coming from, stuff like that."
Under an initial draft of the ordinance, which received the first of three required readings by the City Council two weeks ago, licensing applications would include identification and information on the businesses' employees, their criminal records, any denials or suspensions of their state massage licenses and other information necessary for background checks.
Licenses would not be granted if the applicant or any owners, managers, employees or agents have a criminal conviction for a sex crime or for keeping a house of prostitution, or if they are a registered sex offender or have been denied a license by any other community. The City Clerk's Office will initiate an annual review process to confirm business ownership, services provided and the business name.
Edits to some items in the ordinance -- such as the amount of required insurance and limits on hours of operation -- could be on the way as city officials work with legitimate massage therapy business owners to make the ordinance more palatable to them. Those changes will show up in subsequent readings of the ordinance.
Owners of some legitimate massage therapy businesses have taken issue with parts of the ordinance, saying it groups them unfairly in with prostitutes and drug dealers and amounts to over-regulation. An online petition opposing the ordinance started two weeks ago by a local massage therapist had reached 720 signatures as of Friday.
Hokel said he values the inclusion of business feedback and that the ordinance is not meant to trip up any legally operating business.
"The businesses that we know are on the up and up, it really just helps us document them and they can hold their head high and say that yeah we are clean," he said.
Hokel said he believes the new ordinance would both help police take better action against problems they know is going on, as well as gain a fuller picture of other places where it may be happening.
Including the Red Dragon incident, Hokel said police have made two arrests in the past two years relating to illegal operations at massage therapy businesses. He added that authorities have received complaints that some businesses are passing fake massage therapy licenses.
Hokel said the frequency of complaints fluctuates, but police generally average a complaint related to suspicious activity at a massage business about once every two weeks.
Bernadette Rixner, co-chairwoman of the Siouxland Coalition Against Human Trafficking, agrees the ordinance will provide a valuable tool for police. She said the state has seen a rapid influx of places offering massage services over the past year and a half, some of which have been places for human trafficking.
"They may indeed be trained to give massages," Rixner said. "But they are also expected to provide sex services to you."
Sioux City is following the lead of Johnston, Iowa, which adopted a similar ordinance. Hokel said he has been in discussion with several other Iowa municipalities, and they are watching to see how Sioux City's ordinance pans out.
"They are having the exact same problems as we are," he said.