Spa Therapist Cries Foul

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Art had just started work at a Murray Hill spa last November when he had a well-muscled, Asian-American male client.

The client, upon first meeting Art, said, “I need to know if you can take extra care of me and I’ll take care of you” while making a masturbation gesture with his hand. Art, who is identified here with a pseudonym, refused the offer and ignored what seemed to be a request for sex. “You can’t discuss sex,” the 47-year-old licensed massage therapist told Gay City News. “It’s illegal. If there’s any discussion of sex, you have to leave the room.”

Art stepped out of the room so the client could undress, and moments later he heard pounding on the spa’s door and cries of “police, police, police.” Art was arrested and charged with prostitution. “I’m a licensed therapist, I don’t know why I’m being arrested,” Art said he told the police. His request to use the toilet before being taken from the spa in handcuffs was denied. “I pissed all over myself on the way downstairs,” Art said. “I was fucking hysterical.”

Masseur, lawyer say city, landlord targeted him and establishment because clients were gay

The undercover officer who busted Art was identified only by the badge number 3044 in court records. He is part of the Manhattan South Vice Enforcement Squad, the same unit that arrested 30 or more men for prostitution in at least six Manhattan porn shops last year. Those arrests are seen as false arrests in the gay community.

Just two officers, identified by the badge numbers 3371 and 31107, made 23 of those arrests, while 3044 made two. Undercovers 3371 and 31107 also made busts at Art’s spa. Altogether in 2008, 3044 worked with either 3371 or 31107, or both, at seven Manhattan locations, arresting men and women for prostitution or unlicensed massage.

While some activists have suspected that anti-gay views played a role in the porn shop busts, Art and the lawyers involved in both his criminal case and in defending the spa against a nuisance abatement lawsuit the police department brought — naming it and the building that housed it — are saying that explicitly. “The spa was owned by heterosexuals, but was frequented by the gay community,” said Scott A. Rubman, the attorney who represented the spa in the nuisance abatement suit. “I believe that the landlord and the city had… unified agendas, that they did not want the gays there.”

Of the five prostitution arrests made in the spa, one man pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and got a small fine and light sentence. Another missed a court date, and a warrant was issued for him. A spa manager was arrested twice, and the charges against him and Art were dismissed.

When Art had a queen-for-a-day meeting with David A. Stuart, the assistant district attorney who handled his criminal case, he saw what he thought was homophobia. Such meetings allow defendants to tell their story to prosecutors under a deal promising that the discussion will not be used against them unless they tell a different version at trial. As with Art’s case, queen-for-a-day can lead to charges being dismissed.

During the roughly two-hour meeting, Stuart opened up the spa’s website and, pointing to its content, argued that it was a gay business, according to Art. “I think it’s more that the spa was gay and how could I not know that there were other things going on there,” he said. “I think that, for him, the people that go there are gay and that there could have been hanky panky going on there.”

Ronald Saffner, Art’s attorney, had a similar impression. “I think he was kind of suspicious of the whole thing, very suspicious,” he said of Stuart. “That it was a front for a house of prostitution was the underlying theme.”

Art has had relationships with both men and women, but Saffner recalled that it was important to Stuart that Art be gay because that would have made it “more likely that he would have been guilty,” Saffner said. “I was very upset,” Art said. “If you’re going to play the gay card, you’re in serious trouble, because that’s illegal.”

Stuart and the Manhattan district attorney’s press office declined to comment. The police department’s press office issued a terse statement saying, “Police were not motivated by bias, but in addressing conditions.”

For Rubman, anti-gay bias emerged in the nuisance abatement suit. To end that case, he negotiated an agreement among the city, the landlord, and the spa that required the landlord to pay the spa owners $10,000 when they vacated the premises, but the landlord refused, saying the unit was not adequately cleaned. The police department backed the landlord, according to Rubman. When given the choice to support the landlord or the gay community, the police department chose the landlord,” he said. “To me, that’s an indication.”

Ultimately, the spa owners settled for a reduced amount. Before the settlement was reached, Rubman and the landlord had an altercation outside the Centre Street courthouse, during which the landlord called Rubman a “fucking faggot,” he said. Rubman, who was not above needling the landlord at court appearances, filed a criminal complaint for aggravated harassment against the landlord.

Neither the landlord nor his attorney responded to calls or an email seeking comment. Rubman said he did not believe that Brian M. Derr, the police department lawyer who handled the nuisance case, was aware of the confrontation.

The arrest has been an ordeal for Art. He asked another business where he has a contract to do massage for a letter of recommendation to be used in his criminal case. He believes that his clients there dried up when the business learned he had been arrested. Now he is being evicted from his apartment after falling behind on his rent. “Above all, there’s been an economic impact,” Art said.