LITTLE NECK, Queens — On a rainy Monday approaching midnight, PIX11 Investigates took a drive along Northern Boulevard in Little Neck, Queens, heading east toward the Great Neck border. We noticed blinking, neon lights in two storefronts standing side by side. One of them was called “Relax Station,” and the blue and white sign indicated it was open. The next store had a red awning; the sign advertising $19.99 rubs for 30 minutes.
These are the spas of Little Neck and Douglaston in eastern Queens, and in the last couple of years, the name FOOT SPA has appeared increasingly on the signs.
PIX11 took note of the trend in our travels and decided to look into the phenomenon.
“You can look up and down Northern Boulevard,” said licensed, massage therapist Dawn Manduca-Molina, “There’s probably eight to ten of them just in two or three blocks.”
The spas annoy Manduca-Molina, who went to school, trained, and passed state tests to get her license.
Her massage therapy costs more than the “body work” advertised by the Asian-run spas, which try to work around licensing loopholes, and they’re cutting into her business.
Law enforcement has been investigating foot spas in recent years, because there’s suspicion the workers there are massaging more than just feet.
If you go online and “google” foot spas, you come across a host of locations that advertise young, nubile Asian women and services like “table showers.”
“We know from our experience with human trafficking and massage parlors that a lot of them were fronts for sex workers,” said Nassau County District Attorney, Madeline Singas.
“It’s ripe for discussion,” she said about foot spas. “I’m glad people are talking about it.”
The spas may have had origins in Chinatown but they’ve spread out across the boroughs into Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens—and parts of Long Island.
There was even a bust this year of four, foot spas near the Albany state capital, in Colonie, New York. Many of the workers had addresses in Flushing, Queens.
Anthony Zenkus, director of education for The Safe Center—an advocacy group—believes many of the spa women are victims of human trafficking.
“For the most part, they’re not keeping any of the money that they earn,” Zenkus said. “They’re kept in slave-like conditions. They don’t have opportunities to leave. Sometimes, their passports are held.”
When the Nassau District Attorney’s office busts spas these days, the women are treated as victims, instead of criminals.
There is a human trafficking court in the county that’s in session weekly.
Workers are offered social services, medical attention, and assistance with housing.
But still, it’s very difficult getting to the business brains behind these operations.
“When the police enter a location, they’re usually off-site, because they know if they’re on-site, they’ll be arrested,” the District Attorney said of spa owners.
“It gets harder for us to get to the owners and to get pimps, who are running the operations, because they’re smart about not being on site.”
Several years ago, Nassau County shut down the Fortune Foot Spa in Massapequa Park—located on Front Street across the road from the Long Island Railroad Station—after an angry wife noticed her husband was making a lot of ATM runs in the vicinity of the spa.
“I think they were charging 60 bucks, 100 bucks, to go for a foot massage four times a week,” recalled bartender, Janine Kelly, of the Front Street Pub. “It kind of tipped the wives off!”
The New York Post recently cited a research study that said about 1200 erotic massage parlors are operating in New York City alone.
Aside from being under the eye of law enforcement—which can easily observe the proliferation of ads on sites like backpage.com—the spas occasionally get negative publicity from a violent crime.
In February, a College Point man who made a 7:30 am appointment at Beauty Heaven on Northern Boulevard was captured on surveillance leaving the second floor at the address in Little Neck.
A worker there told police the customer took her into a back room and raped her at gunpoint. Luis Jessup, 37, was arrested and charged with sexual assault.
The foot spas continue to be popular, though, and some people who enjoy getting their “doggies” rubbed post videos of the experience on Youtube.
The Nassau County District Attorney views the businesses this way. “I think in a lot of these industries there is a legitimate clientele…. and there’s an illegitimate clientele.”