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Kinky Therapy for Your Back

Desperate times for chiropractors drive some to set up shop with prostitution rings, officials say. Operators say they were tricked.

Times Staff Writer

May 3 2002

"Dr. Jim" pitched himself as the ultimate New Age healer, a chiropractor who also practiced electro-acupuncture and hypnosis and dispensed botanical elixirs.

James F. Aquila promised to remedy life's stresses and addictions with a blend of spinal adjustments, counseling and "psychobiochemical" therapy. Relief, he wrote, was just a matter of "utilizing the mind/body connection" and "channeling spiritual flow."

Authorities have a simpler term for what went on at Dr. Jim's Midnight Therapy in Anaheim: prostitution.

The "therapy," prosecutors say, consisted mainly of young women in metallic miniskirts performing sexual acts for cash. Aquila is to stand trial later this year on charges that he operated a house of prostitution, using the chiropractic clinic as a cover.

Driven by police from their longtime haunts on street corners and massage parlors, prostitution rings are setting up shop in suburban strip malls, medical plazas and business parks--often using chiropractic offices as a cover.

Web sites provide clients with rankings and directions to these clandestine establishments. The operators try to frustrate law enforcement by constantly changing the roster of prostitutes and by training the women to spot undercover cops.

Over the last year, police in Anaheim have raided five chiropractic clinics alleged to be fronts for prostitution. Los Angeles police have raided 18 chiropractic establishments since October, mostly in the San Fernando Valley.

The state chiropractic board, meanwhile, has stripped 11 practitioners of their licenses for involvement in prostitution over the last two years. The board is investigating similar allegations against 20 other chiropractors.

"It's a problem that's only escalating," said Catherine Hayes, enforcement program manager for the board. "We get calls about this every day from law enforcement. It's giving the profession a black eye."

Why is this happening? Authorities say a financial squeeze on chiropractors has left some of them desperate enough to share their premises with prostitution rings, whose leaders are always looking for respectable fronts to hide behind. The rings are believed to have ties to Asian organized crime.

Times are tough for California's 12,500 active chiropractors. HMOs have slashed their reimbursements and reduced the number of chiropractors included in their health plans. Yet the ranks of practitioners keep growing, up 30% in California over the last decade. Many struggle to cover rents and pay off school loans that often exceed $100,000.

"It's a reflection of absolute desperation," said Robert Dubin, a chiropractor in Petaluma and president of the California Chiropractic Assn. "Why else would anyone risk their license after investing all that money and time just to make some quick cash on hookers? Employment opportunities for chiropractors are getting few and far between."

"Dr. Jim" Aquila says it was financial desperation that landed him in trouble.

Aquila, 65, who grew up in the Chicago area and studied psychological counseling at UCLA, has been a licensed chiropractor for more than 30 years. He's described on several holistic health Web sites as a "life coach" who counsels people in how to handle stress.

In recent years, he had trouble drawing patients to his Placentia practice. He filed for bankruptcy in 1995, listing more than $200,000 in debts. The state filed four tax liens against him totaling $70,000.

His financial woes worsened when he and his wife separated several years ago, he said.

"The bills were mounting," Aquila said in an interview. "There was just this unbelievable set of circumstances that have hit me."

By last year, Aquila was reduced to treating neighbors and friends in the garage of his Diamond Bar home. Thumbing through the local paper one day, he saw an ad he thought could turn his career around. The ad sought a seasoned chiropractor to run a new office in Anaheim.

"It was for $40 an hour, which looked good to me," said Aquila "I didn't think too much about it. They assured me everything was on the up and up."

He declined to identify the people he says hired him, and police refused to say if they were investigating others in connection with the establishment.

The job didn't require Aquila to do much. He sat in the clinic, performing little if any therapy. The office employed several female masseuses, whom he was supposed to supervise.

Aquila said he had no idea the women--with nicknames like "Rosie" and "Kinky"--were prostitutes until police raided Midnight Therapy last June, arresting Aquila and three "therapists."

"I've been chosen as the scapegoat," said Aquila, who has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of operating a house of prostitution. "I needed money at the time. I had no intention of doing what the police say I did. My God, I had 30 years of practice! To end it this way is just very humbling."

Anaheim police maintain that Aquila was a willing participant in the prostitution operation.

Midnight Therapy's storefront was in a bland stucco shopping plaza on Broadway, a few miles from Disneyland. Investigators said there were no X-ray machines, bone charts, ultrasound machines or other medical equipment commonly found in chiropractors' offices.

Instead, they found $1,300 in cash and copies of advertisements in Vietnamese-language newspapers describing Midnight Therapy as a place where "girls happily serve your every need."

Police and neighbors say the operation catered exclusively to male customers, who would sometimes wait furtively in the parking lot and toss condoms on the asphalt after leaving.

"Oh yes, they were busy. Extremely busy," said Angel Ergun, a bridal wear supplier who leases space next door. "I heard a lot of what was going on. I had to hit the wall. I said, 'Enough!'"

The masseuses wore miniskirts and tightfitting, low-cut tops, according to affidavits by undercover investigators. On one occasion, an undercover officer said, he complained to Aquila that a masseuse had refused to give him a "special massage."

Aquila allegedly told him to ask for a different woman--"Rosie"--on his next visit.

As one of America's biggest tourist destinations, Anaheim has long struggled to rid itself of prostitution. The city drove out most of the hookers who hung out in front of neon-lit motels near Disneyland in the early 1990s. Some rings then moved into massage parlors.

Anaheim--along with many other cities--responded with ordinances requiring all massage employees to get police background checks, receive certification and undergo training. Nearby Westminster is considering a proposal to require massage operators to undergo medical tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

Now, the prostitution rings are moving out of those locales and into storefront businesses.

"We used to experience the normal types of prostitution"--street walkers and call girls, said Westminster Police Det. Tom Rackleff. "But right now the prostitution is in the workplace. Shutting these places down has become a very difficult game of cat-and-mouse."

The fronts usually operate for months before neighbors complain or a customer's wife or girlfriend tips off police. Other operations soon spring up to take their place, with prostitutes trained to foil undercover police operations.

"They know ... what we're looking for," Rackleff said. "Most of the girls know how undercover officers operate. They look for wires. If someone is new, they won't solicit you unless you make a provocative act first. And if that happens, they can use that as a sexual assault charge in response."

Chiropractic offices are attractive as fronts for prostitution because of the way they are regulated.

Although chiropractors must be licensed, the state allows them to hire unlicensed assistants. By contrast, assistants at massage parlors often are required to hold massage licenses and register with city officials.

"I don't think any of these chiropractors set up to have prostitution be a part of their business, but there are some who are looking to supplement their income," Rackleff said. "Often they're approached by a business manager who says they can increase their income with a variety of massage therapists ....It's a wink-and-nod type of thing. They say, 'Just pay me some money to use the room. Don't ask, don't tell.'"

Something just didn't look right about Anthony Wassif's chiropractic clinic in Commerce, city officials say.

It was in an industrial area, and the only entrance was from a back alley. Inside were 12 private rooms, showers and video cameras. A sign at the front door advised clients not to submit to a police search unless the officers produced a warrant.

City officials shut the Commerce Chiropractic Clinic earlier this year. Several other offices operated by Wassif have been raided by Los Angeles police. Wassif, 34, has not been criminally charged, but the state's chiropractic board is trying to strip him of his license, alleging that his eight chiropractic clinics in Southern California are actually houses of prostitution.

Wassif maintains that he was duped. His story sounds eerily like Aquila's.

Wassif said he answered advertisements in local weekly papers that promised to pay willing chiropractors up to $1,000 a week. The deal was that Wassif would apply to the state for a so-called satellite license, allowing him to operate multiple chiropractic clinics, and a behind-the-scenes owner would run the facilities.

Wassif said he never knew anything illegal was going on.

"There's a lot of false information flying around out there," said Wassif, who lives in West Hills. "It's very tough right now for chiropractors to make money. They get tricked."

Wassif declined to identify who hired him. "I don't want to have health problems, if you know what I mean," he said. "They've been around for a long time. First, they'd used acupuncture and acupressure places and then they realized massage was allowed in chiropractors' offices."

Raymond Ramirez, assistant director of community development for Commerce, said he is convinced that a prostitution ring was pulling the strings at Wassif's Commerce Chiropractic Clinic. "This is not small peanuts," he said.

The premises that Wassif used were leased by a man suspected of running chiropractic offices that front for prostitution in Inglewood and other communities, Ramirez said. The man hasn't been charged with a crime, and Los Angeles County authorities declined to say whether they are investigating him.

Police investigators across Southern California are comparing notes in an effort to identify the people who recruited Wassif and other chiropractors and paid their rent. Officials said the prostitutes and chiropractors who have been arrested in different places are often represented in court by the same defense lawyer.

"We've got pretty good indications that there are elements of Asian organized crime behind it," said Sgt. Marcus Frank, a vice investigator at the Westminster Police Department. "There is definitely an organization that is recruiting the women, training the chiropractors how to do it and evade the police, and giving them legal help."

Birch Acu-Therapy was tucked amid suites of lawyers, real estate agents, engineers and communication firms in a smoked-glass office building in the Santa Ana Heights area near Newport Beach.

Men driving Jaguars, Mercedes and BMWs marched up to the office for what neighbors thought was legitimate therapy. They were shocked when sheriff's deputies swept in, arresting the chiropractor and several female assistants in March.

"I'm totally mortified," said Shawna Pierno, the building's property manager. "This is just so embarrassing.... I always thought they were good tenants. They were quiet and they always paid their rent on time."

Authorities contend that Birch Acu-Therapy was a high-end prostitution service that brought in undocumented young women from Los Angeles' Koreatown by taxi each morning to serve as "therapists."

For several weeks after the arrests, a stream of patrons continued to arrive in luxury cars, apparently unaware that Birch Acu-Therapy was no longer in business.

One regular, a 40-year-old construction contractor from Los Angeles who declined to give his name, said the operation was upscale and "professional." The amenities, he said, included private showers, tranquil posters of mountains landscapes and classic rock music piped into the three bedrooms.

"It's too bad. This place was above-average," he said. "I drove more than half an hour just because of that. It's kind of like when you have a favorite restaurant, a place that's clean and you like what they have on the menu. Why go someplace else?"

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