Modesto police arrested two people in a prostitution sting Thursday at a massage parlor operating in a building owned by City Councilman Mani Grewal.
Officers conducted the undercover operation at Asian Filipina Massage at 614 Scenic Drive. The business is leasing an office in the building from Grewal and has been open about a month. The operation came as The Modesto Bee was working on a story after receiving complaints about the business. Police Lt. Rigo De Alba said the city also received complaints and was conducting its own investigation independent of the newspaper.
Sgt. Joe Bottoms identified those arrested as Afamefuna Odiwe, 33, and Romela Hidalgo, 41. He said Odiwe is the business owner, and Hidalgo the manager. The two were in custody as of Friday morning, according to the Stanislaus County Jail website. The website shows Odiwe faces charges of human trafficking and malicious mischief. His bail is set at $515,000. Hidalgo faces charges of solicitation of prostitution and pandering. Her bail is set at $35,000.
Grewal praised the police for conducting the sting. He said he asked an attorney to start eviction proceedings against Odiwe before the sting after he received complaints about the business. As officers were at Asian Filipina Massage on Thursday, a man posted a notice at the business saying Odiwe had 14 days to leave the premises for creating a nuisance and for illegal use. The notice said Odiwe faced legal proceedings to evict him if he did not leave within the two weeks.
Police sent in an undercover officer to get a massage at Asian Filipina Massage and another massage business. The police have recordings of the officer’s conversations with the women.
Grewal questioned why the city transferred the business licenses for Odiwe and Hidalgo to operate in his building when there apparently were red flags about Asian Filipina Massage when it operated last year at another location. Grewal provided copies of the licenses. City officials have refused to provide the copies to the newspaper. Grewal said he wants the city to do a better job with massage businesses it suspects of wrongdoing.
Grewal said he and his property manager did not know about any problems until after Odiwe signed the lease. Grewal said a background check of Odiwe came back clean. In interviews before the sting, Grewal said he and his property manager started investigating the business when neighbors complained. Those complaints included a Google Plus account that features sexually suggestive advertisements for the business.
For instance, the caption for a scantily dressed woman doing the splits says: “Can your girlfriend do this honey!?!? Walk in and see me today. My schedule is really FLEXIBLE!” Grewal said when he questioned Odiwe about this, Odiwe told him: “That’s just advertising. That’s how I advertise. Based on what I’ve already told you, I’m not doing anything illegal.”
Hidalgo and Odiwe declined to comment as they were being arrested Thursday outside of Asian Filipina Massage. But Odiwe did confirm his conversation with Grewal, and police said the two denied the allegations against them.
Grewal said he also grew concerned when he saw Odiwe’s and Hidalgo’s business licenses. The licenses are for foot massages, but the lease agreement said Odiwe planned to use the office for massage therapy. Grewal said he did not think of verifying the licenses before signing the lease. He said he owns several buildings with dozens of tenants and has never had a problem like this.
Deputy City Manager Joe Lopez said Asian Filipina Massage’s licenses were issued under an exemption to the city’s massage regulations for businesses that provide treatment — including reflexology — that requires minimal touching to clients who are fully dressed.
Asian Filipina Massage operated in a Burney Street building last year. The Google Plus account includes sexually suggestive photos and captions from that time. The Burney landlord took Odiwe to court to evict him for violating the lease.
Arturo Portillo said he was leasing space to Odiwe for a boutique selling lingerie and accessories. But he said Odiwe opened a massage parlor, in violation of the lease. He said the front door was kept locked and customers came and went from a rear entrance. But the court ruled Odiwe had violated the lease because he painted the building pink without permission.
Police in June cited an Asian Filipina Massage employee when the business was on Burney Street on suspicion of violating the city’s municipal code by working as a massage therapist without a California Massage Therapy Council certificate. A manager was cited on suspicion of violating the municipal code by letting the employee work without the certificate and for failing to keep records on clients and massage therapists.
Court records show the employee pleaded no contest to not having a certificate, and the manager pleaded no contest to failing to keep records. The employee and manager were not among those arrested Thursday.
Lt. De Alba said Modesto police rarely do these types of undercover operations. He said the unit that used to handle them has been disbanded. The Modesto Narcotics Enforcement Team carried out Thursday’s sting with help from Homeland Security Investigations, which provided officials who speak Mandarin, Cantonese and Tagalog. They also provided an advocate who helps human trafficking victims.
Sgt. Bottoms, who supervises MNET, said his team plans on conducting more prostitution stings. De Alba said police were concerned about Asian Filipina Massage because Odiwe would sit in his car outside of the business, which the lieutenant said is a red flag for police. Besides Hildago, officers found other women in the business. De Alba said one of them is a human trafficking victim.
The police also conducted a prostitution sting Thursday at Northern Relaxing Spa at 606 13th St. Police said they arrested Ping Gan, 48, on suspicion of prostitution and suspicion of violating the municipal code by working as message therapist without a California Massage Therapy Council certificate. The business’s manager, Suping Zhang, who also is 48, was cited on suspicion of violating municipal code regulations governing massage businesses. Information on who owns the building was not available.
Kevin Valine: 209-578-2316