UPDATE, Wednesday, 2:30 pm: The victim’s lawyer said today police told him the massage parlor case consisted of two Craigslist postings and some anonymous complaints. Details below.
ORIGINAL POST: In January, a Vietnamese woman who owns a day spa in the heart of Falls Church reported she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint inside her business. She flagged down a cab and chased her attacker, several people got good looks at the man, and the woman said her color surveillance cameras inside the store captured the man fairly clearly.
Four days later, a Falls Church police officer showed up at the woman’s Venus and Mars Spa and charged her with operating an unlicensed massage parlor. The woman said she didn’t run a massage parlor, but her business permit was immediately revoked by the city and the spa shut down. At her arraignment, the woman received a trial date of April11 and hoped to win her case and get her permit back then.
Instead, after a host of the woman’s witnesses and supporters waited for hours, Falls Church city prosecutor Daniel Conway asked for a continuance. He told the substitute General District Court judge he wasn’t expecting a “trial by ambush” by the defendant, that the officer was on vacation and that the city wouldn’t be ready for the misdemeanor trial for 10 more weeks. Conway’s request was granted, and the woman’s spa has now gone out of business. Her attacker is at large.
Falls Church’s vibrant Vietnamese community, still reeling from the police declaration last summer that their beloved Eden Center was a hive of gangs and drugs (though no gang or drug charges have ever been filed), is more outraged than ever. “The community’s very angry,” said Binh Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce. “The Vietnamese are very humble, they don’t speak up. But the community is coming together to call for justice.”
The victim, 42, recounted a very detailed and extremely horrifying sequence of events in an interview, saying she recognized the man from a previous rape of a friend. She said the police have spoken to her only once since the attack, in a phone call from a detective who said he was on vacation and had nothing to report. She said Falls Church police have not seemed too concerned about the man who tried to rape her, then choked and sexually assaulted her, and is now walking around somewhere.
“When will the police do something?” she pleaded. She added, “I will cut my wrist and use my blood to write a letter to Obama. I will set myself on fire in front of Falls Church city hall. I gave up my business. I lost my dream.”
It’s hard to know whether there’s another side of the story here, because the Falls Church police aren’t talking. Chief Harry Reitze and Maj. Mary Gavin did not respond to my requests for an interview. Instead, city spokeswoman Susan Finarelli e-mailed me a statement saying the police could not comment on the sexual assault or the spa closure because both cases were pending.
But Finarelli noted the spa case was set for June 27 and added helpfully, “you are certainly welcome in the courtroom that day to hear the proceedings, testimony, etc. (That’s in City Hall, 300 Park Ave.).”
Let’s put some context around this. In August, the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force raided 13 cafes and one market in the Eden Center and arrested 19 people for misdemeanor gambling violations. Then Reitze and the task force held a press conference on the steps of Falls Church City Hall (300 Park Ave.), where they said that the video gaming machines had been placed in the cafes by the Dragon Family gang, which they said had paralyzed the Eden Center with shootings, stabbings and extortion.
This was not a major boon to business, to put it mildly, and the Vietnamese chamber turned to Falls Church city officials for help restoring their good name. Meanwhile, the search warrants revealed investigators had found $1 million cash in one of the cafes, so it seemed something might be up.
But eight months later, not a single person has been charged with gang or drug violations. The gang task force says the charges are coming. That only frustrates the legitimate businesses of the Vietnamese community even more.
Falls Church officials do not control the police, but they do have some control over business conditions, and City Manager Wyatt Shields pointed out Tuesday that they’re trying to help the Vietnamese. On Wednesday, the city is hosting an open house to provide information on expanding businesses, basic legal advice, housing and human services and more.
“A lot of what we need to do is communicate better,” Shields said. ”Hopefully it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
But the job of the police is not to improve the business community, it’s to enforce the laws. Which brings us to Saturday, Jan. 28, about 9:40 a.m.
The victim, whose name is being withheld because The Washington Post generally does not name the victims of a sex crime, said she was cleaning in her spa when the phone rang. She said the spa does facials, exfoliation, some partial massages and reflexology but not full body massages. She did not believe she needed a massage parlor permit because she is not doing full massages. The previous owner did massages and had a permit but sold the business to her several years ago, she said.
She answered the phone, and a man said he wanted a 15-minute shoulder massage. The woman told him she wasn’t open yet, but the man said, “I’m here already.” So she let him in, and told him to enter one of the private rooms and relax. There are no cameras in these rooms.
When she returned to the room, the man grabbed her, pulled her hair and began choking her. “He picked me up, my feet don’t hit the floor,” she said. “He said, ‘If you keep moving, I will cut you bit by bit.’ ”
The man tried to rape her, she said, but she kept moving. As he loomed over her on the massage table with a knife, she said she recognized him. Three years ago, she was working the front desk when the owner was raped in one of the private rooms. She had seen the man as he entered and left, but didn’t know of the attack until after he was gone.
When he threatened to cut her, she remembered him. “I saw his eyes. I said, ‘Is it you, you were here three years ago? You raped my friend, now you come back?’” She said her friend hadn’t reported the attack.
“He tore my clothing. He jump on my body,” the woman said. She said he did force her into oral sex. Then he calmly walked out of the place, taking a piece of hard candy, unwrapping it and popping it into his mouth before leaving.
The victim ran outside and persuaded a cab driver to follow the man. They pursued him for a time but lost him, she said, and then he actually approached the cab and tried to hire it, thinking it was empty. The cab driver helped the victim call 911 and spoke to the dispatcher for her. She said police have told her they now cannot locate the cab driver.
The suspect was a white man, tall, skinny, with high cheekbones and close-cropped hair and a bald spot. “Not big, but strong,” she said. She believed he was wearing an ankle tracking bracelet when she saw him after the attack three years ago.
Ben Jones, a regular Venus and Mars customer from Fredericksburg, said he has gone to the spa for facials, waxing and brief massages, and that no one there had “ever approached me about anything improper. I’ve never approached her. I think if you did, she’d look at you like you were from Mars. This lady’s just up there trying to eke out a living. This is such a travesty.”
Gene Nguyen pointed out that no posters or requests for public help in locating the assailant have been seen in Falls Church. “She’s a single mother, two kids, she’s brave enough to come forward,” he said. “Instead of finding the assailant, they turn around on her.”
The woman had hoped that going to court last week might save her business license and allow her to keep paying the rent. But the city doesn’t routinely summon its police to every court date because many people plead guilty or, in permit cases, present their valid permit and charges are dropped.
The woman didn’t know this. She had a trial date, she expected it would happen. Steven Garver, a defense attorney sitting in as a substitute judge that day, granted Conway’s request to postpone the case over the objections of the woman’s attorney, Due Tran, a transcript shows.
Tran said Wednesday that before the continuance was granted, he was told by a Falls Church detective that the case against the woman consisted of two suggestive Craigslist postings implying sex was available, and three anonymous complaints. Tran said the author of the Craigslist posts did not mean to imply anything illegal.
“And we still have the attempted rapist at large,” Nguyen said, “and everybody is terrorized. I don’t understand why they don’t investigate that.”