Lien Tran, owner of the Venus and Mars Spa in Falls Church, in June 2012. She was cleared Wednesday of two charges that she operated an unlicensed massage parlor. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

The two misdemeanor counts against Lien Tran cost her about $9,000 in legal fees, and also forced her to close half of the space she was renting in a newer Falls Church office building, though she still has had to pay the rent of $2,800 a month.

As reported in this space previously, a man attacked Tran shortly before her Venus and Mars Spa opened Jan. 28. [She has granted permission to publish her name.] Falls Church police took a report and also took the high-definition color surveillance photos of the suspect from the cameras in her two-story salon just off Broad Street [Route 7]. No one has been charged in that case, and Tran said police have not spoken to her about it in months.

Two days later, Detective Sonya Richardson issued Tran two misdemeanor charges for operating an unlicensed massage parlor. Tran said she didn’t do massages. She said Richardson ordered her to close the second floor of her salon, which she did, and the charges cost her both business and employees.

When Tran went to court in April to defend herself, bringing in witnesses and a court reporter, part-time prosecutor Dan Conway was unprepared to try the case and obtained a two-month continuance. Half of Tran’s business remained closed.

Falls Church officials then decided to enlist the Arlington County prosecutor’s office to handle its district court matters, and let Conway’s contract expire. Arlington assistant commonwealth’s attorney Fran O’Brien took over the case, and dismissed both charges Wednesday.

“It was an issue of compliance” with Falls Church ordinances requiring those who do massages to have a permit, O’Brien said. “There were months leading up to this where there were compliance issues. The signs were out saying ‘full body massage.’ The brochures in the lobby saying ‘Massages, full body.’ ”

Tran said she didn’t do massages. I asked O’Brien if the police had investigated to see whether massages were actually occurring. “When you’re advertising that you do it,” O’Brien said, “it’s not surprising that people draw the conclusion that it’s being done.”

Tran flatly denied all of that. She said no one with Falls Church had ever spoken to her about massages, her advertising, her permits or anything else prior to her being charged Jan. 30. She said she did not advertise full-body massages.

Tran said Falls Church police came back in June and attempted a sting operation, in which an undercover male officer came in and tried to get a massage. Tran said he wasn’t given one, that instead he was given a reflexology massage of the hands and feet, but that Richardson came in and threatened more charges.

And both before and after that incident, the spa has received numerous phone calls from people seeking full body massages, though Tran has done no advertising and repeatedly tells the callers they are not available.

Though the charges were dismissed Wednesday, “I feel bad,” Tran said after the brief hearing. “Because I’ve been through eight months where I was innocent. I don’t know how many people would be able to pay eight months’ rent. I feel bad for others.”

She said the support of Northern Virginia’s large Vietnamese community helped her get through the ordeal. “My community gave me spirit,” Tran said. “That’s why we do the hard work to fight for fair justice.”

Binh Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, watched the case end and was disgusted. “This destroyed her life,” he said. “This is unbelievable, it’s an outrage. If the police had evidence, that’s one thing. But they dragged this on for months. And they still haven’t done anything on her being sexually assaulted. To me, it’s just wrong.”

To avoid future problems, Tran said she went ahead and studied for, then passed the test to become a licensed massage therapist. She now must apply for and receive a license. She hadn’t intended to add that service to her spa, but after receiving so many inquiries, “I figured there must be a market for it,” Tran said.

But she said she cannot afford to reopen the second floor of her business, though she is locked into a 10-year lease in which she is still paying the $2,800 per month rent for that floor alone, in addition to $3,400 for the first floor space. She said she must hire a lawyer to try to renegotiate that deal.

I called the Falls Church police this morning to check on the status of the sexual assault case, in which a man entered the store, choked Tran, tore her clothes, held her down and committed a sexual offense. When they respond, I will post that update here.

[The police have since responded.

“The Falls Church Police Department continues to work on the assault case. The Police interviewed Ms. Tran a second time in April with a translator. The Police have been unable to identify a suspect, but keep the investigation open,” according to an emailed statement from SusanFinarelli, the city’s communications director.]
This post has been updated with the city’s response.