HAVERHILL — Affordable rents and available office space in a downtown that is looking to transform itself attracted the kind of business no one expected: A massage parlor where the extras included sexual favors, police said.
Shortly after 2 p.m. yesterday, police raided a second-floor suite in the Franklin Block at 200 Merrimack St., and arrested Daniela Moore, 29, of 34 Broadway Plaza, Malden, and Malissa Machado, 29, of 52 Aborn St., Peabody. Police charged both with operating a house of prostitution. Machado also was charged with providing sexual conduct for a fee.
Police said the women opened their Star Touch Massage business four months ago because of the "cheap rent and nice buildings" downtown. Police said the women advertised on Boston's Craigslist offering half-hour professional massages for $60 and full-hour massages for $80. Police said once inside the parlor a customer could pay for sexual favors as well as massages.
"New location - Plenty of Parking," the ad on Craigslist read, and "Satisfy all of your senses with a sensual massage!"
Police Deputy Chief Donald Thompson said several phone calls from members of the public alerted police to what was really going on and led to a five-week investigation by the department's narcotics/vice squad. The investigation culminated in yesterday's prostitution sting. The two women were scheduled to be arraigned in Haverhill District Court today.
Police spokesman Sgt. John Arahovites said officers posed as customers of Star Touch Massage during the investigation.
"We're putting them out of business and hopefully the landlord will evict them," Arahovites said.
The city's Board of Health charges $50 for a massage therapist license and $100 to operate a massage business.
Suite 201-C of the building where Star Touch Massage operated is owned by NW Merrimack Realty Trust, according to police.
The four-story brick building, next to busy Washington Square, contains 20 office condos owned by nine different individuals or businesses, according to city assessor records. Several marketing, counseling, real estate, investment and other businesses are in the four-story building — known as the Franklin Block. As for a house of prostitution operating right in the middle of downtown, Thompson said, "This is the first one that I'm aware of."
Police have said they are committed to ridding the city of as many as 20 prostitutes who are working the streets, most north of downtown, and that they conduct prostitution stings periodically.
From hundreds of new apartments and condominiums in old shoe factories to an influx of restaurants and other businesses, Haverhill's downtown is experiencing a rebirth.
Alan Boisvert, owner of the award-winning Keon's at 105 Washington St., said he does not think yesterday's raid will tarnish efforts by store and property owners, as well as organizations, who are working together to maintain attractive storefronts and keep downtown clean.
"Something like this sneaks in, but it was taken care of immediately," Boisvert said. "The police did a good job and they deserve credit for not allowing it to go on for long."
He said yesterday's arrests should deter future businesses of this kind from coming to Haverhill.
License Commission Chairman Joseph Edwards said his commission oversees establishments selling food and liquor, including function halls, clubs, package stores, restaurants as well as motor vehicle dealers, but not massage parlors. Still, Edwards was disturbed to learn a house of prostitution had been operating in the heart of Haverhill.
"This type of business definitely does not belong downtown, or anywhere else in the city," Edwards said. "The mayor and City Council have worked very hard to create a real nice business and restaurant atmosphere downtown, and we definitely do not welcome a massage parlor."
"You wonder how anyone can be so brazen to do something like this," Edwards said. "It's bizarre."
City Clerk Margaret Toomey said anyone who conducts a business under a title other than the real name of the person must file a business certificate, unless incorporated at the state level. She said there was no record of Star Touch Massage having filed with her office.