There's the Rub

A tricky situation: The heat is on and business is off at Sauna 27
Craig Lassig

It's been almost two decades since Sauna 27 set up shop on a narrow strip of land wedged between 27th and Minnehaha avenues just off Lake Street. A liquor store and death-metal CD shop share the concrete island, and the Minneapolis Police Department's 3rd Precinct headquarters sits across the way. Until last year, cops and folks living nearby in the Longfellow neighborhood mostly turned a blind eye on Sauna 27--a squat, concrete building with its "open" signs and dusty blinds slung akimbo in the windows. Sure, they might have harbored suspicions that a few adventures in the skin trade were under way inside, but nobody much bothered with business as usual.

That fine harmony hit a blue note last year when business owner Chong Son Kerling was arrested for prostitution on two separate occasions--the first such busts in over a decade. Since November, eight different protests by picketing neighbors have spooked sauna customers and ticked off workers inside. Earlier this year, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office filed for a court injunction to shut down the joint using the state's nuisance law, which gives judges license to flush out and board up drug houses, brothels, and other hot spots.

On July 23 a jury found the 57-year-old Kerling guilty of misdemeanor prostitution, which carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail. In the wake of the verdict, 3rd Precinct cops have made a practice of parking a squad car outside Kerling's front door. The cruiser, a virtual "Still Life with Sauna," sat in the one-hour zone for days on end until late last week. No word yet on whether or when the auto-erotic surveillance will return.

"It gives the impression that police are there raiding," says civil rights attorney Randall Tigue, who's been representing Kerling since her arrest. "It's pure, unadulterated harassment." As a result, he adds, his client's business has dropped to "next to nothing." The County Attorney's Office's chance to make its nuisance case in civil court is still a week away, on August 28, and Kerling won't be sentenced on her misdemeanor conviction until next month. In the meantime Tigue, who's best known for defending one-time local porn king Ferris Alexander, says he'll file for a restraining order forcing police to move the cruiser if it performs an encore. "It's absolutely incredible that the city of Minneapolis, with the purported crime problem it has, can take a squad car out of circulation for no other purpose than to intimidate," Tigue argues.

To which 3rd Precinct Lt. Christopher Hildreth coyly responds: "It's a public street. And we're short on parking." Kerling's operation is among only a handful of saunas left after a series of sweeps on the city's south side, he adds, and, "We're going to keep up the pressure until they're gone."

Which is why, Kerling's attorney says, the MPD's thin blue line of pressure is starting to look like plain old entrapment. Last September, it took an undercover officer nearly an hour to coax Kerling into the act she ended up being convicted for: a straight trade of sex for cash with an undercover cop at Sauna 27. At her trial, prosecutors played an audiotape recorded by officer Andrew R. Schmidt, who'd stripped down for a standard-rate massage, and in short order, according to all parties, paid a bit more to dispense with Kerling's bikini. Schmidt testified that the masseuse squirted him with baby oil and toyed with his testicles before he cuffed her--a trick she still denies turning. Attorney Tigue calls the arrest "transparently bogus," and believes that the conviction stands little chance on appeal.

For now, Kerling is back at work, and protesters are waiting to see if their move to push the johns, pimps, and other usual suspects they claim congregate around Sauna 27 is working. Neighboring businesses have also joined the chorus of late, complaining that those who frequent Kerling's place scare away other customers who get nervous shopping in what they consider a red-light district.

"People come in here and ask, 'What is it?'" says Rich Robles, manager of the Insty-Prints copy shop across the street. He's sick of hearing the question, and tired of confirming their suspicions about the traffic in and out of the sauna. From his large front window, Robles has a clear shot of Kerling's front door. With the squad car at the curb, he recalled, he "didn't see anybody going in there." With it gone, though, "There's a guy knocking on the door right now."

If the squad car doesn't return, another vehicle may eventually make an appearance outside Sauna 27. The citizen group Southside Prostitution Task Force makes a habit of parking its garish van--emblazoned with slogans like "Prostitution: the world's oldest oppression"--for extended stays outside saunas like Kerling's. "It sends the message that we're not dinging around," says Linda Kolkind, who heads the group. "It says, 'Your garbage is no longer going to be tolerated.'"

With cops and neighbors in league against her, Kerling appears to be making her living on borrowed time at Sauna 27. "I hope they don't shut me down for a while. They try awfully hard," she says, not sure of what she's fit to do next if her business goes under. At 57, the Korean immigrant, who married an American soldier after the war, still speaks a broken English. She's been massaging men for money her whole adult life. "I'm not young," she adds--nor do her skills easily translate into a new line of work.

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