“body of the crime”

It all started with a tip that prompted former Kennewick Mayor Don Britain to make a series of record requests about William “Bill” McKay.

Britain, a Republican, had served on the Kennewick City Council since 2009. He was selected by fellow council members to serve as mayor in 2018 but lost his reelection bid in 2021 when a new, more conservative majority swept into office. Bill McKay was elected and started serving in 2018.

Britain had his own issues when he was in office, as well as his fair share of spats with the more conservative members, including McKay. But, Britain says, the rumors he was hearing made him think there was something sinister happening under the surface of everyday politics. Britain was told to look into elected officials being caught in the massage parlor sweeps that were reported in the spring. He requested a look into the names of every member of the Kennewick City Council and Richland City Council. Britain will not reveal the source of the rumors that led him to this investigation.

Nothing to see here

On June 20, 2023, Kennewick City Council had a regularly scheduled business meeting. On the agenda was an ordinance: 5.b. Ordinance 6026: Adding KMC 6.37 Massage and Reflexology Services. The ordinance, in part, would enforce stricter hours on massage services and require prominent displays of prices, as well as require that employees be 18 years or older and licensed massage therapists, among other various licensing requirements.

Cedar Kennedy, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist who has been practicing in Kennewick for 16 years, spoke during public comment. Kennedy said:

“I’m really glad the city is finally focusing its attention on human trafficking and these illegal operations that pretend to be legitimate healthcare establishments. They're not, and they're such a blight on the community… And I think there's a lot of suffering happening right under our noses.
Allowing these places to exist in our city gives legitimate massage therapists a bad name, and puts them in danger by looking the other way when it's the Johns who solicit them and know they can get away with it. The majority of women working in these places are victims with nowhere to go. The real criminals here are the men that solicit them and the landlords and business owners that facilitate prostitution. Being a massage therapist is not a crime, but soliciting one for prostitution actually is.
And the real issue here is enforcement. Some ideas you might explore in order to reduce prostitution and sex trafficking might include putting the onus on the landlords and property management companies. I think it's important to remember who the victims here are, and it's largely the women who work in these places that are being sex trafficked. And I think it's incumbent on us as a community to at least try to protect them.”

After Kennedy spoke, another woman also said she was concerned with the sex trafficking she knows is happening in Kennewick. Mayor Bill McKay thanked them both for speaking. When the vote came after the presentation on Ordinance 6026, it passed 5 to 1. McKay did not recuse himself. According to the revised code of Washington, municipal officers should not use their positions to secure special privileges for themselves or have a conflict of interest in matters that they are voting on.

Statewide sweeps come to Tri-Cities

Earlier this spring, the Kennewick Police Department worked with the Columbia River Drug Task Force (CRDTF), looking into massage parlors involved in human trafficking. CRDTF has been working for several years to stop human trafficking at massage parlors in the state. Based out of Wenatchee, CRDTF works with agencies statewide.

Starting in March, there were reports that KPD had begun their own series of investigations into illegal sex trade and trafficking.

By June, parlors in Richland and Kennewick were closed after a series of reports of possible prostitution.

These are not isolated cases. Back in 2012, charges were filed after the raids of massage parlors in Kennewick. The owner and operator of China Sun Massage and two female workers were charged with multiple assaults with sexual motivation after undercover officers went to the businesses for massages. In March 2023, another owner and his spouse from Tacoma had warrants issued.They own 13 massage parlors including four in Kennewick. 

In 2017, 10 people were arrested and charged after an online prostitution sting, including both solicitors of prostitution and the prostitutes. Four women and six men were charged. It is rare that the “Johns” or clients of the illegal acts are charged. In 2017, Benton County had Democrat Andy Miller as Prosecutor.

In 2007, Kennewick police did an undercover sting for prostitution online. Three women were charged with prostitution. Eric Eisinger* was working as Assistant City Attorney for Kennewick. Kennewick was taking a hard stance against prostitution. *(More to come about Eisinger.)

"When people are soliciting business over the Internet to have prostitution take place in private residences in neighborhoods, and there is traffic going in and out of residences for this kind of activity, we take a hard line on that position," said Eisinger.

Records request

Here is the first records request that was made to the Kennewick Police Department by Don Britain:

The following information is requested regarding the Kennewick Police Department's investigation into massage businesses/parlors/spas, such as those reported in the Tri-City Herald on May 19, 2023, including but not limited to: Joy Spa 2459 south Union Place suite 130; Shangri La Massage 5917 west Clearwater; Dream Spa 5612 W Clearwater Ave Suite A, Kennewick; VIP Massage 3321 W Kennewick Ave # 210 ; Fragrant Oil Spa 5009 W Clearwater Ave #K; and Royal Massage 4727 W Clearwater Ave in Kennewick from 01/01/2022 through 10/31/2023.
To include:

1. The names of any Kennewick City Councilmember (Bill McKay, Loren Anderson, Gretl Crawford, Chuck Torelli, Jim Millbauer, John Trumbo, and Brad Beauchamp) contacted during the investigation;

2. All police reports involving any Kennewick City Council member;

3. Copies of any interview notes, written or audio, completed with any Kennewick City Council member;

4. Dates and times of any meeting between Kennewick Police Department and any Kennewick City Councilmember;

5. All emails between Kennewick Police Department, City Staff, and Kennewick City Council member to establish meetings that were conducted;

6. All video surveillance, photographs, or other evidence that would include any Kennewick City Council member.

Three Kennewick council members were brought in on October 30 and three members were brought in on October 31 for executive sessions where they were told about the interview that McKay did with KPD in March. Council members began to draw up an ethics complaint against the Mayor.

Then, on November 7, Bill McKay resigned abruptly as Mayor and council member. Here was his statement:

"November 7, 2023; Marie, Council & Staff: As of today, I am resigning from my position as Mayor and as a member of City Council. It has been a pleasure to serve the citizens of Kennewick, but am looking forward to spending more time with family and seeing the world. Wish you all the best. Sincerely, Bill McKay.”

The next day, the records release was made public. This is what we now know about former Mayor Bill McKay’s involvement.

After the series of raids on local massage parlors became public back in March, McKay had gone to KPD and interviewed for over an hour. McKay stated then that he had been going to get massages for over two years since he had hurt his back.

McKay also claimed he was really doing his own ‘investigations’ of the businesses. He took extensive notes about which businesses offered ‘extra’ services, including, in his words, “happy endings and full sex.” His notes include prices, whether they took cash, and how much their services cost. According to the Kennewick Police, McKay was not conducting these investigations under any agreement or direction from them.

Britain’s tip was right. McKay, his former council member and adversary,  admitted that he had paid for illegal sex 20 or more times (acts which McKay called ‘happy endings’).

Mayor involved in code changes

On June 13,  the city council met to discuss changing the code to regulate spa businesses. In the video of the workshop, the discussion centers on regulating the massage businesses and not the clients.

KPD has been conducting an ongoing investigation called ‘Safe Spa’, and the city attorney’s office presented documentation in favor of changing the code, Ordinance 6026.

Laurencio Sanguino of the Kennewick City Attorney’s Office presented the proposed code change: “The Tri-Cities is the third most important region for massage businesses offering prostitution services in the United States. There are 31 businesses [in the Tri-Cities] offering sexual services and 17 are in Kennewick.”

At the same time the Department of Health was conducting checks on massage parlors to see if the massage practitioners were licensed. KPD was looking into trafficking. These ‘Safe Spa’ investigations led to the proposed code change.

During the presentation, Mayor Bill McKay asked, “Do they have legitimate adult hotels?” — an off-hand comment that was met with uncomfortable chuckles.

Then McKay talked about how often the businesses would be inspected to see if they were ‘up to snuff’. “Do we know kind of how often that would occur? Like once a year, once every two years, once every six months?” asked McKay.

Police Chief Chris Guerrero replied, “Yes, if this is approved, it would be something we would do quite often. Especially with the issues we’re having right now.”

Almost a dozen spas have already been closed in Kennewick, several directly linked to sex trafficking. Kennewick is a hub for this type of business. 

On June 20, the Kennewick City Council passed the ordinance to ‘crack down’ on illegal massage businesses. Mayor McKay presided over that meeting, too. He asked extensive questions and was very involved in the discussion. He did not recuse himself from the vote. 

Benton County Prosecutor

Bill McKay was considered a kingmaker in Benton County Republican politics. Every elected office in the county is currently held by a Republican. The last elected Democrat was Andy Miller, who served as Benton County Prosecutor for 36 years. And according to a source that does not want to be named, McKay wanted Miller out, and began recruiting a Republican to run for the office. In February 2022, Eric Eisinger, a Richland lawyer, announced he was running.  Andy Miller subsequently announced his retirement in March of 2022. Remember that previously, Eisinger worked as Assistant Kennewick City Attorney.

Follow the money

By examining the Public Disclosure Commissions reports on financial support of candidates, large individual donations made to Eisinger’s campaign were by members of the McKay family, including his wife, Cynthia McKay, and his son, William “Will” McKay, who is a Benton County Commissioner. When you add up the McKay receipts, the donations total over $5000.

As Mayor of Kennewick, Bill McKay (along with the rest of the council) hires and fires only one employee, the City Manager. The City Manager is in charge of all departments, including the police department and city prosecutor.

After McKay’s disclosures, the Kennewick Police appear to have followed up on his list of massage parlors. But no charges were filed against McKay. According to an interview in the Tri-City Herald, Prosecutor Eisinger said, “...His office never made any decisions about whether or not to charge McKay. Since the crime of soliciting a prostitute is a misdemeanor in Washington, it would be handled by the city prosecutor.”

Remember, Mayor McKay has power over the office of city prosecutor.

The confession

Human Trafficking Detective Kristofer Safranek #2003 Summary: This report documents an interview with Mr. William Mckay. I, Detective Kristofer Safranek, was working in the Criminal Investigations Division (CID), in the City of Kennewick, Benton County. On March 13th, 2023, at approximately 2:00 P.M., Detective Elizabeth Grant and I conducted a recorded interview with Mr. Bill Mckay in regards to Human Trafficking and Massage Parlors. The interview was approximately 1 hour and 7 minutes in length. The interview was both audio and video recorded using a body worn video. The interview was uploaded to evidence.com.

Bill McKay started the interview by telling the Detectives about his own prowess investigating crimes, stating that at one time he was offered a job by a Sheriff in Montana. Detective Safranek asked McKay specifically what he was doing in terms of ‘investigating’ massage parlors.

This is where the interview turned into a confession.

Safranek began asking McKay if the women at the parlors were aggressive. McKay said he hadn’t received any illegal sex acts, as he is a married man.

Then, Safranek said they had video from the parlors, so if McKay wanted to admit to more than just getting massages, he should. McKay immediately started confessing his involvement, beginning with admitting that he had noticed that the girls changed every four to six months, so he had suspected sex trafficking for a long time.

Thirteen minutes into the interview, McKay described one of the women, to uproarious laughter from both of the detectives. “…So the girl that was down there was uglier than a mud fence,” McKay said. He went on to describe one of the women several more times as ugly.

Then McKay admitted to receiving ‘happy endings’.

The police have said they normally don’t charge the clients in cases like this, but that they have, in the past, threatened the women involved with charges. Mostly, they go after the owners of businesses where illegal sex work occurs.

But sex trafficking is not just about illegal massage parlors, says JoDee Garretson, Executive Director for Support, Advocacy and Resource Center (SARC). Workers at massage parlors account for just 10% of the total victims of trafficking that SARC deals with in the area.

It has been within the last decade that sex trafficking has been tracked as a separate category by SARC, says Garretson. Her staff has received much more training to recognize and help clients that are being trafficked. She recalls:

I remember clients that I worked with — one in particular that still disturbs me — that at the time, I didn't understand that trafficking is what was taking place. And now when I look back at our multiple conversations, I can see that she was reaching out trying to explain to me and I didn't catch it. So it's really sad to think how many people could have been being trafficked. They really weren't getting the help they should have been [from] the community and service providers…. If our agency wasn't prepared, I can't imagine many others were very aware. So that's super sad.

The law is complicated with regards to sex trafficking. For children that are being trafficked, agencies are mandated reporters. But for adults being trafficked, it is much more complicated, explains Garretson. The victims are threatened and sometimes charged with crimes themselves.

In the last year, Garretson said they have had 100 new clients at SARC in the area of trafficking. And in the majority of these cases, the victims are related to (or have a personal relationship with) the trafficker. Garretson says:

The majority that we see are children being trafficked, and it's either from a parent — a mom, a dad, a sibling. It could be from a so-called boyfriend. But when it's younger kids, then it's often parents selling their kids for drugs, selling their kids for rent, selling their kids for food… it's that sort of thing.

It is always illegal to traffic a minor child, explains Garretson. She also says that what is depicted in movies isn’t reality. Garretson never went to see the movie Sound of Freedom but said, “People were pretty frustrated about it, because that's what just kind of feeds the myth or the belief that that's what the trafficking looks like as opposed to what we actually see in our communities, and so people have a hard time understanding when that's the type of of trafficking that is highlighted and sensationalized.”

Garretson explained that the majority of clients were sexually abused as kids. They see adults up to 65 years old, too, but they’re mostly younger adults.

“What we see is a kind of manipulation, thinking they're in a relationship. And really, they're being groomed to be trafficked,” Garretson says. “One example is called a Romeo trafficker.”

A Romeo trafficker manipulates a romantic relationship and gets the victim to agree to little things at first, like naked photos. Then they might escalate and convince the victim to dance naked.

“And the victim feels kind of complicit in what took place because originally, they were agreeing to certain acts, but then it gets turned on them, and then they're in a dangerous situation before they know it,” Garretson explains. “And they're often kept on drugs or alcohol, things like that. So then they get worried about that; you know, getting in trouble.”

Garretson said that when someone in a position of power (like Bill McKay) is involved, it will hopefully make people pay attention to what is actually happening, and not just the sensationalized reports. 

According to SARC’s annual report, of the clients who have experienced trafficking, 41% are white, 24% are African American, 17% are Hispanic, and 4% are Asian. Most of the victims in the Tri-Cities live in Kennewick.

SARC continues to hold public information events to educate the community about the issues of sex trafficking, and January is national human trafficking month. SARC has an annual event called “Shine the Light on Human Trafficking” in January.

Prosecutor changes course

By the third week of November, after reports from numerous news outlets, Prosecutor Eisinger had asked an outside prosecutor to examine the case. Eisinger referenced his conflicts of interest to McKay and the attention being paid to the financial support McKay and family made to his campaign as his reasons for seeking outside counsel. Originally, Eisinger had made comments saying that the charges in the case would be misdemeanors. And, as one person familiar with the case explained, confessions without evidence are not considered a crime. Corpus delicti (literally ‘body of the crime’) is necessary in order to prosecute.

Will evidence show that McKay was indeed videotaped at the massage parlors? Record requests are pending.

This story will continue as more information comes to light.

But we cannot forget the victims. And we must continue to hold elected officials accountable for their actions (and inactions).

Lifelong resident of Eastern Washington, Dori Luzzo Gilmour enjoys the outdoors, her family, and making good trouble. Her work in broadcasting and reporting has received a lot of recognition over the years, including most recently in OPB's “Favorite food stories of 2022 for her story about the work of local Tribes in the First Foods Program. Dori believes in the value of the 4th estate. She is a true community advocate that loves Washington.