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For years, men from all over the Bay Area came to San Mateo's massage parlors for a rubdown -- and, police claim, a lot more.

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Today, after lengthy investigations, three of what cops call "notorious brothels" along Highway are shut down, the buildings are for sale and the big s hawking their services are gone. Investigations are continuing at several similar businesses. Although many suburban cities around the Bay Area have tried to regulate massage parlors, San Mateo went after them with a tenacity seldom seen elsewhere.

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In the midst of a downtown revival and neighborhood cleanup, the increasingly image-conscious city saw the massage parlors as tacky and low-class. Massage parlors, tanning salons and relaxation spas found San Mateo a convenient location because of its proximity to San Francisco International Airport and the San Mateo Bridge. And when upscale Burlingame took a tough stand against its massage parlors in the early s, San Mateo became all the more attractive, officials said.

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The problem got so bad that on one occasion condoms clogged up sewer lines near one of the parlors. Men came and went at all hours, officials said.

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We had neighborhoods up in arms. One prolific letter-writing resident sent cops a flyswatter with a broken handle "to commemorate the ineffectiveness of police in dealing with this blight on our community. Inthe City Council passed regulations that required masseuses to pass a skills test and obtain a.

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Officials figured that would put the squeeze on illegitimate businesses. But officials found regulating the businesses as slippery as a masseuse's hot oil.

Several parlors simply changed names to skirt the law, officials said. It was pretty obvious what was going on," she said. Just last month, the council passed an "emergency moratorium" on massage, tanning and relaxation businesses "to protect public health and safety by preventing businesses being used as fronts for prostitution.

As part of a four-year investigation, police used undercover officers, wireless microphones, stakeouts, informants and the Municipal and Penal codes to shut down what they saw as three of the worst parlors -- Bay Relaxation and Tanning, 15 S.

Bayshore Boulevard; and Asian Gardens spa, S. Amphlett Boulevard. The San Mateo County district attorney's office is now seeking a court order to padlock the buildings for a year under state red- light laws. A civil trial on the red- light abatement issue is pending.

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Their attorney, Walter Shjeflo, said the D'Agostinos are out-of-town landlords and have no comment on the allegations. Defendants named in the suit include business owners, managers and workers.

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In court documents, an attorney for one of the defendants denied that the businesses were a front for prostitution -- and questions why police spent so much time and money trying to coax female employees into soliciting undercover officers for sex. Cook said the investigations took so long because police needed to show that prostitution was routine, not isolated incidents as the business managers would say when a woman was arrested.

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Over the past several years, police said they made 12 arrests for prostitution at Kahala, eight at Asian Gardens and 14 at Bay Relaxation. At a raid of the businesses in January, police said they found stacks of condoms, sent customers and employees scurrying for clothing and broke up a sex act.

One regular told police he had sex with three different women over a period of several years.

After his wife found out -- and he gave her a venereal disease -- he unsuccessfully tried to get the money back. Wellman, the deputy city attorney, said the investigation had been "a tremendous amount of work. In the end, we think it was worth it.

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We think we sent a message: Don't do that kind of business here.