“She Had Brains, a Body, and the Ability To Make Men Love Her”
How a 22-year-old former cheerleader discovered prostitution, helped put 68 high-profile johns in handcuffs, and brought Odessa to its knees.
THEY WERE NOT RUN-OF-THE-MILL WHORES. Anybody in Odessa would tell you that. Clients and investigators agree that you could have been in church and not have realized that you were sitting next to one of the Healing Touch massage parlor girls—they looked that wholesome.
And from the day the parlor’s doors opened in July 2003, it was a discreet operation. The madams, a lesbian couple named Kathy and Sharon Joyner, were experienced professionals. They chose a location between a revivalist ministry and a carpentry shop in a plain-as-toast strip mall, and they hired only three employees at a time, girls who worked steady hours and arrived on the job wearing conservative outfits. Among the first girls to work at the Healing Touch were “Melinda,” a subdued 37-year-old with long brown hair and a taste for wild men, and “Paige,” a sophisticated 33-year-old blonde who bore a striking resemblance to Samantha on Sex and the City. (All the prostitutes requested that I use their “working” names.) Nobody who saw these girls walk in and out of the parlor could have guessed what was really going on inside, which was attracting a steady flow of satisfied customers.
But the Healing Touch could never have set off the giant sex scandal that Odessans are still sorting out today without the arrival of “Lexus,” a petite former cheerleader from Big Spring. The 22-year-old had walked in as a novice, like the other girls. But what she lacked in experience she made up for with a bubbly personality and the kind of girlish looks that made her irresistible to the grown men of Odessa. A consummate businesswoman, she treated clients with an unrestrained smile and animated charm, and unlike her colleagues, she could remember personal details that made each of them feel special. “She had brains, a body, a personality, and the ability to make men love her,” her former boss Sharon told me. And many did. After only a few weeks with Lexus in their ranks, Sharon and Kathy didn’t need any advertising beyond their one ad in the Thrifty Nickel. By the spring of 2004 Lexus had clients flying in from Europe just to see her for an hour and dozens of the most prominent men in town competing for her attention. Her personality may have been the polar opposite of the icy Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, but she attracted the same kinds of high-profile clients and kept the same kinds of secrets that could bring them all to their knees.
On May 27, 2004, as part of one of the biggest vice operations in recent West Texas history, more than a dozen Odessa officers raided the Healing Touch and accomplished just that. In the months following Sharon’s and Kathy’s arrests on drug charges, as rumors were leaked to the media about a prostitution investigation and the parlor’s voluminous client roster, Odessa’s 91,000 citizens were consumed by a controversy known simply as “the list.” Everybody wanted to know who was on it. Husbands tiptoed around their wives, who in turn eyed them with suspicion. And in July, with Lexus and her co-workers having named names in exchange for lighter sentences, 68 men were in handcuffs. The roundup of former Healing Touch clients included an assistant district attorney, a city planner, the owner of an insurance company, several teachers, and a well-known rancher. One could practically hear the champagne corks popping in the homes of local divorce lawyers. The hullabaloo made even the 1973 La Grange Chicken Ranch bust seem quaint.
As of December, Sharon and Kathy had already begun to serve prison time, and the remaining men and women were awaiting trials that should be wrapped up by the end of January. Odessa seems ready to put the whole affair behind it. But prostitution has long been a part of life in West Texas; it was only the number of otherwise upstanding citizens involved that made the Healing Touch any different. In fact, if one of the parlor’s prostitutes hadn’t recognized her church pastor one morning when he walked in and slapped down a wad of cash, the place might still be in business today.
SITTING IN HER ONE-BEDROOM apartment in September, surrounded by framed pictures of her two small children, Lexus wore a royal-blue Bazooka Bubble Gum T-shirt and her smooth, shiny brown hair in two ponytails at the nape of her neck. She was no longer working as a prostitute, but she was hardly ashamed of her past. She looked and acted like an excited kid, her ponytails bobbing as she nodded and laughed at almost everything we discussed.
She was never a likely candidate for a job at the Healing Touch. A young, cheery wife and mother, Lexus was a born nurturer who had taken college classes after high school graduation in hopes of working in some form of physical therapy or nursing. As recently as the fall of 2003, she was giving legitimate massages at an Odessa physical therapy center while her husband worked on an oil rig. But then her company downsized; she lost her job at the same time her husband, who became ill, was forced to quit his. They found themselves with $8,000 of debt and two car payments. For a while they relied on his parents for money, but Lexus wanted to prove her financial independence. She teased him to no end for being a mama’s boy. “You want your momma to pump some milk,” she’d ask him, “so I can make some Popsicles out of it?” One day when her husband’s friend mentioned that he knew a way she could make some fast cash, Lexus gladly accompanied him to the Healing Touch.
They parked right outside a strip mall bearing signs for the Higher Realm Ministries and the Trophy Den and stepped into the massage parlor, which had a small storefront and a shaded front window. Inside was a spare waiting room with a gray couch, a love seat, and a stack of magazines. Scented candles burned and Native American flute music played over the speaker system. Behind the front lobby were an office area and two pressed-wood massage rooms. In the very back was a second waiting room, where the prostitutes read paperbacks and played Yahtzee.
The man introduced Lexus to the Healing Touch madams: Sharon, a 49-year-old spitfire with a quick wit, and Kathy, a 45-year-old matronly redhead with a pierced tongue. “We’ll let you sit in on a session,” one of them told her, and Lexus followed her husband’s friend and a prostitute into one of the massage rooms. As her friend was serviced, she stood in the corner, trying to convince herself that the place was clean and friendly. Certainly, she thought, she could do this.
Afterward, Sharon and Kathy told her how the operation worked. The madams rented out the massage rooms to the girls between the hours of ten and six for $30 per half-hour session, with the prostitutes keeping any tips for “extras” (oral sex was $60, straight sex was $100, and anal sex was $150, while other combinations and varieties were negotiated on a case-by-case basis). “Out-calls,” since they were riskier, were more expensive, ranging from $150 per half hour to $1,000 for the whole night, and Sharon and Kathy negotiated their cut for each session.
They didn’t need a security guard, they told Lexus. Sharon sat at a desk near the front waiting room, and she could be tough if a suspicious customer came in and asked for a massage. “You’ll need to make an appointment,” she’d say with a squint, and send him on his way. Her partner, Kathy, had maintained first-rate madam status in town for more than twenty years. Before running the Healing Touch she had opened a massage parlor called Middessa Therapy; before that she had run another parlor, Rockhill Therapy, with her ex-mother-in-law. These were quietly tolerated in Odessa. Once in a while streetwalkers or massage parlor workers or johns around town got slapped with a class B misdemeanor, resulting in a $200 fine and a night in jail. But Kathy—who had been fined several times for prostitution at Middessa but never jailed—had been around long enough that she had a few lawyers among her finest clients, men for whom she felt an undeniable affection.
It had been this way for as long as anybody could remember. Locals try to argue that there isn’t much difference anymore between Odessa, where oil-field employees live, and Midland, where the oil businessmen live. Odessa has gone to great pains to upgrade its image. The town has chased the once-prominent strip joints outside the city limits and promoted its new slogan, “Odessa: The Right Place in Texas.” But as one police officer told me: “This is a boring town. There’s nothing: no lake, no mountains, no entertainment. You got the picture show and the bars, unless you go to the topless joints.” It seems no matter how hard the town tries to fight its reputation, the old saying about Odessa and its neighbor still applies: “Raise your family in Midland; raise hell in Odessa.”
No sooner had Kathy and Sharon gone over their business model and explained the kind of money a prostitute could make than Lexus was ready to give it a shot. “You try it,” Sharon told her, offering her a job, “and if you don’t like it, you can leave. No hard feelings.”
She showed up the next day, getting a few brief instructions before nervously joining Paige and Melinda in the back waiting room. The two veterans looked at the new girl and told her she needed a working name. “Let’s call you Lexus,” one of them said, “because you’re a smooth ride.” Lexus laughed and squealed, “Shut up!” but the name stuck.
THE HEALING TOUCH HAD been looking for a new employee since the late summer, when a 32-year-old prostitute named “Kelly” had abruptly quit. A mother and former waitress who had been raised Pentecostal, Kelly had worked at the Healing Touch from the beginning and had established herself as a reliable moneymaker. Desperate for cash, she was working up to fourteen clients a day, taking in $2,000 to $3,000 a week. But one day she recognized a customer in the lobby, and it hit a little too close to home. “Aren’t you the preacher who gave my grandma’s eulogy?” she asked. “Who baptized my son?” The man nodded, unfazed. Then he asked for a massage, and Kelly led him into one of the private rooms.
Everyone who worked at the Healing Touch was used to this kind of awkward overlap between the two worlds of Odessa. Day-to-day navigation through restaurants or convenience stores was always risky for the prostitutes, who learned to politely ignore their customers outside of work. Encounters were even trickier for Kathy and Sharon, who were both social and knew many folks around town. The madams frequently ran into couples they knew, and they’d listen to the wives give updates about their children or details about their most recent vacation, pretending that they didn’t know all of the details, that they hadn’t already heard the news back at the Healing Touch from the husband that very afternoon. “You just smile and ooh and aah and go about your business,” Sharon said.
But after a second visit from her pastor, Kelly couldn’t stomach business as usual. The next time he showed up, she passed him off to one of the other girls. Still, nightmares about her job at the Healing Touch began to wake her up at night. At work and at home, she started popping Xanax like potato chips. One day she was putting on her makeup at work when she decided to stop in next door at the Higher Realm Ministries, where she cried for hours and confessed her sins to the preacher, Kennith Hughes. She quit that afternoon and took the next bus back to her dad, in Arkansas. Hughes, meanwhile, called Crime Stoppers. “Now, I’m not a criminal investigator,” he told them, “but it’s strange that only women work at the Healing Touch and only men go in.” A week later, Kelly herself phoned the hotline and reported the business’s illegal activities, adding, “There’s an assistant district attorney involved, lawyers, businessmen.”
“I think they thought I was bullshitting them,” she told me.
But Kelly wasn’t lying. From the beginning, even before Lexus showed up, the parlor’s clients were not young men sowing their oats or truck drivers pulling over to the side of the road for a quickie. Those who stopped in at the Healing Touch were the kind of men you’d meet at a Rotary Club luncheon. Some were older, like the septuagenarian who finished a threesome with two prostitutes by telling Sharon, “This is simultaneously my biggest waste of money and my best use of it.” But more often they were married Odessa professionals aged forty to sixty. For them, the Healing Touch was almost considered an errand, part of their routine. In the middle of the day, on the way to the bank or the drugstore, they’d stop in for a half-hour visit. “God, I had no idea how much a man needs to be told he’s studly,” said Sharon. “You’d be surprised how many times I’d hear the girls chuckling over how so-and-so came in and spent fifteen minutes flexing in the mirror and asking, ‘Do you think I’m fat?’ Oh, absolutely not. Men need to feel important. And sometimes family and pressure at work and aging takes that away from them.” These men included Scott Tidwell, a well-known lawyer who stopped by now and then, and Lee Hadden, an assistant district attorney who was a weekly regular despite the fact that his wife was considered to be one of the best-looking women in town.
And in truth, Hughes’s claim that the Healing Touch might be more than an honest-to-goodness massage parlor was not earth-shattering news to Jesse “Chuy” Duarte and Mike Tacker, both detective sergeants and supervisors in the Odessa Police Department’s Narcotics and Vice Unit. Duarte, a tattooed, soft-spoken cop with salt-and-pepper hair, and Tacker, a redhead with cropped hair and brown eyes, had met Kathy back when they had busted her during a drug raid at her house in the early nineties. They were aware that she was a madam by trade but generally left her alone. Tacker explains, “You get a misdemeanor versus a meth lab next to a day care? You have to pick and choose.” Duarte said the only remarkable characteristic about the Healing Touch, from the outside, was the business’s one-thousand-foot proximity to a school zone. And it wasn’t until the investigations unit began getting flooded with calls that they felt compelled to check it out. “I received ten or fifteen tips on this place a day,” said Duarte incredulously, leaning forward over a table for emphasis. Tacker grinned with amused bewilderment. “We got more calls on this place than any other prostitution place I’ve seen,” he said.
Duarte and Tacker sent an undercover agent in for a massage, but he was no match for Sharon. She deftly sent him away with instructions to get a referral, laughing into her sleeve as he walked out the door. The officers realized that if they were going to bring the Healing Touch down, they’d need something bigger. And when a source accused the madams of dealing drugs, they knew just what to look for.
In November, with the help of the FBI, the Odessa police installed a surveillance camera across the street from the parlor and began to man the monitor from the police station around the clock. The officer on surveillance duty wrote down license plate numbers and names of recognizable figures, zooming in on the Hummers, Jaguars, and Mercedes for a better look. Members of the narcotics crew would walk past the monitor on the way out of the office and shake their heads and groan as they watched men who owned major businesses in town, men they knew well. “I had been best man at one client’s wedding,” an officer told me.
A FEW WEEKS LATER, on her first day at the Healing Touch, Lexus took home $700. It was good enough money to keep her coming back. Within a week she was pulling in $200 to $1,000 per day working the ten-to-six shift Monday through Friday. She drove the hour-and-a-half commute between Big Spring and Odessa, returning home each night to cook dinner, draw her kids their baths, and give her husband (who believed she was working as a legitimate massage therapist) a kiss good-night.
And initially, at least, she took pride in her work. “You have to know how to give an actual massage,” she told me, reminding me that she had been formally trained in that skill. “You have to get in there and rub on them. When they leave, their back should feel better . . . You have to use your elbows.”
And she understood that the job took more than physical labor. “I didn’t see myself as a prostitute,” she said. “I was a friend. I always said, ‘I’m not a prostitute. I’m customer service.’” She laughed, straightened her back, cocked her head to the side, and clarified this idea in a tone of mock seriousness: “Customer service rep.” She said she counseled her clients on ways they could reengage their wives in a relationship. Many of them told her things like, “I wish my wife would call me when she was thinking about me.” If Lexus was unsympathetic to these complaints, she always felt free to swat them on the shoulder and tell them they were “being an ass.” “You need to buy your wife some flowers,” she’d say. And they would.
Her work ethic did not go unnoticed. Clients who used to ask for the blond bombshell Paige were now asking for the bubblier Lexus. And hardly anybody went for the all-business Melinda. “Bless her heart,” Paige said. “Melinda would always talk about her problems, and nobody wanted to hear them.” (“Customers didn’t really like my attitude,” Melinda admitted to me.) That Christmas, clients were already giving Lexus bonuses of up to $1,500. They’d ask her to go on vacations, even beg to be her sugar daddy.
Kathy and Sharon, meanwhile, were hearing reports from their in-the-know clients that the police were hoping to infiltrate their operation. But the two madams figured that as long as they could keep the cops from getting into one of their massage rooms, no prostitution charges could be made. They figured they were facing misdemeanor charges at the most; they had no idea there was a drug investigation going on. And with wealthier and wealthier clients showing up by the day, they continued undaunted.
Like all good businesswomen, they also wished to increase productivity. They knew that the industry was changing. Sharon put a computer in the girls’ waiting room and had them post their photos and contact information on an international adult-entertainment Web page. Within each profile, the site listed the tricks a girl was willing to perform, how much she charged, and reviews that tended to read more like testimonials. The evaluations poured in from Healing Touch clients. “Oh, God, I checked those reviews!” Lexus said, laughing. “I hated them. Some of them were such lies.” Within a few weeks, Lexus was so popular that the Web site’s administrator requested a limit on her customers’ postings because the inundation of reviews was crashing his server. Thanks to the exposure, Lexus began taking “out-calls” with men from as far away as Germany. “They came in from New York, Colorado, San Antonio,” she said, grinning her big cheerleader smile. “I was like, ‘You want me?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah!’”
As much as she liked the attention, the job took its toll on Lexus’s family life. “There were days,” she said, “when I went home and thought, ‘You can’t kiss these kids after what you’ve been doing,’ and it was hard. I’d go home and tell myself, ‘You’re doing it for those babies.’ If they wanted those little Shocker tennis shoes, they had them. That was the only way I could justify going there every day.” But the money wasn’t just going to the kids. Lexus began using cocaine. Before long, she was snorting up to $250 worth of powder a day. She lost weight, dwindling to a boyish 98-pound frame. “The cocaine made this job a lot easier,” Lexus said. But her relationship with her husband grew strained. Once, he asked if she did “extras” on the job, and she looked over at him and wanted to admit everything. Instead she laughed and shot back, “Why, do you want one?” Unlike her eager out-of-towners, he dropped the subject.
By midwinter, Lexus had separated from her husband. She moved out of their home and into a rented townhouse in Odessa, taking her escalating drug habit with her. Now that she was living in town, the line of men willing to risk their careers and marriages for a few minutes with Lexus only grew longer. Anyone with an agenda and the knowledge of the parlor’s customer base would have perfect ammunition to bring down the lot of them. Worse for the customers, Lexus had a flawless memory: “I’d say, ‘How’d the game go?’ ‘How are the kids?’ ‘How was the marathon?’ They were amazed. I could remember everything about them.”
AT TEN O’CLOCK in the morning on May 27, Kathy, Sharon, Paige, and Melinda were lounging around on couches in the front room of the Healing Touch, waiting for Lexus to return from the store with a couple packs of beer. When she finally arrived, she put down the cases and took a call on her cell phone; before she could hang up, more than a dozen officers had rushed in and slammed the girls up against the walls. Sharon, still unaware that the officers were investigating her for drugs, sat calmly and finished chewing her burrito. “You got some paperwork for me?” she asked.
The agents responded by handing her a search warrant for drugs based on an undercover informant’s report that Kathy and Sharon had sold him seven grams of cocaine. Their search of the madams’ home and business came up dry. But when the police searched the girls and their cars, they found cocaine on Melinda and Lexus. And just like that, nobody’s secrets were safe in Odessa. After Paige, Lexus, and Melinda were separated, the three did what all prostitutes do: They spilled the names of their clients. When they didn’t know the clients’ full names, the girls would be shown pictures of men that the officers had seen on the tape; the girls would answer, “Yes, I’ve been with him x number of times and he wanted y done to him and I charged him z.”
The officers were stunned at the girls’ memories, particularly Lexus’s. Despite being so nervous that her hands were shaking and so strung out on cocaine that her nose bled through the entire five-hour interview, she had a “photographic memory,” said Tacker, who was still impressed months after the arrest. “At first I thought she was bullshitting, until I started interviewing the guys and the stories were identical. I’d ask, ‘How many times have you been with that guy?’ and she’d say, ‘Nine.’ Then I’d ask the guy the same question and he’d say, ‘Nine.’ She remembered everything. There was no discrepancy.”
What puzzled Lexus was the investigators’ interest in specific individuals. “There were many names we gave them that they didn’t want, people who weren’t prominent enough,” Lexus said. “They said, ‘We want folks we can do something with.’”
With the help of Lexus’s and the other girls’ statements and a client book obtained from Kathy’s former parlor, Middessa Therapy, the police got to work conducting interviews. When officers brought the accused men into the station for questioning, 95 percent of them confessed to soliciting prostitution. Still, the matter remained relatively quiet until the June 3 edition of the Odessa American, whose headline read “Deputy District Attorney Hadden Resigns: Prostitution Investigation Implicates Dozens of Prominent Businessmen.” At that point the town went crazy.
“The calls started coming,” said Duarte. “‘Who else is on the list?’”
The names circulating around town, based on nothing more than rumors, were soon being discussed in local barbershops, and in Odessa’s offices there were endless games around the water cooler of guess-the-john. On the “wish list” were men who had nothing in common, one officer said, except that they were “universally disliked.” The local media were demanding that the names be released to shut down the rumor mill, but the police insisted that the nature of the case required that they investigate fully, which meant that only a handful of officers were available to conduct more than one hundred interviews.
For the next two months, everybody in town was on edge, including the cops. Even innocent men grew nervous. One man with a common first and last name warned his wife, “Honey, there are a lot of men in this town with the same name as mine.”
“You’re right,” the wife responded curtly. “And you better hope none of them are on that list.”
WHEN THE ARRESTS BEGAN on July 27, Odessans gathered around televisions to watch the news unfold. Channel 9 broke into its programming at 8:15 a.m. and carried the event live. On a morning of pouring rain, the police arrested the Healing Touch women and 68 men, along with Middessa Therapy’s owner, Janet Lietz, who was arrested for promoting prostitution. In order to process the group with the utmost efficiency, they brought everyone to a large facility close to the Ector County Detention Center. By the time the police arrived with the first batch of detainees, television reporters had already set up outside. Next to the news trucks, half a dozen angry wives, clearly plotting their divorces, stood stone-faced as they taped the entire episode with home video cameras.
Inside the building, some of the men recognized each other and tipped their hats or chuckled nervously. They sat in rows and waited for their turn at one of four processing tables, which were set up alphabetically by last name. The men faced a $2,000 fine and up to six months in jail, but the standard plea offer was $1,500 and thirty days in jail, with a trial to begin in late December or sometime this month. Most of them begged the officers to hurry up and get them the hell out of the building.
But the humiliation didn’t end there. The list of 68 johns was also printed in the Odessa American the next morning. Locals immediately picked off the names they recognized: A substitute teacher. Attorneys. Ranchers and multimillionaires. Two deacons. An accountant. A welder. Even an editor at the Odessa American. Attorney Scott Tidwell, who had been a Healing Touch client but who also threw parties with his favorite Irving prostitute at Odessa’s finest hotel, was charged with two counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of prostitution.
The bust provided endless entertainment for those who weren’t involved. “When their favorite villains didn’t appear [on the list], they just knew there had to be a conspiracy,” said Rick Pippins, a lieutenant at the Criminal Investigations Bureau. “They were so disappointed they didn’t appear on the list that they figured there had to be a cover-up.” Some people around town whispered that the sting operation was politically motivated, that members of one party or another were overlooked. Others, who took the matter less seriously, began wearing T-shirts with slogans that read “As a matter of fact, I am not on ‘The List’!” and “As a matter of fact, my man is not on ‘The List’!”—even “Odessa Sex Scandal 2004,” with all the names of the johns printed on the back. The accused were razzed around town with comments like, “Goddam! Why didn’t you tell me about that place?”
Sharon and Kathy received a year and a day in prison for the federal drug charges and two years for the state prostitution charges. The prostitutes faced an average of fifteen days in jail and a $1,000 fine (sentencing will be concluded by the end of this month). They have had difficulty adjusting to the salary of a grocery store clerk or a secretary, but they all seem relieved that the Healing Touch is closed.
When I last saw Lexus, in October, she still seemed unashamed of her past. Her family weathered the scandal well and even teased her about her involvement. When the news of the bust hit the media, her mother joked, “My baby made the front of the newspaper!” But her perky and positive perspective seemed strained as she discussed quitting her cocaine habit and going in front of a judge to get joint custody of her children. She was discouraged with her job searches, and even when she had found work, she told me, she’d been fired promptly enough to suspect that her bosses had been tipped off about her affiliation with the list. At one point, she looked at the palms of her hands with disgust when she talked about the things she had done. “I think I may have to leave this place,” she told me.
But for the men on the list, Odessa is a forgive-and-forget kind of town. Time passes quickly there, just as it passed in La Grange, which is now better known for the ZZ Top song than the Chicken Ranch. One Odessa local told me, “Several years ago a county law judge was sanctioned for tying up his secretary and watching S&M tapes with her; now he writes plays for the community theater.” And don’t expect the parlor business to disappear anytime soon. Just before Sharon Joyner went to jail in October, she told me she’d received so many calls that she had to change her number. “Are you crazy?” she would ask, when prodded for recommendations on other parlors. “Have you not been reading the paper? Didn’t I see your name on the list?”