Arizona prosecutors have charged more than 30 people affiliated with the Phoenix Goddess Temple, a 10,000-square-foot alleged brothel that had been operating under the pretense of providing "religious" services for hundreds of dollars in cash "donations," police said.
"They were committing crimes under the guise of religious freedom," Phoenix police spokesman Steve Martos said. "It's a sad situation when people are trying to hide behind religion and church to commit a crime."
The "temple" had been operating in Phoenix since 2009, but authorities didn't become aware of it until residents began complaining. After a local newspaper visited the alleged brothel and published an in-depth story, police launched a six-month investigation culminating in the arrest of 18 people Wednesday. They are still hunting down the other 19.
It was the largest Arizona prostitution bust since authorities broke up the tri-state "Desert Divas" ring in 2008.
Four of those indicted are men, but none of them are johns. Charges include prostitution, pandering and conspiracy.
During the investigation, police discovered the Goddess Temple was operating another alleged house of prostitution in Sedona, Ariz., which was also raided Wednesday.
Goddess Temple founder Tracy Elise, known within her business as "Mystic Mother," was one of the 18 arrested Wednesday. She had also been involved with a similar alleged brothel in Seattle, Wash., that had been shut down in 2009.
The Goddess Temple first started operating in 2007 in a residential home, but police were unable to get into that location, Martos said. The Temple workers eventually moved to Scottsdale, where authorities cited them for various permit issues before the organization finally settled in Phoenix and Sedona.
"I'm going to call it like I see it," Maricopa county attorney Bill Montgomery said. "They had a brothel, they had a madam, they had prostitutes and they had johns. The johns were paying prostitutes for sex. That's illegal. It's a blight on the community and we took action to take it down."
Police obtained a search warrant after initiating several undercover deals and determining that the Temple Goddess employees had been trained to use evasive vocabulary.
"For example, 'johns' were not 'johns.' They were called 'seekers.' Sexual intercourse was called 'sacred union,'" Martos said.
The "temple" featured themed rooms in spaces that had once been individual offices. Martos said one of the rooms had a "water theme" with a whirlpool and waves painted on the walls. Another had been decorated with Egyptian-themed artwork.