Sept. 9, 2011— -- 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.
Inside the Phoenix Goddess Temple
The organization's website is no longer available online, but its teachings were described as "body centric" in an archived version from May.
The homepage "invites" customers to "relax deeply" in a "candle-lit Transformation Chamber," and "feel the magnetic polarity between men and women.
"No part of you is ever left out when you are in the presence of the Mother, our Divine Creatrix of physical form," the website proclaimed. "You can feel whole and happy again in your body, you can feel safe with or without a partner near by."
First-time visitors were directed to an "orientation" page, suggesting that new clients choose a "secret Temple name" rather than give their real name at any point during their "journey of inner-knowing." Also included, a checklist requiring participants to acknowledge, "I will not receive any type of sexual gratification in exchange for money during my session," and "all that unfolds is consensual exchange between self-sovereign beings for the purpose of expanding knowledge of life force."
The checklist requires new visitors to agree that all touching is "fully consensual."
In addition to offering "sessions" claiming to heal sexual blockages, the "temple" offered Friday night sex-ed classes, featuring such topics as "Tantra 101" and "Toys for Big Girls and Boys."
It suggested students "donate" between $6 and $33 per class. The sessions were much pricier, ranging from $204 to $650.
In a section called "testimonials," the website featured an email from a client who called himself David, thanking a "gypsy goddess" named Iyata for a "state of extraordinary orgasm."
The Phoenix Goddess Temple still has several advertisements on the adult entertainment section of classified ads website Backpage.com. An ad for Iyata dated Sept. 5 showed a woman in what appears to be a belly-dancing outfit. "I will ignite you with my touch, breath, and Love. We will Cultivate your ecstasy to it's highest potential," the ad says.
The Phoenix Goddess Temple did not immediately respond to an interview request from ABCNews.com.
Organization leaders had said in prior media interviews that they are not prostitutes, but religious healers focusing on "Root Chakra."
"There's no science and provability about this [healing system]," Elise told the Phoenix New Times in February. "But it works."
The county attorney, however, isn't buying it.
"We're not viewing this in any way as somehow protected by the first amendment," Montgomery said. "This is not religious expression. This is a criminal activity and those responsible thought they were being too clever by half by coming up with different terms."