Los Angeles authorities have charged a 52-year-old with indecent exposure at a popular Korean spa that was the subject of a viral Instagram post earlier this summer.
The LA police department (LAPD) announced late on Thursday that it had put out an arrest warrant for Darren Merager, who is now facing five felony counts of indecent exposure at Wi Spa in the Koreatown neighborhood. The charges, filed on Monday, come two months after a viral Instagram video from a woman who filmed herself confronting Wi Spa staff about seeing a “man” naked in front of women and girls in the women’s section of the facility.
In the 24 June video, another patron suggested the individual might be a trans woman, and the woman filming herself responded with transphobic language, denying that trans women exist.
LAPD said that five individuals had come forward, and that the department “conducted interviews of victims and witnesses, reviewed the evidence, and ultimately corroborated the allegations of indecent exposure”.
It was not immediately clear if Merager had an attorney, and Merager’s gender identity was also unclear; an LAPD spokesperson said the department could not immediately comment on the suspect’s gender identity, and the Guardian’s attempts to reach Merager on Thursday were unsuccessful. The prosecutor’s office declined to comment.
Merager has been a registered sex offender since 2006, police said, and has a history of previous indecent exposure charges. Merager was convicted of indecent exposure in LA in 2002 and 2003, and pleaded not guilty to seven counts of indecent exposure in an alleged December 2018 case, according to court records. That case is still open.
The Wi Spa video from June went viral on rightwing forums, far-right sites and Fox News and led to two major anti-trans protests outside the spa, during which far-right demonstrators fought with trans-rights protesters in the street. In one of the chaotic rallies that turned violent, members of the far-right Proud Boys group marched alongside women who held “protect female spaces” signs. At another, two people were reportedly stabbed, leaving at least one, a man who had come to the protest to support a trans friend, with serious injuries.
The original allegations about what happened at the spa were quickly distorted online, leading to widespread misinformation and online abuse against trans women who spoke out and engaged in counter protests. Precious Child, an LA-based musician and trans woman, faced a torrent of violent threats after she was falsely accused on social media of being the alleged perpetrator in the Wi Spa incident, even though she said she had never been to the spa, the Guardian reported.
As the allegations about the spa spread, a Los Angeles LGBTQ+ newspaper reported in early July that there was no known record of trans clients at the spa that day, and questioned whether the incident “may have been staged”.
While LA police originally said that no crime had been reported at Wi Spa, five people eventually filed police reports in mid-July, all alleging indecent exposure at Wi Spa on the same day, according to an LAPD spokesperson.
The viral video was made by a woman on Instagram who goes by the name “‘Cubana Angel”, who went on to campaign for the repeal of a California law that allows trans people to use facilities that match their gender, citing her experience at the spa. The spa said it did not discriminate based on gender identity.
Her identity remains unknown and she previously declined to comment to the Guardian. On Thursday, she referred the Guardian to Marc Little, a prominent conservative pastor who had held a press conference with her calling for the repeal of a trans rights law.
Reached by phone, Little said, “The only comment I have is, ‘Let truth prevail.’”
Tamara Lave, a University of Miami law professor and former public defender in California, said that prosecutors in indecent exposure cases have to prove a defendant not only “willfully exposed” themselves in front of others, but that the person did so with the intention of arousing themselves or sexually offending another individual.
“If somebody goes into a spa and sits naked in the tub, and all they are trying to do is relax, the fact that they are naked in public is not enough for them to be guilty of a crime,” she said, adding that she is concerned about the ramifications for trans rights. “The prosecutor has a duty to make clear that this is about one individual’s conduct, not about a class of people’s conduct.”
“I’m expecting that people will view this as justification to repeal trans and queer human rights in Los Angeles and around the world,” Precious Child said on Thursday after LAPD’s announcement. “It supports a narrative that trans people are sex offender demons that take advantage of systems that are put in place to protect people.”
Jamie Penn, a trans woman who lives in Koreatown and had joined the counter-protests for trans rights outside Wi Spa, said she was disturbed to see the allegations of repeat offenses, but that she also feared how the case might be exploited by anti-trans groups.
“Who knows what the far-right disinformation machine is going to turn this one into?” she said.
California law has long prohibited businesses from denying trans people access to facilities that match their gender. Luis A Vasquez, a legal scholar at the UCLA Williams Institute and expert on LGBTQ+ protections, noted that there was no evidence that the passage of trans-inclusive policies for bathrooms and public spaces has led to increased safety risks or harms. There is, however, significant evidence of the harassment and abuse that trans people have faced in bathrooms and other public facilities, which can have long term consequences, he noted.
“The research has been fairly consistent in showing that when these legal protections exist for trans people, they translate to better mental health outcomes and better wellbeing among transgender people,” Vasquez said.