Johnny Lozano and his neighbors knew there was something different about the skin-care salon across the alley from their modest apartment building in East Los Angeles.
A steady stream of Asian men, who did not seem to need cosmetic advice, visited the establishment in the predominantly Latino neighborhood daily, often until midnight.
Scantily clad girls who worked inside bluntly told Latinos seeking skin care to stay away.
"Only Asians allowed," they would say.
On occasion, Lozano recalled Thursday, empty condom packages would turn up in the alley.
"But the worst thing was you could never find a parking space around here," he lamented. "It was always crowded. We just knew something was up in that place."
So it was no surprise that Lozano and a dozen of his neighbors cheered Wednesday as they watched Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrest 36 people for investigation of prostitution-related charges in a sting operation at Taipei Skin Care in the 5300 block of East Beverly Boulevard.
Tipped off by neighbors and using other information, deputies Wednesday morning raided the small storefront with a gated front entrance and arrested two women inside on suspicion of operating a house of prostitution.
Then, at about noon, female deputies took over the shop, posing as employees, and arrested 33 men who, investigators said, paid a $40 entry fee and then solicited sex acts ranging in price from $20 to $100. Another man was arrested in front of the place after he tried to warn others that deputies were inside, officers said.
Those arrested were released with summonses to appear in court.
As the sting operation stretched into the early evening, Lozano, 36, set up a TV set next to the alley to watch the Lakers playoff game with the Chicago Bulls--and to keep an interested eye on the unfolding drama nearby.
"The deputies told us to act normally, but we couldn't help cheering every once in a while," Lozano said. "They'd lead these guys out the back door to the van for processing. They all looked dazed. Surprised."
A neighbor, Robert Salinas, 18, added: "They led out one old guy, maybe in his 70s or 80s, and he didn't know what the heck was going on. After they let him go, he had trouble remembering where he had parked his car."
The residents across the alley were not the only ones in the area who wondered about Taipei Skin Care.
"At first, I didn't notice anything at all," said barber Richard Gonzales, whose shop is across the street. "Then a customer says all these Asian guys kept going in, but never coming out the front door. Then I kept seeing it happen."
A florist down the street, who asked that her name not be used, said Asian men often came in to order flowers for the girls at Taipei Skin Care. But they would insist that others, preferably Asians, deliver them.
"They were all different guys but with the same condition--let somebody else deliver the flowers," the florist said. "Weird. . . ."
News of Wednesday's sting was slow reaching some people. Several impeccably dressed men tried to enter the salon on Thursday, but appeared frustrated because no one answered the front door.
One man, told that the place had been raided by authorities, reacted nervously and said, "Really? I was just looking for someone . . . just looking for someone." With that, he hurried away while anxiously looking over his shoulder.