Sun Rise Massage on Monday, in Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Sun Rise Massage on Monday, in Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Sultan man charged with hate crime for robberies of Asian-owned spas

Tuli Tevaga, 23, reportedly told police he robbed “dozens” of massage parlors in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

MARYSVILLE — When a man walked into Sunrise Massage Spa on a June afternoon, the manager welcomed him with a warm smile from behind the counter, over a saucer filled with Dubble Bubble, in a room painted a dusty shade of pink.

She asked the man if he would like a massage. She couldn’t make out his response, she told The Daily Herald, because English is not her first language. The man lunged over the dish of bubble gum and knocked the woman’s cell phone out of her hands. He flashed what looked like a weapon and demanded money, the woman said. He shoved her, took cash and ran back to his car parked at the 7-Eleven next door. Alone in her spa with a customer in the back, the manager panicked.

“It is a public place,” she later told The Daily Herald, “so I had always felt pretty safe here.”

She did not call police until three days later, when a friend urged her to do so.

“I realized if I didn’t report, he might go rob another place,” she said. “I had to save the other people.”

That week, detectives identified the suspect as Tuli Tevaga, 23, of Sultan, and booked him into jail for investigation of first-degree robbery. In a police interview, Tevaga reportedly said he’d robbed over a dozen other massage parlors in Snohomish, Pierce and King counties.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Jacqueline Lawrence has since charged Tevaga with four counts of first-degree robbery and a hate crime — because Tevaga reported he “targeted the businesses run by members of the Asian community, believing they would be hesitant to report the crimes.”

Defense attorney Gabriel Rothstein said this week that the hate crime charge in this case is inappropriate.

“Mr. Tevaga has NO racial animus towards Asian people or anyone else,” Rothstein wrote in an email. “There is no evidence of any racial animus or hatred against Asian people. Mr. Tevaga is a Pacific Islander himself. Correlation is NOT causation.”

Lawrence declined to comment on the charging decision.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said the prosecution of hate crimes has been, and will continue to be, a priority for his office.

According to state law, a person is guilty of a hate crime if he or she maliciously injures or threatens a person because of perceptions of the victim’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Tevaga reportedly “nodded along and agreed” in an interview with a detective who said the victims in the case were particularly vulnerable given their national origin and language barriers.

The manager of Sunrise Massage, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, said she was worried authorities would not be able to understand what she was saying.

“Chinese people are also afraid to report a crime,” she said, “because we fear our businesses will get targeted in the future, if criminals think there’s something wrong with the security.”

The manager said she has installed a security camera in her massage parlor and is working on other changes to increase safety. She was grateful to the police and detectives who investigated the case for working with her language barrier, she said, and for helping to keep the community safe.

In recent years, the United States has seen an uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes, according to the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism. Anti-Asian hate crimes increased 164% nationally between the first quarter of 2020 and the same period of 2021.

Lin Crowley, program director with the Asian Pacific Islanders Coalition of Washington, is concerned about the rise in violent, racially driven crimes. She said she wishes legislation could be passed to better protect Asian and other immigrant workers in the state.

“There is this need for labor in the United States,” Crowley said. “But then when immigrants finish the labor, they are just left here and don’t have enough money to travel back. They are often paid under the table, so they don’t have unions or anything to protect them.”

Crowley said she felt lucky to travel from China to the United States in the 1980s for college. Even so, it took 10 more years for her to be granted citizenship. That process takes too long, she said, and immigrant communities are hurting because of it.

Crowley said she would also like to see laws passed to increase education of ethnic and cultural studies in public school classrooms. “Learning more about each other” would help foster racial harmony, she said.

“Unless you’re Native American, you’re an immigrant in this country,” Crowley said. “This is supposed to be the land of opportunity, the land of liberty and justice for all. We really should be living up to our Constitution that says that. Immigrants have already done so much for this land.”

On Monday, Tevaga remained in custody at the Snohomish County Jail with bail set at $1 million. His next court date is scheduled for July 22.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; ellen.dennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen.

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