Indecent exposure charges filed against trans woman over L.A. spa incident

·4 min read
Sign outside the Wi Spa in Koreatown, Saturday, July 3, 2021.
Signs outside the Wi Spa in July 2021. (Adam Elmahrek / Los Angeles Times)

Prosecutors filed multiple counts of indecent exposure this week against a transgender woman whose alleged conduct was at the center of a viral video that sparked a pair of violent protests outside a spa in Westlake this summer, officials said Thursday.

Darren Agee Merager was charged Monday with five counts of indecent exposure, relating to an incident inside the Wi Spa on June 23, according to a news release issued by the Los Angeles Police Department. The next day, a viral video emerged alleging a customer had exposed their penis in front of people inside the Wi Spa.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment or provide a copy of the criminal complaint against Merager, whom police described as a 52-year-old Riverside County resident.

Attempts to contact Merager were not immediately successful, though she denied all wrongdoing in an interview with the New York Post, which first reported the charges Thursday morning. Merager told the tabloid she is legally female and claimed that those making complaints to police were engaging in transphobic harassment.

An arrest warrant has been issued, but Merager was not in custody as of Thursday afternoon, according to the LAPD.

Police said she has a criminal history. Merager has been a registered sex offender since 2006 as a result of convictions for indecent exposure in 2002 and 2003, according to the LAPD.

Indecent exposure can be filed as a felony or misdemeanor under California law, but Merager's prior conviction led prosecutors to bring felony charges against her this week, according to a person with knowledge of the case who requested anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

Merager is awaiting trial on seven counts of indecent exposure that were first filed in 2019, according to court records.

After the video alleging someone exposed themselves went viral, the spa became the target of right-wing demonstrations, which many chided as transphobic after extremist groups such as the Proud Boys glommed onto the events. The recording, which surfaced in late June, showed an irate customer arguing with employees after she said she had seen a customer with a penis in an area that is reserved for women. The Wilshire Boulevard facility has some gender-separated areas with changing rooms and Jacuzzis.

The video was quickly amplified by an international network of right-wing activists, pundits and media outlets, including Breitbart, the Gateway Pundit, RealClearPolitics and The Blaze, a publication founded by Glenn Beck. Message boards where anti-trans activists gather, including Mumsnet, saw thousands of comments.

In the fallout, a pair of protests against the spa quickly devolved into bedlam, arrests and injuries. An independent journalist was struck in the head with a bat at one rally, and a fringe candidate in the race to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom reportedly drove the assailant away from the scene.

Members of the Proud Boys were among the protesters, and several people armed with bats and knives were at both demonstrations, LAPD Deputy Chief Al Labrada previously told The Times.

Police arrested about 40 people, mostly for failure to disperse, but quickly faced accusations that they used excessive force and largely focused their efforts on left-wing counterprotesters, a claim the department has repeatedly had to fend off during recent political protests. Attorneys have already threatened to file multiple lawsuits against the LAPD over its response to the second protest outside the spa.

It was unclear whether Merager had an attorney or when she was set to appear in court.

Marc Little, a conservative pastor who arranged a news conference for the woman who recorded the initial video, said the charges proved "the power of truth."

Though the woman who recorded the video has remained anonymous, she said during a July interview with The Times that she was "stunned" and "traumatized" when she saw a person with a penis in the female area of the spa.

She declined to give her name because she said she had been receiving death threats, but chose to appear at the news conference in a bid to seek changes to California’s civil rights law, which forbids businesses to discriminate against gender identity or gender expression — a provision added in 2011.

She said at the time that she had not attended any of the protests and “absolutely” did not want to see anyone harmed. Though the woman could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday, she posted a lengthy video on her Instagram account on Aug. 17 addressing "haters" who accused her of faking the video.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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