Inside an Underground Piercing Shop

NEWS4 I-Team uncovers a registered sex offender doing illegal piercings on DC teens

A registered sex offender was caught on camera performing body piercings on minors in the basement of a D.C. home, the NEWS4 I-Team reports.

Day after day, the NEWS4 I-Team watched as teenagers made their way down Warder Street in Northwest D.C. to the house with the red door. Worried parents had called us about what was going on in the basement. Security cameras mounted above the basement door show who's knocking. But our undercover cameras were rolling, too, as a group of girls went inside.

Right away we met Kenneth Rucker. Rucker is a registered sex offender, sentenced in 2006 for second-degree child sexual abuse involving a 15-year-old stranger.

Inside, we found a room full of young women lined up in a hallway covered with graffiti, waiting to get piercings from Rucker. He advertises on Instagram, for piercings and tattoos, even though the city says he does not have a business license.

One by one, customers sat in the corner chair where Rucker worked. One girl got her tongue pierced, another the cartilage of her ear. One got a "smiley," a piercing in that flap of skin between the upper lip and gum. Another, the spot above her upper lip. After it was done, she commented, "That hurt so bad."

There was also a girl who got her belly button pierced, surrounded by friends holding her hand for support. The prices were cheap, 10 to 15 bucks each.

There was no sink in sight for hand washing. But Rucker changed gloves between piercings and wiped the instruments with some kind of liquid.

That basement set-up is a far cry from what customers will see at Painful Pleasures in Hanover, Md.

"I personally wouldn't want to take the chance, the risk of going to someone like that," the shop's marketing director, Laura Hill, told the NEWS4 I-Team. Painful Pleasures looks more like a doctor's office inside, using certified body artists.

"A piercer is expected to work in a sterile environment, washing your hands, putting on gloves," said Hill. "Using sterile needles, one time use only, and disposing of them properly in a sharps container like you would see in a doctor's office."

The shop also has an autoclave machine, which uses high temperatures to sterilize instruments and jewelry.

Hill said the shop is also careful about following state regulations with age limits, explaining, "It's absolutely important to make sure that they are of legal age."

Back inside the house on Warder Street, we never heard Rucker ask anyone their age. But two of the girls told a NEWS4 producer they were 17 years old. One parent who called the NEWS4 I-Team said her 14-year-old daughter got her nipple pierced in the house.

As part of Rucker's release, court officials say he is not supposed to be around minors. Court records reviewed by the NEWS4 I-Team show he pleaded guilty in 2005 to having sex with a 15-year-old girl after getting her intoxicated.

In D.C., it is illegal to perform any body art on a person under the age of 18, except for ear piercings, under new legislation passed in 2012. But almost a year later, the NEWS4 I-Team found that no one is checking. The city is still months away from issuing body artists licenses. And after we started asking questions, the Department of Health finally announced proposed rules and regulations for shops.

We showed D.C. Councilman Jim Graham what we uncovered at the house in his own ward. "We obviously have a problem here. A serious problem that cries out for action," Graham told us. He said even though final regulations are not in place yet, the Department of Health should be able to take some action now. "The agency can and should examine the rules and determine what can be put into effect immediately that could be directly relevant to a situation such as this, and then proceed to do so," said Graham.

The health department would not go on camera for our story, but told us in an email, "The Department of Health is finalizing legislative rules that will allow the District Government to protect public health and safety in body art procedures. 'Underground' tattoo and body piercing pose a variety of major health risks—including hepatitis B &C, HIV/AIDS and in extreme cases, death. While the District Government works to comprehensively regulate this industry, we urge residents seeking tattooing or piercing to only do so from artists/establishments that are operating with a District business license and practice maximum sterilization procedures. If you or someone you know is experiencing negative physical symptoms after receiving a tattoo, please contact your physician."

Councilman Graham also wants the Metropolitan Police Department to investigate any possible parole violations involving Rucker being around minors. A spokesperson told the NEWS4 I-Team that MPD is looking into the case.

Rucker didn't answer the door when the NEWS4 I-Team stopped by.

But we did get him on the phone where he first denied operating any kind of business inside the house. After we told him about the video showing him doing piercings, he admitted he's not supposed to be around minors.

Hours after we talked to him, a picture popped up on his Instagram account, reading "Closed for renovations. New shop rules, must be 18 with ID."

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