After police rounded up scores of massage parlor customers, defense lawyers scoffed that the case was little more than a series of low-level prostitution busts.
But a small army of federal, state and local agencies says the operations — which have led to charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and hundreds more — were more than that.
Authorities say they’re working together to infiltrate sex-trafficking rings operating from South Florida to New York. From Homeland Security Investigations, to the Martin County Sheriff’s Office and Jupiter Police Department, investigators want to shut down multimillion-dollar trafficking networks, which they call a scourge in Florida and in other large states across the nation.
“Human-trafficking organizations are varied and vast,” said Anthony Salisbury, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami. “We work with our state and local partners. Anything of a threat, force or coercion is the gold standard for a trafficking charge.”
A wave of arrests
In recent weeks, throughout four counties in Florida as far south as Palm Beach County, groups of men were criminally charged amid raids on Asian massage parlors that police say were fronts for brothels. The women running the businesses, as well as those who drove women to and from massage parlors, face charges as well, police said.
All told, the investigations have ensnared nearly 300 people so far:
— The Martin County Sheriff’s Office says it nabbed at least 70 men on charges of solicitation, and two madams were held on charges of operating the illicit spas. Sheriff William Snyder said federal officials brought in 13 Mandarin-speaking interpreters to speak with women working at the illicit spas. His agency will “treat them as victims,” with some of them possibly cooperating with authorities. Snyder said his agency tracked $20 million “going in and out of China,” but didn’t go into specifics on how the criminal ring’s finances worked. Snyder said many more arrests are expected.
— Tipped off by Martin County to a parlor in their area, Jupiter police arrested two women on charges they ran the Orchids of Asia Day Spa. They also pursued solicitation charges against Kraft and 24 other men. Kraft, 77, who has a court hearing later this month, has pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution.
— The Indian River County Sheriff’s Office arrested more than 50 men on solicitation charges.
— Vero Beach police arrested more than 100 men for solicitation, and five people were charged with running the business. They still were hunting for three more people connected to running Florida businesses. One of the detained women reportedly had $22,000 in her purse. Police partnered with a crime task force in Central Florida, which led to two women facing charges of racketeering in Orange County.
‘Brokered from China’
In the Vero Beach case, staff at a spa didn’t allow women — many of them unable to speak English — to leave, forcing them to live there, authorities said. Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey said one victim was a Chinese woman, who was in Florida on asylum and a permanent resident.
She began working at the spa under the guise of a massage therapist position, he said. She was threatened that her handlers could call U.S. Immigration on her and send her back to China, and escaping is “easier said than done.”
The woman is now in “safe quarters,” Currey said. He added that women often get “brokered from China” with promises of a move to America and a job in exchange for thousands of dollars upfront. But when they arrive, they learn the job wasn’t legitimate, they have nowhere to go, and they have a huge debt.
“They pay upfront, like a travel agency gone bad,” he said. “When they got here they thought they would be doing something else.”
Vero Beach police are pursuing racketeering charges, which fall under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as RICO. Prosecutors typically prefer a racketeering charge for a RICO case, which underscores how human trafficking was taking place, said Mark Eiglarsh, a South Florida criminal defense attorney and legal analyst. This corruption-oriented law “covers a lot of things, so it gives prosecutors a lot more leeway,” Eiglarsh said.
It also lets police take advantage of forfeiture laws, where the ill-gotten gains may be used for purchases aimed at fighting crime, Eiglarsh said.
For the Jupiter massage parlor bust, authorities say they’re still looking into the possibility it was tied to human trafficking, even though no one was charged with that crime yet. Two women linked to the Jupiter spa, Hua Zhang and Lei Wang, each were charged with deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution.
Wang’s criminal defense attorney set up a GoFundMe account for her Thursday, with a goal of $100,000 to pay for her legal defense, even though it hadn’t raised any money by Friday. Wang’s two cars — a Lexus and a Mercedes — and bank accounts were seized and a lien was placed on her house. With no cash, she remains in jail unable to post about $250,000 bond.
Her attorney, Paul Petruzzi, argued the Jupiter case is nothing more than simple prostitution, accusing the police of stereotyping.
“Not every day spa is the same, not every Chinese person is the same either. If every Chinese person in every day spa looks the same with law enforcement then we have a problem with law enforcement,” Petruzzi said. “What are they going to do next? Go to Chinese restaurants and start human-trafficking investigations also? It borders on being that absurd.”
Florida’s sex trafficking
About 9,000 commercial brothels have proliferated across the U.S., said Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, a charity that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline. And Illicit massage parlors and spas are the No. 1 venue for sex trafficking, according to Polaris.
The majority of victims nationwide are Chinese or Korean, and in many cases, women earn only tips instead of a salary and are told they ought to “please” the customer to earn money, Myles said. Often there could be fees for things like toilet paper and room and board, and that coercive arrangement “points the women toward being between a rock and a hard place,” Myles said.
Because it’s common for owners to have a network of businesses in multiple states, “law enforcement is trying to get at the broader criminal network and go after the network and not a whack-a-mole,” Myles said.
South Florida prosecutors’ offices are rallying to assist victims.
“We take human-trafficking cases very seriously and have been working with the community, our law enforcement partners and the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition to tackle the issue, bring offenders to justice and help the victims escape,” said Broward State Attorney Michael Satz. His office hired a human-trafficking coordinator, beginning in April, to help prosecutors who specialize in these cases and “expand our outreach efforts in the community.”
One issue is to ensure that victims are ushered to safe places to live after they are rescued or escape their traffickers. Satz said his office is working “with other stakeholders in the community to set up a residential center” for victims to stay.
Following the money
Federal and local authorities are using financial data to help them fight human trafficking, according to Homeland Security Investigations officials who appeared at an anti-money laundering conference this past week in Miami.
Christopher Armstrong, a Washington-based section chief of the HSI human trafficking unit, said the agency initiated 849 cases in fiscal year 2018 that resulted in 1,588 arrests, 833 indictments, 538 convictions and the assistance of 308 victims.
Armstrong said the agency maintains a two-pronged approach: identifying and breaking up cross-border human-trafficking organizations while helping to identify and find help for victims to give them stable lives.
Civilian advocates think the federal government should be even more aggressive than it is now by rounding up any and all money generated by trafficker organizations and channeling the cash to trafficking victims.
“Why not take the profits they made and put them into a fund to help the people who have suffered?” asked former Florida Sen. Maria Sachs. “That’s why we need federal help.”
Sachs is a former Miami-Dade state prosecutor who served on Florida’s statewide task force on human trafficking and who now heads the nonprofit Coalition Against Human Trafficking. She said the traffickers’ cash, real estate, cars and any other assets should be pursued just as aggressively by the feds as they’ve pursued assets of drug-cartel operators.
Indeed, civil forfeiture lawsuits have been filed against two alleged massage parlor operators in Martin County.
The suits list several residences, expensive cars, over $400,000 in cash and various cellphones, watches and jewelry — all allegedly bought with proceeds from their illegal businesses.
Sun Sentinel staff writer Marc Freeman contributed to this report.