WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The story law enforcement officials detailed was deeply Floridian, filled with vice and iniquity, entwining celebrity and extreme wealth with allegations of prostitution and human trafficking.
But more than a week after authorities announced that a sprawling web of investigations into massage parlors across this region had found women performing sex acts for money, officials have not yet filed any trafficking charges.
Instead, following a maelstrom of media attention – almost entirely because of the inclusion of solicitation charges against Robert Kraft, owner of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots – the investigation has led mostly to prostitution charges, mirroring similar stings across the country. And while current and former law enforcement officials and advocates for victims say they suspect human trafficking was part of what occurred in the Florida parlors, they also acknowledge it probably will be difficult to prove.
“I believe human trafficking is heavily involved in what’s going on at all these spas,” said Bruce Colton, state attorney for the district that includes Indian River and Martin counties, among those where charges in the case were filed. “But believing it and being able to prove it in court are two different things. We feel certain human trafficking is deeply involved in these spas. We’re continuing our investigation to determine whether to file human trafficking charges.”
Ten spas were closed as a result of the investigation and more than 200 people were charged with crimes. Most of them are men who, like Kraft, face misdemeanor charges of soliciting prostitution; a small number also face accusations related to operating the spas.
The charges brought scrutiny to this region, which is known primarily for its seaside vistas and collection of billionaire residents, highlighting the fact that some of these types of massage parlors – where workers also offer sex services for a fee – exist in all manner of communities and draw even the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful men.
Police say they have videos of hundreds of sex acts occurring in exchange for money, including footage of Kraft paying employees of the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter for sexual activity in January. Kraft has denied that he “engaged in any illegal activity” and pleaded not guilty last week. He also was not the only significant name to emerge; John Childs, a billionaire financier who supports conservative causes, was charged in the case. Childs also has denied the allegations, but two Republican senators said last week they will not spend contributions they have received from him.
Precisely how these men and others discovered strip-mall parlors such as Orchids of Asia is unclear. But these kinds of facilities are not difficult to find; they are catalogued on websites that host reviews and document what visitors can expect.
A Jupiter Police Department report stated that a Google search for Orchids of Asia turned up an online forum where “customers, seemingly all male . . . discuss their individual experiences at illicit massage parlors.”
Jumorrow Johnson, president of the Broward County Human Trafficking Coalition, said those who are seeking the services of a prostitute generally don’t have difficulty finding them.
“Word of mouth works,” said Johnson, who believes the investigation will be treated as a human trafficking case. “The largest buyers of sex in America are rich, white men, and I’m pretty sure once one of them finds out about a place, they tell their friends about it.”
Attorneys for the two women suspected of running the Orchids of Asia Day Spa – who both face charges relating to prostitution – did not respond to requests for comment.
Police in Florida said the arrests came after months-long probes into the parlors.
Somy Ali, founder and president of No More Tears, an organization based in South Florida that helps victims of trafficking and domestic violence, said she understands why police wanted to assemble a case against the spa owners but thinks they should have acted faster.
“I think they should have gone in sooner,” Ali said. “Law enforcement knows what they’re doing, they have their reasons for what they did, but my heart always, always is for the victims. Their conditions, what they were going through, was just atrocious.”
Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey said his officers took their time because it was clear from the outset that it was more than just a routine prostitution scenario. His officers wanted to build a human trafficking case.
“That’s why we were committed and patient,” Currey said. “If it was just a matter of arresting individuals for prostitution, that’s done in a week or less. We had several things to work through to get the business owners, the ones who were orchestrating it all.”
Vero Beach police have so far been the only agency to announce a potential trafficking charge. A posting on the department’s website said Lanyun Ma – recently arrested and accused in court papers of “running the day-to-day operations of” East Spa, another massage parlor in the probe – was charged with human trafficking. (She also has been identified in court records as Lan Yun Ma.)
But Ma’s arrest affidavit and court records make no mention of trafficking charges. She was instead charged with racketeering and three prostitution-related crimes. Brad Kmetz, a spokesman for the Vero Beach police, acknowledged that there has been no trafficking charge thus far and referred questions to Colton, the state attorney.
A lawyer representing Ma declined to comment Friday beyond saying she remained in custody.
It is unclear whether federal charges will emerge from the case. The FBI declined to comment about whether it was involved in the cases or would get involved, and a spokesman described the investigations as state cases and referred all questions to the local authorities. A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in South Florida also declined to comment.
The investigations into the massage parlors began last summer, when a health inspector visited Bridge Day Spa in Hobe Sound, Florida, just north of Jupiter, court records show.
The inspector noticed something she hadn’t seen in her visits to other massage businesses: “clothing, suitcases, food, bedding and other indicators that she recognized to be consistent with individuals living in the facility,” according to an affidavit filed in Martin County.
The Martin County Sheriff’s Office quickly set up surveillance on Bridge Day Spa, court records show, and authorities began checking into other spas in the county owned by the same woman.
Soon, detectives in Indian River and Palm Beach counties began taking identical steps, including external surveillance, checking business records, reviewing adult websites and stopping male customers for interviews at spas there.
The investigators in all three counties added another tool, one that gave them an eye into what was going on inside these parlors: They obtained court orders allowing them to install multiple surveillance cameras within the parlors.
In Vero Beach, the police evidently arrived during business hours, in some manner of disguise, and asked questions seeking to learn who was in charge, a police affidavit states. They were told it was Ma. She was previously arrested in Oxford, Mass., in 2011, where a woman who worked for her told police she was lured from China under the ruse of attending college. Ma was charged with human trafficking, but it was later reduced to solicitation for prostitution and she received a 30-day jail sentence.
And police surveillance in Vero Beach revealed something other counties didn’t see: women arriving with suitcases and other personal items before staying at East Spa, which experts say is a key indicator of human trafficking.
“Jane Doe #6 was later observed in the commission of 21 sex acts for a fee while living and working at the East Spa,” Vero Beach police wrote. They added that no women other than Ma and her sister “have been allowed to leave the spa on their own on a daily basis. These women live at the business and do not possess vehicles.”
Female employees not leaving the establishment on their own “is a definite red flag,” said Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, author of a book on human trafficking and a frequent expert witness in such cases.
Michael McAuliffe, former state attorney in Palm Beach County and a former federal prosecutor, said authorities look for strong indicators of trafficking, such as a “lack of freedom of movement,” people living where the sex acts are occurring or otherwise seeming isolated. They also look for “an element of coercion,” he said.
“The difference between a prostitution investigation and a trafficking investigation is how you are perceiving and how you are classifying the participants, including the sex workers,” McAuliffe said. “Are you viewing them, either based on your perception or based on evidence, as voluntarily participating in those activities? Or are they being forced or coerced or threatened or intimidated into them?”
Currey, the Vero Beach police chief, said the men in these cases “were soliciting prostitutes, but we see these women as being coerced. They’re victims.”
Of the six women his department arrested while raiding East Spa, just one identified herself as a victim of trafficking. Currey declined to identify the woman, saying only that she is “in a safe place, and she’ll probably be reunited with her family.” Currey said the other women were given the option of being treated as victims but chose instead to be charged with prostitution.
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said his office has three women who worked at the massage parlors in custody. Other women who worked there were gone before police arrived “and identifying them is really complex,” he said. Snyder said the three women in custody are under arrest, noting that authorities have evidence of them committing crimes, but added that police hope all three will agree to cooperate and identify as victims.
One of the women had spoken to detectives with her attorneys and “has begun to cooperate,” Snyder said, while another was considering the same. Snyder said that the women were being held away from other inmates in special housing and added that he does not believe they were willing sex workers.
“I call them victims because that’s what I believe they are: victims,” Snyder said in an interview.
It can be difficult to get victims to testify because they “are often too scared to self-identify,” said Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who last week called human trafficking “an evil in our midst.” Aronberg said in an interview that no decision had been made about whether trafficking could be added to the charges in the Orchids of Asia case. Jupiter Police Chief Daniel Kerr said his agency also is viewing the arrests at Orchids of Asia as part of a human trafficking case, adding that they are gathering evidence to give to Aronberg.
“It takes a long time to develop these kinds of cases,” he said.
Jackman and Berman reported from Washington. Rozsa is a freelance journalist based in Florida and frequent contributor to The Washington Post. The Washington Post’s Julie Tate and Will Hobson in Washington contributed to this report.