(CNN) — It’s now a sprawling sex trafficking investigation involving many jurisdictions and ensnaring wealthy, powerful suspects, but it began with a health inspector observing curious details suggesting women might be living at a Jupiter, Florida, day spa.
Since at least July, after a state Health Department employee alerted police to signs of human trafficking, authorities had suspected Orchids of Asia Day Spa was providing more than massages and facials. Their suspicions were buttressed by a preliminary investigation that uncovered a seemingly all-male clientele and internet postings describing the spa as a “rub and tug,” according to a police affidavit.
Police requested the Florida Department of Health conduct a “routine inspection,” and the department sent one of its inspectors there November 14. She reported back that the spa housed two rooms with beds, sheets and pillows, the affidavit said. There were also dressers containing medicine and clothing, as well as a fridge with food and condiments, it said.
The findings, police and the health department determined, were “consistent with individuals living inside,” the affidavit said.
Taking a closer look
This led a Jupiter detective to ramp up the investigation. Investigators pulled bags from a dumpster and found a ripped-up ledger, credit card receipts and napkins wet with semen, the affidavit said.
Police staked out the business, watching man after man enter the spa and leave after 30 minutes or an hour, the affidavit said. They also conducted traffic stops on customers leaving the business, who confirmed they had not patronized the day spa for its advertised services, it said.
After obtaining a search warrant, investigators caught several johns — including, allegedly, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is accused of visiting the spa twice, which he denies — engaging in sex acts on hidden surveillance cameras, police say.
“It was clear to us that this was a trafficking case because of the circumstances I enumerated: They’re not leaving, they’re there 24 hours a day, the hygiene was minimal at best, just a bathroom,” Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said. “So we took it upon ourselves to not do what could be the easy way out … and we turned it into a trafficking case.”
Not only did it appear women were living there, he said, but they were cooking on the back steps of the spa and sleeping on the very massage tables where the johns had done their deeds.
There were other worrying signs, Snyder said. The women didn’t have access to transportation, they were moved from location to location and some were averaging as many as eight clients a day. They worked deep into the night with no days off, the sheriff said.
More arrests to come
Though as many as 200 alleged johns have been or will be arrested and police have seized at least $2 million in assets, Snyder called the investigation “the tip of the tip of the iceberg.” What’s been made public is but a fragment of a massive international operation stretching from China to New York to Florida’s Treasure Coast, the name given to the Atlantic side of the peninsula.
Despite the broad range of people apparently involved — and the likelihood some will face charges far harsher than solicitation of prostitution — Snyder singled out the johns, many of whom are married or have children, as especially culpable in sex trafficking.
“Is it the suspect we watched at Palm Beach International Airport with a picture of a young Asian woman that he would meet, that we would see in a very short period of time at a massage parlor involved in this?” he asked.
“I would contend today that it’s the men in the shadows that are the monsters in this equation. And without moralizing, none of this would happen if those men were not availing themselves and participating in this human misery,” he continued. “Wherever you find end users who will use this, you will find these spas.”
Refusing to call the women prostitutes, Snyder said the victimized women were coerced, lured to the United States with promises of work as housekeepers or waiters, only to have their passports snatched away once they arrived stateside.
“The problem with these cases is that the coercion is so subtle sometimes that it’s impossible for us to uncover,” he said. “The coercion is not that they’re at gunpoint. The coercion is more subtle, nuanced and more difficult to discern. They may have loved ones in China and they’re afraid if they cooperate. They look at the police here as their enemy.”
Bust fits a script
Experts say some aspects of the Jupiter case are textbook human trafficking. Owners or groups may operate multiple spas, according to Polaris, which works to combat slavery and estimates there are at least 7,000 such businesses in the United States. In the Jupiter case, Snyder said, officers executed search warrants on four Florida spas suspected of links to Orchids of Asia.
The victims work and live in locations with high security — possibly including opaque windows, bars or boards over the windows, barbed wire and security cameras — and may show outward signs of abuse, poor hygiene, malnourishment or fatigue, Polaris says.
Pressed for details on their lives, the women, typically Chinese or South Korean, may say they’re visiting or not know their home address, have little knowledge about the city they’re in, lack a sense of time or provide scripted, inconsistent stories, according to Polaris.
The women are often young or middle-aged, underpaid or unpaid, have few or no possessions, work long hours without breaks and are recruited through false promises and manipulation, the organization says.
Contrary to beliefs the women are abducted and forced into sex work, Martina Vandenberg, founder of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, says most women often enter the sex work industry unwittingly.
“Most of the people who arrive at US airports who are destined to be trafficking victims have no idea that they’re going to be trafficked,” she said. “They’re coming to the United States for a much better life and they think that they have hit the jackpot by coming to the United States.”
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