STUART – While what happens in Vegas tends to stay in Vegas, both the Martin County middle class and the uber-wealthy seasonal residents alike found out that Stuart and the surrounding area of the Treasure Coast don’t exactly conform to that rule when it comes to spas-turned-cat-houses and the trafficking of women to staff such establishments. Hundreds of families extending from Winter Park to Jupiter have gotten – and are still getting -- that shocking revelation as police officers and sheriff’s deputies show up at homes and places of businesses to arrest and charge their fathers, sons and even grandfathers with participating in prostitution.
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder held a press conference Feb. 19 to announce the initial arrests in the months-long investigation, flanked on the platform by Congressman Brian Mast, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl, Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Daniel Ruiz and Jupiter Police Department Chief Daniel Kerr, among others. He said his department launched the initial investigation last summer on a tip from a local Health Department worker.
“In July of last year, a Martin County detective responded to a complaint from the Health Department that appeared to be signs of potential human trafficking at a local massage parlor,” he said, referring to the Sequoia Apple Day Spa in Hobe Sound. “The detective believed that the health care worker’s concerns were founded, and he began a complex investigation that culminated in today’s arrests and search warrants. As is always the case in a complex investigation like this, the tentacles go from here to New York to China, and in Florida from here to Orange County. Throughout this eight-month investigation, investigators from the Martin County Sheriff’s Office worked along with Homeland Security Investigations, the Internal Revenue Service, the Jupiter Police Department, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the Sebastian Police Department, and Health Department agencies from Palm Beach to Orange County.”
Sheriff Snyder explained that his detectives were able to link prostitution services offered at the initial site through bank accounts to other activities at Therapy Spa on U.S. in Stuart, Cove Day Spa further south on U.S. 1 and to Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter.
“We realized we just didn’t have one, we had multiple ones here in Martin County,” he said. “As soon as we started working on those, it rolled into Jupiter, throughout Palm Beach County and into Orange County.”
As of Feb. 19, the Martin County Sheriff’s Department had served eight search warrants in Martin County and arrested two women, Ruimei Li, of Jupiter, and Lixia Zhu, of Stuart, both 48, charging them under The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which provides for stiffer penalties.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who serves as the chairwoman on the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, also spoke during the press conference, describing the multi-county/agency operation.
“Those that partake in these types of crimes will find agencies working together hand-in-hand to make sure that investigations are successful, and we’ve seen that here today,” she said. “In Florida, as you may know, we are third in the nation in terms of instances of reports of human trafficking. All of the agencies are working together, and this is of primary importance to them and it is of primary importance to my office. This should be an example of how we will act going forward to stop this plague on our communities.”
Sheriff Snyder then pointed to three poster boards set up on easels next to the group on the platform.
“The one on my far right are pictures, symbolic anyway, of a hundred or so end-users or Johns, that we will be arresting who have participated as end-users in this scheme,” he explained. “To their right, that merely represents some of the women [six shadows] that were victimized by this ongoing racketeering case. They are never probably going to have the color and the light that the men have because they came here in the shadows, they worked in the shadows, [sighing deeply] and unless we’re successful where others have not been, they are likely to stay in the shadows.”
When a reporter in the audience asked Sheriff Snyder who the two shadows represented on the third easel, he identified them as the two women arrested that day as part of the probe.
“They are who what we commonly refer to as madams,” he answered. “They are the purveyors, the ones who manage the spas.”
As far as the six employees-turned-prostitutes, the sheriff said his office is viewing them as victims rather than criminals freely choosing the lifestyle since they were lured here with promises of work in other fields before having their passports taken away upon arrival. Most of them speak little to no English and were forced to live in the spas and sleep on the massage tables.
“We actually have 13 Mandarin-speaking interpreters here today that went out to all the sites,” Sheriff Snyder explained. “We have talked to all the women who were being victimized, and our goal is to treat them all as victims and not paid sex workers. And we’ve had success so far today. We’ve got two that looks like are willing to cooperate.”
The sheriff insisted the madams broke all kinds of laws to get their Chinese workers here.
“Their licenses are fraudulently obtained -- you can’t get these massage licenses without speaking English,” he said. “Everything about them is wrong: It’s illegal, they’re trapped, and I’m sure in their minds they can’t imagine how to get out of it.”
Although the sheriff said he considered one of the worst offenders in the case to be “the suspect we watched at Palm Beach International Airport with a picture of a young Asian woman” who would soon be put to work in a local massage parlor, he saved his harshest words for what he referred to as the end-users.
“Many of those men are married, many of those men are in ongoing relations, they have jobs, they work,” he fumed. “I would contend today that it’s the men in the shadows that are the monsters in this equation. None of this would happen if those men were not availing themselves and participating in this human misery that’s represented by those six silhouettes right there.”
Sheriff Snyder said he had at least a hundred warrants issued for the arrest of local end-users and had a word of advice for those yet to be picked up.
“This is going to be a shockwave,” he said. “My advice to you is if you’ve been going to these, you’re going to get arrested if you’re one of those one hundred, and I would keep some bond money with me. If you want to roll the dice, call us and give us your name and date of birth and we’ll tell whether you should come and turn yourself in.”
Sheriff Snyder told the journalists in attendance that day that Indian River County had issued close to 200 warrants for end-users of the connected spas in that municipality. That same day, authorities shut down East Spa at 2345 14th Ave., Suite 10 in Vero Beach; AA Massage at 1547 U.S. 1 in Sebastian; and East Sea Spa at 13401 U.S. 1, also in Sebastian. Authorities in Orange County also shuttered East Spa at 1410A Gene St. in Winter Park and Rainbow Spa at 1809-2 E. Colonial Drive in Orlando.
A cursory glance at the mugshots online of the Johns arrested in Martin County so far reflect a gamut of ages ranging from 24 to 81. Some of the most renowned end-users at press time include the 77-year-old billionaire businessman and owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft; Billionaire equity firm owner John Childs, 77, a seasonal resident of Indian River Shores; The president of the John's Island Foundation, Kenneth Wessel, 75, also of Indian River Shores; and John Armando del Prete, 29, the long-time boyfriend of LPGA star Jessica Korda.
Referring to the initial arrests as the “tip of the tip of the iceberg,” Sheriff Snyder said the immensity and ramifications of the investigation have even taken him by surprise, but he’s determined to eradicate the problem in Martin County.
“There’s a lot more in Martin County than what we have here,” he said of the initial arrests. “We will not be able to get every one of these spas. Some of it is a manpower issue, some of it is they’re now up on it, they know, and it’s not easy to get inside of these spas and get information to build a case like this. To the rest of the spas that are here doing this business, we will get you out of business. If I have to put a police car in front of every single one of them, I will watch them and I will make more cases.”
At the end of the press conference, Attorney General Moody pleaded with the public’s help in identifying other cases of human trafficking.
“In this case someone saw suitcases as if someone was living out of a spa and reported that to law enforcement,” she said. “So, if anyone in the community suspects human trafficking or someone is a victim of human trafficking, they can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.”