STUART, Florida—Armed men driving luxury vehicles moved sex slaves between massage parlors across Florida as part of a “transnational human-trafficking ring,” Martin County Sheriff William Snyder told The Daily Beast.
The widening investigation made national news last week when authorities said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was among dozens of men charged with soliciting prostitution at spas across south Florida. Since then the probe has grown to identify several new suspects who moved women and cash from spa to spa, according to Snyder.
Snyder said several men he described as mostly white were surveilled shuttling women every few weeks between massage parlors. A female victim of the trafficking ring said that “the man who was moving her around had a gun, and indicated that he would use it,” according to Snyder. The men also threatened the women to prevent them from leaving the spas, he said. (The sheriff’s office recovered two firearms during their raids of the parlors.)
“We did get a sense that some of these men may have had these women as investments,” Snyder said.
Authorities are investigating the suspects’ specific role in the trafficking ring. Snyder said his office is trying to obtain witness testimony that the suspects coerced women into performing sex acts against their will to bring human-trafficking charges against the men. Without a witness, Snyder said, his office may pursue charges such as racketeering and money laundering.
The sheriff’s office was first alerted to possible trafficking by a state health inspector who reported unusual activity in one massage parlor. From there, investigators began surveillance that eventually revealed that the front was connected to other day spas in West Palm Beach. Surrounding counties then began their own investigations, which have cumulatively resulted in 10 shuttered spas, more than 300 arrest warrants, and over $3 million in seized funds.
The trafficking ring doesn’t stop at state lines, Snyder said, with connections to New York and China. Investigators have traced as much as $20 million to China. “Florida is just the end of the supply chain,” he said.
At the spas, Snyder said that his team observed “women working 14 hours a day, seven days a week with no days off. They were involved in unprotected sexual activities.”
One victim told Snyder that she was a kindergarten teacher in China and lured to the United States under false pretenses. “She had been kindergarten teacher in China,” he relayed. “She was promised a ‘high paying’ nail-salon job in the United States. She came here ostensibly for that, and before she knew it found herself being forced and coerced into sex trafficking in massage parlors.”
The woman said that she feared the traffickers would harm her family in China if she attempted to escape. “She said that that [the sex work] was not her goal, that’s not why she came here,” Snyder said.
The Martin County office monitored eight women during their surveillance of spas, who he described as as despondent: “They did not look well.”
Nine of the women working at the parlors have been taken into custody in Florida, three in Martin County. One is in protective custody. The others were moved by the traffickers before they could be found. “We just didn’t have the resources to follow them after they left the county.” Snyder said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is determining whether some of the women in custody are undocumented immigrants, and their fates in the U.S. may also be contingent upon their cooperation with authorities. Cooperation could make them eligible to apply for T-Visas, a certification designed for victims of trafficking. However, they would lose eligibility if they do not cooperate with the investigation. Snyder says he has no interest in prosecuting the women who he says are “absolutely victims of human trafficking” but issues of immigration may be out of his hands.
In the meantime, Sheriff Snyder is trying to keep the focus on the victims.
“These are not women just giving happy endings to lonely men,” he said. “These are prisoners, and the men have the keys to their freedom.”