The first thread was a Florida Department of Health complaint last summer. Within months, authorities say, a sprawling investigation unspooled to reveal an international human trafficking ring, one with “tentacles” stretching from Florida to New York and China, involving dozens of women forced to work — and live — inside small storefronts serving in the sex trade.
Its scope was nothing like authorities say they’d seen before. But by Friday, it began drawing national headlines for a whole other reason: Among those charged was Robert Kraft, the 77-year-old billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, who is now expected to face two misdemeanor counts of soliciting another to commit prostitution.
William Snyder, the Martin County sheriff who first unveiled the investigation’s findings earlier this week, indicated then he expected one of the 100 arrest warrants his office prepared to draw attention. “There will be a newsmaker in this one,” he told reporters.
Days later, he did not hide his exasperation after seeing his prediction become true.
“The story is not Bob Kraft,” Snyder said in a phone interview. “The story is that dozens of women in Southeast Florida along the Treasure Coast are living in rudimentary living conditions and being coerced into acts of sexual conduct.”
In Martin County alone, Snyder said, there are six women being treated as victims of human trafficking. Investigators have brought in Mandarin translators, and one woman is cooperating in helping authorities understand what pushed them into such horrid conditions, including whether they owed significant debts to simply get to the United States.
The woman were coerced into seeing anywhere from 7 to 15 men by day, and at night, they remained sequestered at the small spas, in many cases only leaving one establishment to be shuttled to another, Snyder said. Jupiter police told reporters it appeared customers paid $59 for a half-hour and $79 for an hour.
“We’ve done around-the-clock surveillance, and they never leave,” Snyder said. “They are squatting at the back door, cooking on a hot plate. There’s no washing machines or dryers. There’s no transportation.
“Even though they weren’t in handcuffs or they weren’t in cages, they were imprisoned,” he said of the women. “And the men that capitalized on their misery are the true captors.”
Nationwide, an estimated 9,000 illicit massage parlors, many in suburban locations, are in operation, according to Polaris, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that operates the national human trafficking hot line.
Message boards and websites, with reviews and locations, fuel this multibillion-dollar industry, which is often part of an international criminal operation, said Bradley Myles, the chief executive of Polaris.
The women, often from China, Korea, or Thailand, aren’t usually aware that they are coming to the United States to work in “storefront brothels,” he said.
While Florida police said millions of dollars may have moved through the business, the women typically make little outside the tips the men leave, and even that is sometimes withheld by the owners, Myles said.
Charges against high profile clients like Kraft could draw more attention to how widespread these businesses are and their ties to a vast network of smugglers, visa brokers, bankers, and criminals, experts say.
This “is what happens every single day to thousands of women,” said Barbara Anderson, founder of All Hands In, an Arlington-based organization that works with victims of human trafficking.
“Our society has groomed men to feel that it’s OK to buy women for sex — we need to change that culture,” she said.
In Florida, Martin County investigators described a massive operation.
Snyder estimated Friday that even with constant surveillance of some of the establishments, his investigators were able to identify only one out of every five men who visited, meaning hundreds more were involved. In nearby Indian River County, authorities said they were bringing charges against nearly 200 others on counts of solicitation tied to five spas, and that six people there were charged with human trafficking or racketeering.
“We have investigative reasons to believe these are all related,” Snyder said.
Investigators were in the process of seizing up to $3 million in Martin County, and Snyder said authorities have followed the movement of $20 million in and out of China. He said his hope is that federal authorities can help expand the investigation beyond what local resources will allow.
That Florida investigators have focused charges on “johns” and those who facilitated the various massage parlors — and not the women brought in to perform sex acts — is a welcome sea change in how police approach such investigations, said Terry Coonan, executive director of Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights.
“They’re taking in consideration the fact that [these women] are living and sleeping in these establishments,” said Coonan, who also serves on Florida’s Statewide Council on Human Trafficking. “It’s really heartening to see an investigation that is really taking seriously both the fraud and psychological coercion.”
Still, other concerns remain. The women have few options, and many have been forced into prostitution by violence or threats against their families, and are often plied with drugs and alcohol, said Anderson, of the Arlington group.
Many of the women bear the scars for years after, making it difficult for them to hold onto jobs and families, she said.
Anderson said the news is particularly disturbing coming after the giddy celebration that Boston threw to mark the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory.
“It’s a very sad situation,” she said, adding that she hopes Kraft uses his money and influence to draw attention to human trafficking and the exploitation of women.