At Florida strip mall, a giddy tone belies a grave accusation
JUPITER, Fla. — The circus arrived almost as soon as the news was out.
People in Red Sox hats and Patriots T-shirts. Boston natives. New Yorkers. There were Florida snowbirds and smiling men in Bills hats and high school kids with braces and young couples pushing strollers.
All coming to see the strip-mall massage parlor that Florida authorities say is tied to an international human trafficking ring and where they allege New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft paid between $59 and $79 for sex acts.
The spectacle was in sharp contrast to the gravity of the case as detailed by authorities, in which they said the women were victimized by the traffickers and patrons alike. Outside the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, people loitered and snapped photos of themselves standing out front.
“I figured I’d take a drive and see what the hooplah was about,” said Sharon Coskren, 57, who lives in North Andover but happened to be in nearby North Palm Beach for a long weekend. “How is someone with so much money at a place like this?”
Sandwiched between a nail salon and an escape-room business, near a Publix supermarket and a Taco Bell, the spa seemed an odd public attraction. On Saturday morning, the site featured an endless cast of characters. Some walked right up to the door to pose for goofy photos. The timid remained in their vehicles, driving slowly through the parking lot in Mercedes or BMWs, pointing and smiling.
At one point, a middle-aged man walked up to others passing by, smiling big, and asked, “Hey, how are the massages here?”
But authorities say that those involved in the prostitution ring — many of whom were apparently lured to the United States under false pretenses — were forced to live inside the spa and perform sex acts on customers multiple times a day. The women, they said, were made to sleep on massage tables and prepare meals in the alleyway behind the spa.
An owner of another business in the plaza, who asked not to be identified, said, “They think it’s funny, and it’s not.”
Becky Dymond, who runs Hepzibah House, a Palm Beach County-based recovery program for adult survivors of sex trafficking, said it is important to remember that prostitution is not a victimless crime.
“When you’re laughing at it and capitalizing on it with selfies, you have to stop and think about what you’re actually endorsing,” Dymond said in a phone interview.
But if the disturbing allegations of what went on inside gave the gawkers pause, it wasn’t immediately evident.
“This is a tragedy in itself — it’s sad for the women, you feel for them,” said Shawn O’Brien, who wore a sleeveless black T-shirt and pulled from a cigarette. “But when you witness history, you gotta get a piece of it, too.”
On Friday, soon after the charges against Kraft were announced, the spectacle was particularly outlandish. People zipped by in golf carts. A man in his 20s wearing a Tom Brady jersey and Patriots hat appeared, left, and then returned with a cardboard sign that read “#FreeKraft.”
Another man, 41-year-old Jacob Michael Correiro, wearing a Patriots hat and Rob Gronkowski jersey, said he was there to support Kraft.
“I guarantee he went in for a regular massage and didn’t know that was gonna happen,” said Correiro, who said he is originally from Providence but now lives in Florida.
The stream of people continued on Saturday, some saying they were taking pictures to send to friends back home in Boston. At one point, a woman arrived in a small car painted to resemble the American flag and got out with a photographer. She walked purposefully toward reporters and stuck out a business card with her name on it. “Hi, I’m Christin Powers, and I’m running for US president.”
Behind her, a man wearing a camouflage visor posed for a selfie.
An SUV with a Patriots flag and Patriots decals plastered on the back drove up, and out stepped a woman, her bright blue pants matching her eye shadow. Lynn Eisenhauer said she is married to Larry Eisenhauer, the former Patriots defensive end, and had just come from working in a church garden.
She is such a Patriots fan that one space in her home in Jupiter is called the Tom Brady Room, filled with pictures of the quarterback, she said. She carries laminated photographs of her with Brady and Gronkowski.
But the recent news, she said, had left her distraught.
“I think it’s disgusting,” she said, standing in the parking lot as more people made their way to the spa’s glass entrance. “I have lost my respect for Mr. Kraft — I really have.”
And then she walked toward the spa with her phone to snap one more photo.