Embattled Patriots owner Robert Kraft heads into the next phase of his legal fight after posting a partial victory last week when Palm Beach County prosecutors said they found no human trafficking at the Jupiter massage parlor where he allegedly paid female workers for sex.
The disclosure provides the 77-year-old billionaire his first legal breakthrough as he attempts to restore his reputation and suppress the video evidence against him. Police had cited possible human trafficking when they successfully applied for a “sneak and peek’’ warrant under the Patriot Act to conduct covert video surveillance at the spa.
“I think their case is unraveling before their eyes,’’ said Andrew Metcalf, the immediate past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who represents men charged in a similar case in nearby Indian River County.
Police allege they videotaped Kraft receiving sexual services twice within 18 hours in January at the now-shuttered Orchids of Asia Day Spa. He is among some 300 men and 10 spa operators who have been charged in a widespread investigation into prostitution at Florida massage parlors. He has denied any wrongdoing.
When Jupiter Police Chief Daniel Kerr announced the charges against Kraft, two operators of the Orchids spa, and 24 other male customers in February, he said, “Our concern in this investigation centers around the possibility of victims of human trafficking.’’
On Friday, Assistant State Attorney Greg Kridos told a Palm Beach County judge that the Orchids spa had “all the appearances of human trafficking” when the investigation began in October. The Jupiter chief said he had been alerted to possible trafficking at the Orchids spa by a sheriff conducting a similar investigation in adjacent Martin County.
But, six months later, Kridos said, “We’ve vetted this case. We’ve done our due diligence. There is no human trafficking that arises out of this investigation.”
Several defense lawyers described the development as a key setback to Kraft’s prosecutors, while others speculate that Kraft is not out of the woods. He faces two misdemeanor counts of soliciting another for prostitution. A hearing on his motion to suppress the evidence is scheduled for April 26.
“The bottom line is that they had to concoct a major crime to justify their invasive tactics,” Metcalf said in an interview. “If you are watching someone being trafficked, and you are watching it on video, a normal cop, I would think, would bust in the door on the very first or second day and end this. But they didn’t do that because they knew it wasn’t human trafficking . . . they knew it was regular, run-of-the-mill prostitution on their best day.”
Kraft’s lawyers and Palm Beach County prosecutors have declined to discuss evidence in the case or their legal strategies.
But others familiar with prostitution and human trafficking cases in Florida said Kraft’s lawyers may need more than a lack of trafficking charges to persuade a judge to suppress the video evidence.
“I wouldn’t necessarily be celebrating about this if I were them,’’ said Eric Matheny, a Florida defense attorney and former prosecutor who has handled many prostitution cases but does not represent anyone involved in the multicounty spa investigation.
“If law enforcement had probable cause to believe that a human trafficking operation was taking place, then it may justify any actions they took, regardless of the actions that prosecutors took later,’’ Matheny said.
It’s not uncommon for police who are pursuing major crimes to ultimately seek lesser charges. “Cops who are investigating cocaine trafficking may find a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and arrest you for that,’’ Matheny said. “They aren’t required to shut their eyes and say, ‘We’re only looking for human trafficking, not some 77-year-old guy committing solicitation.’ ’’
Richard Hornsby, a Florida defense lawyer and legal commentator who has no clients in the spa case, said the lack of trafficking charges is “no slam dunk’’ for either Kraft’s lawyers or prosecutors.
“The state just has to prove they had a reasonable suspicion for human trafficking to get a sneak and peek warrant issued in the case,’’ Hornsby said. “If they can prove that, the judge may side with them.’’
If not, he said, “This could pretty much kill the state’s case.’’
Suspicions of human trafficking were particularly damaging for Kraft, whose philanthropy has benefited survivors of sex trafficking. He met as recently as December with one of those beneficiaries, the antitrafficking group My Life My Choice, which supports survivors of sexual exploitation.
When Kraft was charged in the prostitution sting, Lisa Goldblatt Grace, the organization’s executive director, told Globe columnist Adrian Walker, “We were devastated by the news and the possibility that this is true. This has been a crisis of faith for us.”
On Monday, she did not seem relieved to learn that no trafficking charges were filed.
“All sex buying is harmful and illegal,’’ Goldblatt Grace said in a statement. “The ugly truth is that the commercial sex industry is a multibillion-dollar industry that systematically targets the most vulnerable in our communities. Every day, children and vulnerable women are victimized in the United States, in our own backyards. The time for denial or thinking it’s ‘only somewhere else’ is over.”
In March, Senator Edward J. Markey said he would give the $3,600 in campaign donations he received from Kraft in 2013 to an organization focused on ending human trafficking.
“Sexual exploitation in all of its forms is reprehensible,” Markey said at the time.
His spokeswoman did not respond Monday to requests for comment.
Kraft issued a statement last month saying he was “truly sorry’’ about the spa incident.
“I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard,’’ he said. “Throughout my life, I have always tried to do the right thing. The last thing I would ever want to do is disrespect another human being.’’
The Palm Beach County prosecutors made the disclosure about human trafficking while they addressed a motion filed by many media outlets, including the Globe, opposing Kraft’s request to seal the video recordings from the public.
Prosecutors argued that a judge could order the release of the video because the women who appear on the recordings allegedly providing sex to Kraft and the other man were part of a criminal enterprise, “a house of prostitution,’’ rather than trafficking victims.
“Finally, an admission there was no human trafficking in this case,” Kraft’s lawyer, William Burck, told the court.
The disclosure may also help Kraft as the NFL weighs possible disciplinary action against him. While no one has suggested that he suspected anyone at the Orchids spa was a victim of human trafficking, the image of him enabling sexual slavery could have been devastating.Globe correspondent John Hilliard contributed to this report. Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.