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At the Orchids of Asia Day Spa where Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution last February, 44-year-old masseuse Lei Chen was charged with offering to commit it.

Like the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, Chen allegedly had been caught engaging in sex acts via surveillance cameras that police had secretly installed inside the Jupiter, Fla., spa. And both have been caught in the crosshairs of law enforcement ever since.

But the prices they have already paid could hardly differ more.

Chen was charged with a felony — deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution — as well as eight misdemeanor counts of offering to commit prostitution. Police seized her savings and sent her to jail on a $5,000 bond with a requirement that any money she posted be proved free of criminal taint.

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That kept her in jail from spring through late August — a total of more than 14 weeks.

Kraft, conversely, was charged with two misdemeanors and never set foot in court, let alone jail.

The high-powered legal team he dispatched to Florida to squelch the charges won a ruling suppressing the video evidence against him that is still being appealed. His continued success could pave the way to freedom from repercussions for more than 200 other men accused of paying for sex in 10 Florida day spas.

Though his name was sullied by a jaw-dropping accusation, his freedom was never in doubt and he quickly resumed his jet-setting lifestyle.

Chen is still not free.

When she posted bail on prostitution charges, her lawyer said, she was transferred to ICE custody.

Early promise changed

Lei Chen (left) and Shen Mingbi faced prostitution charges in Florida.
Lei Chen (left) and Shen Mingbi faced prostitution charges in Florida. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office

When they initially announced that a multicounty sex trafficking investigation had ensnared Kraft and hundreds of other alleged johns, Florida law enforcement authorities were adamant about who did and did not deserve blame.

Martin County Sheriff William D. Snyder portrayed most of the women peddling prostitution at day spas as victims, while calling the men who hired them for sex “monsters.”

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“Over my dead body will any of these women be prosecuted,” Snyder said, according to the Boston Herald.

But as the criminal case faltered — its smoking-gun video evidence suppressed by the courts — the women paid a disproportionate price. Only 40 of the 246 men charged with solicitation have accepted the legal consequences and begun community service and education programs. The majority are appealing their misdemeanor charges or piggybacking off the work of Kraft’s legal team, expecting to have their records cleared entirely.

A total of 16 women were charged with felonies, most of which commanded high bonds with strict conditions that kept them behind bars for weeks or even months.

Nine of them were low-level employees, the type of workers the raids were intended to save from human trafficking. The other seven were “madam”-level workers who owned or ran the spas but who often allegedly participated in sex acts with customers, too.

The international crime ring that police had aimed to take down never materialized. The profits were not traced back to China, as law enforcement had intimated they would be. Only one of the women found at any of the 10 spas professed to be a victim of sex trafficking. Most didn’t fit the profile of trafficking victims: young women who had been lured from China, ostensibly for legitimate work and then forced into prostitution. Of the 16 women arrested, only one is under 30. Eleven are in their 40s, and four are in their 50s. One is a single mother of a 16-year-old girl. Many of them have lived in the United States for years.

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The high-profile Florida case had seemed at the outset like it would be a game-changer, following the sort of victim-centered approach that women’s groups and advocacy organizations have encouraged for years. Rather than continuing to penalize the “supply” side of the commercial sex market — the prostitutes — police have been urged to recognize that “demand” fuels the market and to more visibly crack down on the men who pay for sex or profit from it.

“We were really hopeful that this would send a message to society at large,” said Shea Rhodes, a former prosecutor in Philadelphia who now leads the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation, noting that “sex buyers have consistently gotten away with committing a crime.”

When the women did not claim to be victims of traffickers, though, police and prosecutors went after them for prostitution.

“This is a situation where law enforcement has egg all over their face. Somebody’s got to go down for this. And it’s going to be the women,” said Amy Farrell, a criminologist who studies sex trafficking at Northeastern University. “That’s what happens in these cases. There’s a huge political pressure to prosecute somebody and at the end of the day, those are the people that are left standing.”

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In the end, experts fear, the Florida case may have sent the exact opposite of its intended message, reassuring men that they won’t be blamed for sex crimes after all. Women will.

“What concerns me is that by turning around and arresting and charging the very women who were purportedly and may be victims in a trafficking case, it’s sending a message to other potential victims that, if you don’t cooperate, ultimately you will be criminalized,” Rhodes said. “That is silencing.”

Neither Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg nor Snyder, the Martin County sheriff, would speak to the Globe about the case, which has generated considerable controversy from those who have accused them of overstating their evidence and grandstanding on the issue for political purposes.

After Kraft’s lawyers succeeded in suppressing the video evidence against him, the cases against the men became tenuous at best. Only a few men had taken the plea deal they had been offered in Palm Beach: acknowledging they could be found guilty at trial of solicitation and agreeing to pay a $5,000 fine, complete 100 hours of community service, and attend a class about prostitution. After Kraft’s win, the plea deals spread to the other counties and became more generous. Accusations of overcharging and overhyping grew as Palm Beach prosecutors admitted in court in April that there was no evidence of human trafficking at the spa where Kraft was charged.

Still, police brought new charges against Lei Chen and Shen Mingbi, another woman who worked at Orchids of Asia Day Spa, and who police said had been caught on video with Kraft. Mingbi was able to post $5,000 bond within a few days, since she did not face the strict conditions on raising bond money that Chen did.

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Police had already charged the owner and manager of Orchids of Asia with deriving support from prostitution, offering to commit prostitution, and renting and maintaining a house of prostitution.

The owner, Hua Zhang, is a 58-year-old grandmother who worked as an insurance agent in China, said her attorney, Tama Kudman. She remained in jail for nine weeks on $278,000 bond.

Lei Wang, 40, the manager, who allegedly provided sexual services to Kraft on two consecutive days last January, remained in jail for seven weeks on $256,000 bond. She’s still on house arrest in the home that police seized, along with her bank accounts, her car, and even her family’s property, said Wang’s lawyer, Katie Phang.

Phang argued that police had “bootstrapped the charges” to pressure the women to help build their case for trafficking.

“I think that they wanted to have more leverage against the women, who ironically they had claimed to be the victims of the sex trafficking,” Phang said. “Think about the logical inconsistency of that: You’re saying they’re victims of sex trafficking and you’re going to hammer them with a felony?”

The four women charged at Orchids of Asia have, like Kraft, successfully challenged and suppressed the video evidence against them. Though the state is appealing both decisions, the four women, like the men, might see the charges against them erased.

“In the absence of this evidence, I don’t think that the state is going to be able to cross the finish line with this,” said Phang, whose client has also said in court that she won’t testify against Kraft.

But the women have already faced harsh repercussions.

No trafficking charges

Lixia Zhu collapsed to the floor during an interrogation in Florida after talking about being raped by a man described as her boyfriend.
Lixia Zhu collapsed to the floor during an interrogation in Florida after talking about being raped by a man described as her boyfriend.Martin County Sheriff's Office

In Indian River County, where a spa worker told police she was, in fact, a victim of sex trafficking, one investigator still believes the underlying theory of the case.

“There’s no doubt in my mind there was human trafficking there,” said Vero Beach Detective Sergeant Phil Huddy. “It’s just a matter of trying to tie all those things together and prove it.”

His department came the closest to filing trafficking charges of any of those involved. Lanyun Ma, who ran two area day spas, was charged with racketeering predicated on sex trafficking, rather than trafficking outright.

Still, police don’t believe she was the ringleader. At their initial press conference, Vero Beach police publicly identified Ma’s husband, Yongzhang Yan, as the owner of the spas and a top suspect as a ringleader. He was never charged, or even questioned, however, Huddy told the Globe. When police executed their search warrant, he was not home.

“It’s very frustrating,” Huddy said. “It’s always hard to implicate the main player because they’re so far removed from the operation at that point. There’s all these layers that protect them.”

Trafficking charges are notoriously hard to establish because authorities must prove women have been sexually exploited under force, fraud, or coercion. Prosecution rests on the cooperation and testimony of workers, often immigrants made to feel indebted to and dependent upon the people who employ them; they often can’t speak English and are wary of police.

“It’s really very similar in every situation. The women almost never talk,” said Farrell, of Northeastern.

Some women may know what they are getting into, of course, she said. Others may not. Either way, the biggest fish that police often catch in a case of trafficking, or even prostitution, is the person who manages the day-to-day operations, usually a woman who may have been a victim before being promoted through the ranks.

“The car’s in their name, the hotel’s in their name, they do the recruiting, and they take the fall when everything goes down and they don’t turn state’s evidence,” Farrell said. “They don’t flip. They don’t turn over the person who is the exploiter so then they’re charged.”

The situation is so complicated that a woman can alternately seem a victim or a criminal in the course of a single conversation. Take Lixia Zhu, who had recently taken over one of the spas that was busted and who faces charges in Martin County.

Zhu, 48, was held in jail on $428,000 bond from February until June, when she pleaded no contest to a charge of racketeering, a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The rest of the charges against her, including money laundering and deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution, were dropped.

In video interviews with police, obtained as public records by the Globe, Zhu said she started offering sexual acts to make more money at the suggestion of her boss, a woman known as “Carrie.” Soon, Carrie persuaded Zhu to assume ownership of one of her spas and introduced her to a man she knew only as “Larry,” whom she believed to be sharing in the profits. Police knew his identity and knew, from their surveillance, that he was transporting women between the spas and the airport. Carrie suggested Zhu move in with him, and she became his girlfriend, Zhu told them.

But was Larry really her boyfriend? Or was he her captor or her pimp? Zhu offered variations on those themes in a series of lengthy and draining interviews, which were being translated between Mandarin and English in real time by interpreters in the interrogation room.

Larry took her money each night and put it in a safe where he kept her passport, she told police. Once, when she got up for a glass of water in the night, he accused her of trying to escape and he threatened her with a gun, she told police. He raped her, she told police — and her retelling of that story broke her, leaving her slumped against the wall on the floor of the interrogation room, the video showed.

Still, her story proved maddeningly inconclusive and Larry was never charged. Lawyers for Larry and for Carrie did not respond to requests for comment.

“In no way did anybody think that he was innocent,” said Assistant State Attorney Lev Evans. “We just didn’t have anybody who would testify against him. For a while, we thought we had Lixia Zhu.”

But the day Larry came to court — on his own terms, to petition to get back the money that police seized from the safe in his house — Zhu changed her story. She did not dispute his claim that the money seized from the house was his.

The court ordered that he get back all the things seized from his safe: his cellphone, driver’s license, wedding band, laptop, and $54,106 in cash.

“We couldn’t prove any of it was from ill-gotten gains,” said Martin County Detective Mike Fenton. And in court, he noted, the standard is not what your gut is telling you. It’s “what you can prove.”

The woman known as “Carrie”? She was Ruimei Li, 48, the single mother of a 16-year-old daughter and owner of two spas. On Friday, Li pleaded guilty to racketeering, operating a house of prostitution, permitting prostitution, and engaging in prostitution. A money laundering charge was dropped. She had already spent six weeks in jail on $828,000 bond and had her condo and her car seized by Snyder. She was sentenced to five years’ probation and forced to surrender her massage license. An agreement filed in court allows her to get her condo back if she turns over her car and $81,193.

Another woman charged

Robert Kraft attended a Treasury Department dinner with President Trump and others in July.
Robert Kraft attended a Treasury Department dinner with President Trump and others in July.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

While 246 men were charged with soliciting prostitution in the Florida case, only one man was charged with involvement in the alleged criminal organization.

Kenneth Zullo, a 65-year-old retiree, did handyman jobs at two Vero Beach spas, according to police reports, which say he also drove some of the women around — once to the airport, with luggage, and once, with a bag of money. He also regularly showed up at the spa to visit “Ava,” a masseuse he told police he had met on his daily walk along the riverfront.

Ava was 52-year-old Yan Xu, whom police said they saw repeatedly meeting Zullo outside the spa and engaging in sex acts with other men inside, according to her arrest affidavit. She was charged with racketeering and deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution — both felonies — along with engaging in prostitution.

But she was no victim, she insisted during police questioning, according to the video reviewed by the Globe. “Look,” she told detectives on the video, through a translator. “I know what I’m doing and I just can’t name someone and tell you that person forced me when it didn’t happen. I just can’t say something that’s not true.”

During his interrogation, also captured on video by police, Zullo told police that he and Ava communicated using a translation app on their phones. When police brought her in, handcuffed, to see him, she managed to tell him in English: “Sorry.”

He told her “I love you,” in Chinese. He told her he would get her out of jail, and that hopefully he’d see her that night.

Zullo was charged with felony racketeering and held on $100,000 bond. He posted bond within two days of being jailed, and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor — transporting someone for prostitution. His attorney did not return calls for comment.

Xu was charged with two felonies — racketeering and deriving support from prostitution — as well as engaging in prostitution, and held on $150,500 bond. No one bailed her out. By the time the state dropped the felonies and she pleaded no contest to engaging in prostitution, it was May 31.

She had been in jail for 100 days.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.