In the drab, cookie-cutter world of Florida strip mall storefronts, there was little about the five Asian-themed spas lining Federal Highway in northern Palm Beach and southern Martin Counties that screamed “hub of human trafficking.”
Yet, over a dozen witnesses to the daily routine in the suburban shopping centers told the Miami Herald they knew something was off about the parlors long before last week’s police raids, part of a sex-trafficking and prostitution sting that nabbed New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and hundreds of other customers, along with several business owners.
Windows of the massage parlors were always dark they said, with any activity inside shielded from prying eyes by heavy drapes. Blue and red neon OPEN signs beckoned patrons, who were often seen entering at odd hours. Passersby often exchanged slightly awkward lewd jokes, puzzling over the meaning of “table showers” advertised in bold white font on the front windows.
“I always had a bad vibe about it,” said Abby Atwell, a young woman who worked at a smoothie shop next door to Cove Day Spa in Stuart. “My mom was always like ‘that’s not a massage place.’ ”
There were other eyebrow-raising peculiarities too. Like the office fridges that appeared capable of feeding a large family. And, of course, the beds, suitcases, and dressers full of clothes and other personal items stashed in the back rooms, as noticed by health inspectors. And then there were the women, who were spied cooking their meals on a hibachi back by the dumpsters.
It was as if people were not just working there, but surreptitiously living there — which apparently they were.
“Everyone ignored it. Everyone looked the other way,” said a woman who worked near the Jupiter spa, asking not to be named. “The women were kind of invisible.”
Every day, men visited the spas. Some were tipped off by a friend or one of a dozen online forums for those seeking “happy endings.” Others were recognized by neighbors as repeat customers.
Cash in hand, they were greeted in the parking lot by a woman and ushered quickly to a door around back. In Hobe Sound, men drove to the rear parking lot themselves, looking for a little red rag — a prearranged signal for those in the know, indicating which nondescript door to enter.
Thirty to forty-five minutes later, the men would emerge. The scene might repeat up to 20 times per day, according to authorities.
What happened inside was a badly kept secret, whispered loudly around the small towns.
“We all knew from the beginning,” said Thi, a nail technician in Hobe Sound whose clients told her of their experiences at the spa next door. “The women would touch [the client’s genitals] and ask ‘you like?’ That was their password. That’s how they got consent.”
Thi and others interviewed by the Herald said they didn’t say anything about the spas to authorities, fearful of making a false accusation.
Those fears seem to have evaporated somewhat. One landlord left a testy note for his tenant on the door of Cove Day Spa: “The lease provides the space is to be used as a spa, not a house of prostitution as has been alleged by law enforcement ... I will be filing an action for eviction against you.”
That could be the least of the operators’ problems. Authorities say they intend to show that the parlors are part of a human-trafficking ring operating in Florida, New York and China.
Authorities said many of the women working in the spas were brought over from China under false pretenses and forced to service many men a day. They weren’t locked away, but allegedly kept in line through coercion.
The number of women authorities are treating as victims has not been released, although witnesses described anywhere from one to four women working at each location.
“They will be fielded to the appropriate community resources that will include housing, medical services, and mental health services that they need,” said Dr. Heidi Schaeffer, an internal medicine physician, and president of the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches.
Experts say prosecuting trafficking is especially difficult as it relies heavily on victim testimony. Often victims are too scared to speak up or might not see themselves as victims. Only one woman is currently cooperating with Florida authorities, according to initial reports.
Other than hotels, massage parlors are the number one venue for sex trafficking in the United States, according to Polaris, a leading anti-trafficking group.
Over 9,000 illicit massage businesses are operated across the country, representing a $2.5 billion industry, Polaris says. The spa workers are often mothers who come from poor, rural parts of China, according to Polaris. They are enticed by labor agencies selling the idea that they can work as a legitimate masseuse and send money back to their families. Once they arrive, they are entirely dependent on their employer.
Many of the parlors are registered and operated by an employee who serves as a “front,” making it difficult if not impossible to trace the ultimate owner or hold those who benefit financially accountable.
Three women, identified by Palm Beach and Martin County authorities as owners or managers of the spas, were arrested on various charges including racketeering and operating a house of prostitution. The spas had been operating for different lengths of time, ranging from several years to just two months.
Of the five spas, three are affiliated with one matron through business records and two with a different matron. Everything from similar decor to the same latex lettering on several of the spas’ windows promoting identical services implies more of a connection than is apparent in the business registries alone.
As yet, no one one has been charged with human trafficking, defined as being forced into sexual labor through force, fraud or coercion, but police have called the recent revelations “the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”