Crime

Raiding massage parlors isn’t hard. But proving human trafficking is

With names like Ting Ting Spa, Jade and Jee Jee, Asian spas are ubiquitous sights in strip malls across South Florida. For many people, the establishments with conspicuously covered windows inspire exotic mystery. And also tired jokes about “happy endings.”

But the mid-February raids at several parlors in Palm Beach, Martin and Indian River counties underscored a harsh reality: that illicit spas featuring sexual services can sometimes be hubs of human trafficking, where women, often imported from overseas, are induced through fraud, fear or some other type of coercion to perform sexual acts for money.

“It’s a myth that most of the sex that one could buy is from willing participants,” said Kathy Andersen, executive director of the Miami-Dade Women’s Fund, an anti-trafficking advocacy group. “This is multi-billion dollar organized crime, based on abuse and violence and threats and manipulation.”

Though recent attention has focused on the Treasure Coast and Palm Beach County, the spas are as common as waxing salons and yoga studios in South Florida’s strip mall landscape.

In Miami-Dade, there are at least 205 massage parlors offering sexual services in cities ranging from Coral Gables to North Miami, according to Rubmaps.com, essentially the Yelp for reviewing erotic services at spas around the country. Assuming they are all still open and registered, that’s about a quarter of all active massage parlors in the county.

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FILE - In this Feb. 19, 2019, file photo, a sign is posted outside of Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla., one of several spas closed in south Florida as a result of a six-month investigation into sex trafficking. The Florida prostitution sting that ensnared New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is a reminder of the human trafficking and abuse taking place behind the darkened windows of many of these storefronts, and how challenging those problems can be to address. (Hannah Morse/Palm Beach Post via AP, File) Hannah Morse Palm Beach Post via Associated Press

Ting Ting, Jade and Jee Jee spas have all been busted for offering sexual services and closed down. No one was convicted of human trafficking in those cases.

Busts here have gained little attention, in part because famous people have not been among the customers caught up in the sweeps. But the truth is, few illicit spas are ever busted, and those that are often spring back to life under a new name at a location just down the road.

For law enforcement, cracking the rings that are behind the massage parlors is challenging — and bringing trafficking charges even more difficult — because of workers’ reluctance to testify, cultural barriers and an international business structure that makes identifying the masterminds next to impossible.

And so most continue to operate with minimal risk of being shut down despite the occasional splashy police raids, such as the ones last month that netted scores of charges against suspected customers, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Busting human trafficking rings

Massage parlors are not new — and neither are police crackdowns on them.

An estimated 9,000 “illicit massage businesses” operate in the United States, reaping a suspected $2.5 billion in profits, according to Polaris, a non-profit that aims to combat human trafficking.

For years, police around the nation have been arresting johns and suspected prostitutes alike at massage parlors.

State authorities and the mainstream therapeutic massage industry are vowing increased vigilance, while the massage parlor operators say the women being arrested are acting on their own and being unfairly targeted by police looking to make headlines.

“It’s bull----,” said Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer Kevin McGil, who has represented massage parlor workers and operators. “The cops are not stopping human trafficking by arresting Asian girls giving ‘handies’ in massage parlors. They’re not stopping human trafficking by arresting johns. They should be targeting organizations that are truly forcing girls to work against their will.”

It’s only in the past few years, as awareness has spread about the layers of human trafficking and non-consensual sex work, that law enforcement has begun to view massage parlor women as potential victims.

In Queens, New York, home to a sizable Chinese enclave, the arrests were so numerous that in 2004, authorities started a “Human Trafficking Court” designed to connect women arrested for prostitution with social services and a chance to get their charges dropped. The program was expanded in 2014 to other parts of the city.

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Sex workers plied their trade and slept inside a Miami Beach massage parlor raided by police in August 2017. Miami Beach police

Many of the women who wind up working in massage parlors and spas are recruited from rural parts of China with nebulous promises of legal employment in the United States, according to Polaris. Some are fleeing domestic abuse, or their families are heavily in debt. Typically they have little education.

Agencies in China arrange for them to travel to the United States on tourist visas, and charge them thousands of dollars that many women agree to work off rather than paying up front.

They arrive in New York City disoriented and confused and are made to become dependent on their employers who often push them into sex work, said New York City lawyer Amy Hsieh, with Sanctuary for Families, a social-services provider that works with parlor employees arrested for prostitution or practicing massages without a license.

“It’s a slow game of indentured servitude,” she said.

Arresting the women of the parlors for prostitution does little, said human-trafficking detective Joseph Scaramucci, of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Texas.

“That’s just playing whack-a-mole with people’s lives and basically moving them to the next city,” he said. “That’s not accomplishing anything.”

Scaramucci, instead, focuses on targeting the parlors as organized crime, but not counting exclusively on the cooperation of the victims. Instead, they go after the groups’ finances.

“It’s huge, huge money,” he said. “The best way to tear down an organization is to take down their money.”

Building a case on the Treasure Coast

Last month’s Florida crackdown, at least partly, focused on the businesses.

In addition to several hundred johns, charged with misdemeanors related to soliciting prostitution, at least eight Chinese-born women were arrested throughout February for managing the illicit business operations and profiting from operating a house of prostitution.

No trafficking charges have been brought in these cases, despite police loudly declaring that they had exposed the “tip of the tip of the iceberg” of a major sex-trafficking ring. The most serious charges were for racketeering and money laundering.

Citizen complaints sparked an investigation in Indian River County, leading to the arrest of Lanyun “Cindy” Ma, the alleged operator of several spas, who was slapped with a racketeering charge in addition to charges related to operating a house of prostitution. Her husband, Yongzhang Yan, was listed in Florida business registries as the president of several of the spas but was not charged.

Police surveillance showed Lanyun, behind the wheel of a red Lincoln, shuttling young women carrying suitcases between various spas. A 27-year-old originally labeled Jane Doe #7, observed living in Lanyun’s parlor and performing sex acts, also faces RICO charges in addition to being arrested for prostitution. There is no indication in the record that suggests why she is being treated differently than most other Jane Does.

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This Miami Beach massage parlor raided by police in August 2017 doubled as living quarters for the employees. Little of the money made by operators flows to the sex workers. Miami Beach police

In Martin County, after a health inspector noticed signs of nervous-looking women living in a parlor, the owner Ruimei Li was asked to produce proof of legal employment documentation for her employees. She didn’t for the women observed working by the health inspector. Yet no charges were brought on that basis.

Ruimei was arrested on counts ranging from operating a house of prostitution, to racketeering to money laundering. Her two spas raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the business, which she dispersed through several bank accounts, spreading around her cash deposits. She eventually bought property with the proceeds, and sold one of her two businesses to another woman also arrested in the sting.

Civil forfeitures suits filed against two alleged massage parlor managers in Martin County, Hua Zhang and Lei Wang, list several residences, expensive cars, over $400,000 in cash and various cell phones, watches and jewelry — all allegedly bought with proceeds from their illegal businesses.

In contrast, for front-line sex workers, the pay was low, the hours harsh and the living conditions dismal.

Authorities said they were targeting a multimillion-dollar sex trafficking ring operating from South Florida to New York. Still, the connections between the spas remain murky, and seem to boil down to a common employee, or registered agent.

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The belongings of sex workers littered the back room of a Miami Beach massage parlor raided by police in August 2017. Police and victims’ advocates say women are brought from China to the United States with vague promises of legitimate work, only to wind up providing sex for money. - Miami Beach Police

Beyond the initial tips, it’s difficult to discern the logic behind how these particular spas were chosen. Corporate records from Palm Beach County show a much larger network of massage parlors loosely connected to Orchids of Asia, the Jupiter spa made infamous by the Robert Kraft bust. None of the other spas are mentioned in police narratives of the investigation in Jupiter.

Palm Beach investigators are still reviewing evidence in hopes of building bigger cases.

”The investigation is still ongoing,” Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg said on Friday.

Mixed Success in Miami Beach

The case of Miami Beach spa madam Mi Cha Jones demonstrates just how difficult it is to make even a carefully constructed trafficking case stick.

Back in 2017, Miami Beach residents were lodging complaints to the police department over suspected prostitution in four massage parlors across the city. Undercover detectives began visiting the businesses, posing as customers, negotiating for sex acts but leaving before following through.

After establishing probable cause, detectives staged simultaneous raids in August 2017. Victims outreach workers were on hand, as were Mandarin-speaking translators to help interview the women.

Detectives found living quarters in some of the businesses, which violated state codes and suggested trafficking. In one North Beach parlor, detectives found a hidden drop-down compartment in the ceiling that contained a jar full of condoms.

“There is no reason for a legit massage establishment to have dozens of condoms on hand,” Miami Beach Capt. Daniel Morgalo said.

At the Jee Jee Spa, in the 700 block of Fifth Street, one woman said the arrangement worked like this: She worked 12-hours shifts and was not given an hourly wage. Instead she received a cut of each massage: $70 for the house, $30 for her.

She was charged $30 a day for food and lodging, according to an arrest report.

A second woman told the same story.

Jones was arrested on two felony counts of human trafficking. For the city, the operation was a success — code enforcement actions ensured that three of the parlors shut down for good; the fourth changed ownership just before the raid.

But as often happens in massage parlor investigations, the prosecution’s case against Jones weakened significantly when the two victims stopped cooperating. Adding to the difficulties: The massage parlor was not in Jones’ name, and many of the financial records were in Mandarin.

The State Attorney’s Office, instead, allowed Jones to plead guilty to a felony charge of deriving support from prostitution. She agreed to give up her state massage certification and serve two years of probation. Because she was granted a “withhold of adjudication,” the case does not count as conviction on her record.

Jones now lives in Georgia.

The lawyer, Kevin McGil, said Jones, like other parlor operators, allowed itinerant massage operators to essentially rent out space to do their work. Often, they don’t stay long enough to want to lease an apartment. “It’s easier for them to live in the parlors,” he said.

He acknowledged that the operators have an idea what the women do to make extra money. “If anything, it’s just turning a blind eye,” McGil said.

A push for new laws

Beyond police efforts, lawmakers need to beef up regulation of curb illegal massage parlors, victim advocates say. Florida lawmakers have tried.

In 2013, the Legislature passed legislation that sought to bar massage businesses from operating between midnight and 5 a.m. Three years later, Gov. Rick Scott signed a human-trafficking bill that increased penalties for people who run the operations.

But with thousands of massage parlors in Florida, health inspectors can’t be everywhere, let alone in the middle of the night. The Florida State Massage Therapy Association, which participated in a human-trafficking forum Friday with Attorney General Ashley Moody, supports measures that will tighten regulations on the industry.

That could include greater scrutiny on massage parlors that change their corporate identities but stay in the same location, and increased background checks on owners of massage business owners, who are currently barred from operating only if they have a fraud conviction. Massage therapists themselves cannot have any prostitution-related convictions.

The operators “should be held to the same standard as a massage therapist,” said Joyce Prahsky, the association’s executive president.

The Florida Legislature is also targeting the customers. Bills that will be considered in the upcoming legislative session could make solicitation of prostitution punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison, and even create a registry of people convicted of trying to buy sex.

“One way to deal with this problem is to get tougher on the demand side,” said Palm Beach State Attorney Aronberg.

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David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.
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