Sex Work

Homeland Security and Florida Cops Spied on Chinese Massage Workers for Months but Still Couldn’t Find Evidence of Human Trafficking

Nine women face felony prostitution charges and hundreds of their customers have been arrested. Florida says it's the real victim.

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By now, the idea that Florida police busted up an international sex slavery ring operating through Chinese massage parlors has firmly taken hold in the national narrative, even though most of the charges, including those levied at Patriots owner Robert Kraft, were misdemeanors for soliciting prostitution. A closer look at the arrests in this operation reveals just how shoddy the reporting on the case has been—and just how little the police statements on TV resemble what they've put in their actual reports.

No one in this case was arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking, forced labor, compelling prostitution, or any other charge that implies force, fraud, or coercion in the arrangement.

Of the workers we know of from police documents (including those who were arrested and those who weren't), all have official massage therapy licenses in good standing. The Asian-owned massage and spa businesses raided across four counties were also licensed and in good standing with the state of Florida.

Police from Vero Beach said in a press release that one woman had been arrested for human trafficking, and Florida news outlets are still running with that story. But a simple check of county court records shows that this is not the case. Like her colleagues, the woman is charged with engaging in prostitution herself, "deriving support" from prostitution, and "racketeering," which sounds serious but just means working with others to accomplish something illegal.

Mutually Trafficking Each Other?

All of the women who were arrested in these stings are being charged with prostitution themselves. They're also facing felony charges for participating in and earning money from each other's sex work. In this way, police have found a sort of loophole that allows them to bring felony charges against sex workers simply for working together.

Some of the women arrested were managers or owners at one of the 10 spas targeted, but others simply worked there themselves, giving massages and sometimes something extra, and occasionally accompanied their managers on errands like going to the store or bank. (Police suggest these instances of them traveling together could mean workers were victims who couldn't be let out of eyesight, and yet they also charge the workers with felony crimes for going along on these tasks.)

Not counting clients like Kraft, nine women and one man are currently facing charges in conjunction with these stings, which come from two separate but similar operations carried out simultaneously on Florida's southeast coast. One involved the participation of Homeland Security Investigations, the Vero Beach Police Department, and the Indian River Beach County Sherriff's Office, while the other included authorities from nearby Martin and Palm Beach counties.

The Palm Beach County and Martin County Stings

sequoia day spa/Facebook

The Palm Beach/Martin operation has been getting the most attention, since it's the one that snagged Kraft. Some have extrapolated from his arrest to assume that all the customers at these massage parlors were rich, white men, and to insinuate that this is isolating them from more severe charges. But by all evidence, soliciting prostitution was the extent of their criminal conduct. And according to the arrest records, at least half of those arrested were men of color. Their listed occupations include an array of manual labor jobs, including "dog grooming," "mover," "roofer," and "painter."

All of the businesses targeted in Palm Beach and Martin counties were legally registered and licensed in the state of Florida; one had opened in 2012, the others in 2016–2018. Orchids of Asia and Sequoia Apple Day Spa both list Hua Zhang as their owner; the other three (Florida Therapy Spa, Cove Day Spa, and Bridge Spa) were owned or run by Ruimei Li.

After at least six months of surveillance and undercover operations at these businesses, police wound up arresting Zhang, Li, and two other women on prostitution and prostitution-related charges. All of the women arrested were Chinese nationals in their late-thirties through fifties, and all of them came to the U.S. legally.

The Indian River Beach County and Orange County Stings

The stings in Indian River Beach and Orange counties netted more than 100 solicitation arrests for customers plus the arrest of six people (five women, one man) associated with the massage businesses. The man is accused of serving as a driver for women who worked temporarily at the spas while visiting from out of town; he has been charged with racketeering. The women are charged with prostitution, racketeering, and deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution. One is also charged with "unlawful transport for the purpose of prostitution."

There is no evidence in initial complaints, the arrest affidavits, the arrest warrants, or subsequent court documents that any of those arrested were using force or deception at the massage businesses. On the warrants, the victim is listed as the State of Florida.

The police documents detail the lengths local cops and federal agents went to in order to show that some men were getting jerked off after their massages. In Orange and Indian River Beach, the investigation dates back to at least August 2018 and involved East Sea Spa, AA Massage, A+ Massage, and East Spa.

First, an undercover Homeland Security agent received massages and asked about add-on sexual services. A police report said that the agent kissed and had his penis touched by the worker but left before anything else could happen.

Then they staked out the businesses, went through their trash and tested it for semen, interviewed men who exited, and followed around the women who managed and worked at the spas. (One very detailed section of arrest affidavits describes two of the arrested women buying condoms.)

Then they got warrants to install hidden cameras in massage rooms and captured weeks' worth of video evidence from within.

If abusive antics were an issue at these places, weeks of hidden camera footage should at least have hinted at it. Instead, nothing on the extensive surveillance footage yielded charges for sex trafficking or other abusive behavior. What it did catch was a bunch of regular massages being given and sometimes additional sexual activity—mostly hand jobs.

Cops Can't Do Math (or Truth)

Police have suggested that "victims" at these businesses were sexually serving 1,500 men per year. But according to arrest documents, their cameras caught an average of about one sexual customer per employee every three days.

Those that were arrested stand accused of engaging in between 3 and 16 paid sex acts apiece throughout the 40-day surveillance period.

Police originally relied on two details to spin the trafficking narrative in the press: Some of the women were living at the massage parlors, and they "weren't allowed to leave." But Martin County Sheriff William Snyder later admitted that the part about not being allowed to leave was false.

Included as evidence that they lived there was the presence of "food and condiments" in a kitchen fridge—pretty standard for workplace kitchens, no? In addition, one of the places had two extra rooms, in which police found beds made with sheets and pillows and dressers holding personal belongings. Police later told reporters these women were sleeping on "cots" and in "squalor," but that's not what their official report says. (It's also worth noting that the one woman police say for sure was briefly staying at one of the spas is also facing the most prostitution charges, so in practice police don't really seem to think sleeping there equates to victimhood.)

In any event, the fact that some women may have temporarily lived in the spare bedrooms needn't speak to anything untoward. Police suggest that some of the workers came in for a short time from other U.S. cities; these rooms could have been temporary crash pads while they were there.

Because these are Asian immigrant women, many people are quick to see visiting from other cities as something salacious and horror-filled. But sex workers (including those unquestionably on the high end of the empowerment and independence spectrum) often "tour" when work is slow in their cities, or to exploit the novelty factor to make money in a concentrated time period elsewhere. The fact that Chinese-American masseuses and sex workers may work together and have informal community ties doesn't make them a vicious sex-slaving conspiracy.

Prices at the different spas varied—they were owned and staffed by different people—but they do not suggest overall that these women were operating at the most desperate level. At the Indian River Beach spas, a regular massage cost $50 and a "happy ending" (manual stimulation of the genitals) was $60 on top of that. Oral sex was an additional $100, and full sex $160. At others spas, women offered different arrangements and prices, which suggests they were setting their own terms.

Most of the women arrested are still being held in county jail. Their bonds have been set in the $200,000 to $800,000 range, and any money they earned working at the massage parlors (as far we know, their only source of income) cannot be used to pay this balance. So far, at least three have entered pleas of not guilty and are asking for jury trials.

The more that comes out about this case, the more it looks like police are just using human trafficking fears to justify their months of undercover massages and their big press announcement about arresting Kraft.

The authorities may eventually find illegal dealings beyond consensual commercial sex, but they certainly haven't yet. Apparently, they chose to go on a national media offensive with the sex-trafficking story before even having a shred of evidence to that effect.

But now that Kraft has made headlines and the national media have milked the story, how many people will care if cops quietly drop the bit about the transnational sex cabal? Will anyone even notice what ultimately happens to these women that police stalked, made secret porn films of, and then locked in cages?

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61 responses to “Homeland Security and Florida Cops Spied on Chinese Massage Workers for Months but Still Couldn’t Find Evidence of Human Trafficking

  1. They like to watch.

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  2. Seems like a lot of the media has just decided that trafficking and prostitution are one and the same and they are running with that. Most of what I heard just unquestioningly swallows the claim that the women are trafficking victims.

    1. “unquestioningly swallows”

      Phrasing?

      1. Heh. Zeb pulled a funny.

        1. I imagine he’d prefer an Asian massuese pull a boner, preferably his.

          1. What, no love for the police “milking” the situation?

    2. It is not the PRESS that equates trafficking and prostitution, it is the press releases provided to the press. Anti-prostitution groups are paying prosecutors to make these arrests and specifying how the press releases need to be worded.
      See the new documentary The War on Whores which our writer, ENB appears:
      https://vimeo.com/ondemand/thewaronwhores

  3. “Most of the women arrested are still being held in county jail. Their bonds have been set in the $200,000 to $800,000 range, and any money they earned working at the massage parlors (as far we know, their only source of income) cannot be used to pay this balance.”

    WTF?

    1. So the “victims” are being punished?

      1. They’re filthy chinee hooers!

        RTFA: the Sunshine State is the real and only victim here

    2. Judges missed the Constitution part of law school.

      8th Amendment:
      Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

      More than $100 for bail sounds excessive to me.

  4. If they don’t find the next “war on something” soon, that War on Drugs money will be drying up.

    Asset forfeiture money is already drying up.

    1. Mel Sembler was a Florida real estate magnate, who started a nationwide chain of abusive drug addiction treatment centers in the 80’s. Do you remember the hysteria about drug addiction back then? They are operating from the same playbook.

    2. A solution that desperately needs a problem.

  5. “Admit to being sex-trafficked, and we’ll go easy on you.” It’s amazing what people will say under these conditions. This is also how the drug addiction hysteria started: “Admit to being a drug addict, and we’ll give you ‘treatment’ instead of jail.” People come up with some pretty incredible stories about what they did for their ‘disease’, and we all fall for it.

    I suspect these women will plead out. Why? Because there is way too much money in it. Kraft is going to see the light. In fact, he already has. These women will be set for life.

    1. Hey, don’t forget that I told you about the Brandeis prof the other night.

  6. They’re also facing felony charges for participating in and earning money from each other’s sex work. In this way, police have found a sort of loophole that allows them to bring felony charges against sex workers simply for working together.

    Hmm. Can this felony loophole be applied to other types of work? Say, policing?

    1. No. The only solution to these kinds of abuses is to reduce funding for law enforcement. Then as we decriminalize, there will be fewer resources to get people in trouble. This too is the only solution for ‘corruption’. (Beware politicians who insist they need to hire more people to ‘root it out’. The answer is less.)

      1. No. The answer is fewer.

    2. Yes if two adult woman are offering to have sex with someone for money, if one of them posts an ad to that effect, she is guilty of “sex trafficking” her partner. And if the other one posts the ad the next day, she is guilty of sex trafficking as well. And of course that means they are both guilty of human trafficking somehow.

      It’s sort of like if someone is caught with a gram of marijuana and and they put in a gallon water bottle, then the police charge them with possession of 8.3lbs of marijuana.

  7. Did they install the cameras with one of those sneak n’ peek warrants we were told would only be used for catching Muslim terrorists?

  8. WHERE’S THE TRAFFICKING GOD DAMMIT?!

  9. Back room handjobs are illegal for a good reason. There are insufficient opportunities for graft.

  10. Thank u ENB for an informative report

  11. Meanwhile, where has all the *real* slavery gone?

    I suppose it’s possible it disappeared as soon as it became illegal in the wake of the Late Unpleasantness.

    Or it’s possible that real slavery is less telegenic than Asian masseuses, and investigating it doesn’t get the same media attention as the fake kind of slavery.

    1. The real slavery is in Haiti, Middle East, Africa, Asia, anywhere there is socialism like Cuba and Venezuela since socialism is basically slavery and probably somewhere in Europe especially with Putin recreating the USSR. About the only place there isn’t slavery is the US and maybe Canada but I don’t really trust Canadians.

  12. Some people must be straight up lying. My bet, it’s not ENB.

    Maybe it’s just a splashy cover story and justification for a $3 million asset forfeiture. If that is even true.

    “The sheriff’s office was first alerted to possible trafficking by a state health inspector who reported unusual activity in one massage parlor. From there, investigators began surveillance that eventually revealed that the front was connected to other day spas in West Palm Beach. Surrounding counties then began their own investigations, which have cumulatively resulted in 10 shuttered spas, more than 300 arrest warrants, and over $3 million in seized funds.

    The trafficking ring doesn’t stop at state lines, Snyder said, with connections to New York and China. Investigators have traced as much as $20 million to China. “Florida is just the end of the supply chain,” he said.”
    Robert Kraft Arrest: Armed Men Moved Sex-Trafficking Victims Between Spas: Police say the Florida massage parlors were part of a $20 million China-based sex-trafficking operation.

  13. Dept of Homeland Security personnel must feel so proud. Their organization’s mission has gone from foiling terrorist attacks to foiling hand jobs between consenting adults.

    How did Nancy Pelosi put it? “There’s nothing left to cut!”

  14. “…over $3 million in seized funds.” Ah, there it is. I knew there had to be a good reason for the amount of effort they put into this case. The initial reports were that these women were slaves forced into “a fate worse than death” to satisfy the depraved, lustful urges of Florida millionaires. I couldn’t believe that the police let this horror go on for six months, just so they could get lots of good video evidence. If these women really were slaves wouldn’t you want to rescue them as soon as possible? Now the real story comes out. It was a typical prostitution bust. Misdemeanors all around. What a joke.

    1. If these women really were slaves wouldn’t you want to rescue them as soon as possible?

      You’d think.

  15. One very detailed section of arrest affidavits describes two of the arrested women buying condoms.)

    Are they gay in the 80s or something?

  16. Then they got warrants to install hidden cameras in massage rooms and captured weeks’ worth of video evidence from within.

    Yeesh. Why does this remind me of this guy.

    1. Hopefully these cops kill themselves, too.

  17. But now that Kraft has made headlines and the national media have milked the story, how many people will care if cops quietly drop the bit about the transnational sex cabal? Will anyone even notice what ultimately happens to these women that police stalked, made secret porn films of, and then locked in cages?

    I will remember that Bob Kraft knowingly paid human traffickers to force a poor immigrant to give him a blowski.

  18. Evidence?
    We don’t need no stinking evidence.
    We have stinking badges.
    That’s all we need to make an arrest.
    Isn’t living in a police state wonderful?

  19. ENB takes a more than deep interest in whores and whoredom. Makes you wonder…

    1. She can’t make a sandwich for shit though.

      1. Fuckin’ broads!

    2. I love that a woman is brave enough to speak out publicly about this kind of absurdity and injustice. I’m sure she lost a few feminist nutjob friends over it, but she is a fan of the truth and not afraid to broadcast it.

  20. Just another fake progressive victim narrative.

  21. The article forgot to say how the cops will divide the $3 million.

    1. Into white lines on a glass counter?

  22. That the activity described was “wrong” is a moral judgement. Passing moral judgement should be confined to the clerical profession, like in Iran. That it is done in America indicates that there is no separation of church and state, and that the holly rollers of our country can pass judgement upon the rest of us at any time. Sure, they can say that it is for health or trafficking reasons, but only a numskull would believe that. If some want to hold the position that prostitution of this nature is a sin and immoral, then God bless them. But God blesses the rest of us for believing it is not a sin, as well. I’m pretty sure that everyone of our elected representatives goes to their church every day, and feel they are therefore morally qualified to pass judgement on the rest of us. America, land of the free? Not hardly.

    1. Was Holly one of the prostitutes?

  23. All part of the news outrage machine, plus this story did double double duty. It horrified and tittilated both liberals and conservatives. Sure the victims that everyone claims they care about, the women, get overcharged and victimized by our court system, but who’s paying attention after a few days.

  24. You mean to tell me that over the course of six months of surveillance and undercover operations–spending hundreds of thousands…perhaps millions of tax dollars (taxation is theft)… those weirdo pigs only found a few non-coercive back room handies?!
    What a bunch of fucking morons.
    Way to ruin a bunch of lives…again.

    1. That is a bargain for only a few hundred thousand dollars.

  25. When progressives and police start to agree that always means citizens are about to be assaulted.

  26. ” At the Indian River Beach spas, a regular massage cost $50 and a “happy ending” (manual stimulation of the genitals) was $60 on top of that. Oral sex was an additional $100, and full sex $160. ”

    As I remember, two out of three of those actions are not ‘sexual relations’, based on the expert opinion of ol’ Billy Jeff himself. What better authority than a US President?

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  28. They don’t need “evidence” of human trafficking. All they have to do is say it was there anyway and most of the public will believe them and applaud the law enforcement efforts.

  29. There was a case in GA not long ago where the police installed cameras illegally, and that evidence was thrown out. But not until two years later where most of those charged had already taken some kind of plea deal:

    http://tinyurl.com/y26x6jkc

  30. Robert Kraft thanks you for your service.

  31. Honestly, dont believe or care ENB

  32. Well, unless you can get them all together and can use a bomb. Hmmm, sayyyy, are there are any places you can think of where central planners are collected together?

  33. Your confusion is understandable, but this blog is called The Volokh Conspiracy.

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