Three women arrested last year as part of a high-profile "human trafficking" sting in Florida were sentenced recently as part of plea agreements with Palm Beach County prosecutors. While avoiding further jail time, the women must still pay the state some hefty fees for allegedly facilitating the sexual gratification of massage customers, including New England Patriots' owner Robert Kraft.
Meanwhile, all charges against Kraft were dropped in September. After courts ruled the state's massage-room surveillance footage inadmissible, prosecutors dismissed cases against Kraft and other men charged last year with soliciting prostitution at Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida.
The investigation—aided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security—was a mess from the start, with authorities in Palm Beach and nearby counties coordinating to target Chinese immigrant-owned spa businesses for prostitution stings and then announcing the results together as a major "human trafficking" bust. Local sheriffs made national news with their narrative of young Asian sex slaves and a vast network of knowing men who patronized them, and the story served as fodder for all sorts of melodramatic media exposes on "sex trafficking" at "illicit massage parlors" and "massage parlor brothels."
But the truth was much more mundane: some middle-aged, licensed masseuses, working legally in the U.S., sometimes engaged in consensual sex acts with massage customers for an added fee.
No one should have faced criminal charges for that. Yet, in Palm Beach County Kraft and at least 13 other men were charged with "soliciting another to commit prostitution" (a misdemeanor) after allegedly paying Orchids of Asia staff for sex acts.
No one was ever charged with human trafficking. In fact, the women providing massages and sex acts—the group that authorities said they were in it to rescue—were the ones who faced the most severe charges.
Masseuse Shen Mingbi—one of two women at Orchids of Asia that Kraft was accused of patronizing—was charged with one count of deriving support from prostitution (a felony) and 10 counts of soliciting another for prostitution.
On November 30, she pleaded guilty to one count of soliciting another to commit prostitution, and authorities finally agreed to return her passport and phone and unfreeze her bank account. Mingbi was sentenced to one year on probation, conditions of which included 100 hours of community service (which she could pay $1,000 in lieu of serving since we're in a pandemic) and submitting to the state results of HIV and STD tests.
Mingbi was also required to forfeit $20,000 to the Jupiter Police Department, in addition to the $5,000 cash bond she posted and the other $6,573 in fines and fees she was ordered to pay.
Hua Zhang was the owner of Orchids of Asia as well as a masseuse there, and the other woman Kraft allegedly patronized. She and spa manager Lei Wang were each charged with more than 20 counts of misdemeanor soliciting another to commit prostitution, plus three felonies (deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution, maintaining a house of prostitution, and renting space for prostitution) apiece as well.
Today, Wang pleaded guilty to one count of soliciting another to commit prostitution and was sentenced to one year probation. Zhang pleaded guilty on November 12 to one count of soliciting another to commit prostitution, plus one count of renting space for prostitution; her probation sentence is one year and six months. Each was also required to submit STD and HIV test results and do 100 hours of community service or pay a fee instead.
Zhang ultimately had to pay $6,661 in fines and fees (including the $1,000 fee to opt out of community service). Wang must pay $5,623, plus an additional $1,000 if she wants to avoid pandemic-times community service.
Palm Beach may now be wrapping up its part in this shameful saga. But the actions of the authorities who worked this case shouldn't be forgotten. Ultimately, they illegally spied on citizens, spent years of police time and public resources, possibly ruined multiple lives, and went on a hero's publicity campaign while saving no one and stealing about $45,000 from a few immigrant sex workers.
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