If raids on the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter and other Florida massage parlors were meant to crack down on human trafficking and protect women, they have done exactly the opposite.
The "johns" arrested basically "got off;" the women "prostitutes" -- sold to the public as victims of human trafficking -- were hammered legally, their lives turned upside down.
According to a revealing weekend story in the Boston Globe, only 40 of the 246 men charged with solicitation after the raid last February have accepted the legal consequences and begun community service and education programs.
At the Orchids of Asia, where billionaire New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution eight months ago, masseuse Lei Chen, 44, was also charged with offering her services.
"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. That kept her in jail from spring through late August -- a total of more than 14 weeks."
Kraft, on the other hand? He was charged with two misdemeanors and never set foot in court, let alone spend a minute in jail.
Which is how it goes when a billionaire dispatches a high-powered legal team to squelch the charges and get him off the hook, says the Globe. Kraft won a ruling suppressing the video evidence against him that is still being appealed.
And here's the rub: "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." The majority of the men are appealing their misdemeanor charges "or piggybacking off the work of Kraft’s legal team, expecting to have their records cleared entirely."
Never mind that Kraft's name was dragged through the mud when the original story broke just weeks after the Patriots won the 2019 Super Bowl, "his freedom was never in doubt and he quickly resumed his jet-setting lifestyle."
But Chen still isn't free. In fact, she's living a nightmare.
As soon as she posted bail on prostitution charges, she was transferred to ICE custody.
"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," writes Ebbert.
Martin County Sheriff William D. Snyder, a former state representative, was widely covered in media reports portraying most of the women peddling prostitution at day spas as victims, but portraying -- even labeling -- the men who hired them for sex “monsters.”
The Boston Herald reported Snyder as saying, “Over my dead body will any of these women be prosecuted."
But the case deteriorated from there.
Some 16 women were charged with felonies. For most of them, the bonds set were high and conditions of their release were so strict they were kept behind bars for weeks and even months.
"Nine of them were low-level employees," reported Ebbert, "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."
Here's what a botched and mischaracterized case it was, according to the Globe:
"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."
The idea in the beginning, apparently, was "to follow the sort of victim-centered approach that women’s groups and advocacy organizations have encouraged for years" and go after men who are just using women.
But when the day-spa women didn't claim to be victims of traffickers, police and prosecutors went after them for prostitution.
Amy Farrell, a criminologist who studies sex trafficking at Northeastern University, told the Globe, “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. 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 left standing.”
This is a story that sends chills down women's spines: "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."
Both Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg and Martin County Sheriff Snyder are keeping mum 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."
When Kraft’s lawyers succeeded in suppressing the video evidence against him, it was a game-changer. The cases against the men fell apart. Only a few of them took the plea deal they were 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."
According to the Globe, 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."
The better the news for the "johns," the worse it got for the women:
Police brought new charges against Lei Chen and Shen Mingbi, another woman who worked at Orchids of Asia, 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.
Police had already charged the owner and manager of Orchids of Asia, Hua Zhang, with deriving support from prostitution, offering to commit prostitution, and renting and maintaining a house of prostitution. "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."
Read Ebbert's full story in the Boston Globe here.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith