‘It will be horrific’: How will women caught up in spa scheme move on?
Their possessions were limited to whatever could be stuffed into the suitcases they arrived with. They almost never ventured outside the small storefront where they worked and lived. They slept in tight spaces, often on dirty sheets, and bathed in a storage space fitted with a hose and nozzle.
A Florida police detective who was part of a statewide sex trafficking investigation offered new details of what women allegedly endured at a Vero Beach massage parlor, calling the living conditions there “deplorable.”
“I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” said Detective Sergeant Phil Huddy of the Vero Beach Police Department, whose investigators say they observed nine women at the East Spa being paid to have sex with 140 clients over 41 days.
Law enforcement surveillance teams throughout Florida tracked the activity of nearly a dozen spas and massage parlors for several months, resulting in charges against hundreds of individuals, including New England Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft. Kraft was videotaped paying for sex acts on two occasions at Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fla., about 60 miles south of Vero Beach, authorities said.
The women who worked at the spas shuttered in the investigation — most of them Chinese who had been enticed to the United States with offers of legitimate jobs, authorities believe — now face a daunting road ahead, experts say. Most don’t speak English, and some may not even know where in the United States they are.
Authorities have revealed few details about the women, in order to protect them. Advocates and lawyers who have worked with women in similar situations say they may be offered opportunities to stay in the country, but such victims are typically frightened and mistrustful of authorities and face the prospect of navigating an unfamiliar legal system and the lingering psychological effects of sexual servitude.
“It will be horrific,” said Maria Jose Fletcher, an attorney and codirector of Florida-based VIDA Legal Assistance, which represents immigrant victims of violent crimes, including sex trafficking.
Details of what life was like inside the spas have been largely murky to the public. At the East Spa, Huddy said in an interview Wednesday, the victims kept their few personal possessions in suitcases — because there was nowhere else to store them and because the women were moved frequently to other massage parlors.
Over the course of the investigation, he said, the victims almost never left the building, other than to step briefly outside the front door when business was slow, or — “if they were lucky” — to carry a trash bag to a dumpster on the side of the building. With the exception of a small handful of accompanied trips, he added, the victims never ventured more than 3 or 4 feet from the building they were currently assigned to.
They cooked in a makeshift kitchen that featured little more than a microwave and a stovetop. They bathed in a room that featured a spigot on one wall and a drain on the floor, washing themselves with the same instrument — a nozzle with a long hose — used to rinse customers off before massages.
“What an office would use for storage space, they made it a makeshift shower,” Huddy said.
Two women slept in a makeshift bedroom containing two mattresses laid across two-by-fours and a small end table — though a third was often relegated to the same massage tables used earlier in the day to perform sex acts on men.
“Through our investigation, we never saw them change those sheets on those tables on a regular basis,” Huddy said.
Once or twice a week, Huddy said, the woman who allegedly ran the spa’s day-to-day operations would drive to purchase groceries, bringing back items such as fruit, yogurt, and bottled water.
“We’re not talking . . . ribeyes,” he said. “It was basically something that could be cooked quickly and discarded.”
Life lived in such places inevitably takes an emotional and psychological toll, victims advocates said. Many face ongoing problems stemming from their abuse and compounded by their isolation.
“They sometimes don’t even know where they are,” said Denise Brennan, professor and chair of the department of anthropology at Georgetown University and the author of “Life Interrupted: Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States.”
Victims require resources to help them navigate an unthinkable situation.
“The thing that concerns me deeply about the women who came out of this raid is whether they’re receiving any help to meet their immediate needs — like food and shelter — but also whether they have legal counsel,” said Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
“These victims need lawyers to explain to them their rights and options.”
Some victims, specialists say, simply want to return to the country from which they came. But for those who want to remain, the path forward can be treacherous.
Though visas exist that can be issued to crime victims, including those subjected to sex trafficking, they’re often contingent on individuals sufficiently proving their victimhood or cooperating with authorities — which, for people coming from countries where law enforcement is corrupt or potentially involved in human trafficking, can be a difficult sell.
“What is clear is many, if not all, of the women involved [in this case] had no interest in speaking to law enforcement — and that is fairly common,” said Kate Mogulescu, assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School. “There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that, particularly for immigrants in this country, at this moment, there is a real perception of danger and risk.”
A number of specialists said victims in these kinds of cases are typically taken to shelters for women, where they are fed and have a place to sleep. Beyond that, it’s not always clear that they receive the help they need to face the difficulties ahead.
“Victims are found, there’s lots of media attention, and then quietly, after cases are prosecuted or closed, people who have been traumatized and taken advantage of have to go on quietly with their lives with little or no assistance,” said Brennan.
Huddy, the Vero Beach detective, said the experience of seeing inside the spa operations and how the victims lived is a reminder of what can happen just out of view.
“There were things that you thought you’d never see,” Huddy said. “But it kind of opened your eyes to human nature and how human beings treat other human beings.”