VERO BEACH, Fla. – Only one person has been charged with human trafficking in connection with prostitution in Florida massage parlors, despite multiple agencies linking the 10 spas shut down this month to Chinese sex trafficking.
Her name is Lanyun Ma, and she’s a 49-year-old Orlando woman who ran East Spa in Vero Beach.
“It’s very difficult to charge somebody with that,” acknowledged Detective Sgt. Phil Huddy, who supervises the detective division at the Vero Beach Police Department.
Ma was seen transporting numerous women with suitcases to and from the spa who are believed to be victims of human trafficking, according to her arrest warrant.
Some stayed for a couple days, others for weeks.
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It’s hard to know how many total victims there were at East Spa, police said. One was placed in a shelter and is cooperating with investigators; several are incarcerated and a handful were never identified.
“It’s a very large network and they move around constantly, so that’s why it’s been difficult for us to locate the other Jane Does that we have,” Huddy said. “We’re still sifting through that, and we’re hoping all the ladies involved come forward and will open up about their experience and how they got into the position they’re in.”
The women were trapped in the spa, living in a small room with two mattresses on two-by-fours, using a makeshift shower and cooking in a small unsanitary room, Huddy said.
“If they did show their faces outside the establishment, they were outside for a brief period of time, and they were within earshot or eyeshot of Lanyun Ma,” Huddy said.
Police believe most of the victims came to the country on airplanes, but they don’t know for sure.
“There are basically like travel agents that go to these little villages (in China) where they’re destitute, poor and have no other way out, and approach families and approach females and say, ‘Hey, you wanna go to America?'” Huddy said.
“Then when they get here it’s basically indentured servitude.”
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‘Only scratched the surface’
Police are under no illusions about how far they’ve reached into the seedy human trafficking organization believed to be rooted in China and loosely tied to New York, Texas and California.
“I think we’ve only scratched the surface on this,” Huddy said.
Video surveillance played a key role in capturing the major players, Huddy said, because detectives could not do anything illegal, even undercover.
“It takes time,” he said. “We have to keep this investigation going because it takes us so long to establish a human trafficking charge.”
Ma was arrested Feb. 19 and also stands charged with racketeering, deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution. Her bail was set at $155,500.
Ma and her husband, Yongzhang Yan, owned several spas in Vero Beach, Sebastian and the Orlando area. Each spa generated tens of thousands of dollars per month, according to police.
Police are now following that money, poring over records to determine what happened to it and building evidence to ultimately seize any funds they can.
“It was basically all cash,” Huddy said. “They find very intricate ways to try and hide where their proceeds are going, where they’re coming from and who they’re going to.”
Huddy said no solid ties have emerged between the 10 spas from Orlando to Jupiter shut down Feb. 19, aside from the ones owned by Yan and Ma. He does believe the local ringleaders at least know of each other and may coordinate in exchanging women, something done to confuse authorities.
“I think there is some sort of broader link, to where they know who to call (and) when,” Huddy said.
Human trafficking and racketeering are the most serious charges levied so far.
They are first-degree felonies, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. If any of the victims are found to be minors or if they are seriously physically harmed, the punishments can escalate to life sentences.
The next most serious charge, deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution, is a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The remainder of prostitution charges levied against about 300 across the region are various degrees of misdemeanors which have maximum sentence lengths of 60 days to a year in county jail.