MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. — Large parts of the investigation into what officials say are illicit spas and paid-sex operations represent new territory for law enforcement officials, who say lots of money is involved.
“We are building the plane as we’re flying it, we’re learning, (Homeland Security Investigations) is learning, we’re uncovering a lot of the way that these organizations work,” Martin County sheriff’s Lt. Mike Dougherty said Friday. “We’re seeing the way that the organizations are functioning as far as the money and the spas and the girls, the transactions.”
Martin County Sheriff William Snyder and other officials this week disclosed five spas in Martin County and Jupiter were being investigated as part of a human trafficking probe involving sex for money.
Arrests have been made of the those accused of running the spas and those accused of exchanging money for sexual favors. Dougherty said aspects of the case are eye-opening.
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“I never in a million years imagined it would be this much money involved,” he said.
He said between $180,000 and $200,000 in cash was seized through the search warrants at spas and homes.
Dougherty said federal agencies are involved in “tracking money from China into the United States and laundering it here and sending it back other places to be laundered.”
He said in general the massages are $75 to $100, but sex services are more.
“We’ve seen up to $300, $400 changing hands,” he said. “It’s unreported money. That’s where it adds up quick. … You’re not getting sex for $50 or $75 or $100.”
He noted about $3 million in asset forfeitures through bank accounts.
“These people are reporting no income or very little income,” Dougherty said.
A state report showed Ruimei Li, 48, of Jupiter, who was arrested on a host of charges, including racketeering and money laundering, was the only person earning income from Bridge Day Spa in 2017 and 2018, records state. Li reported she earned $4,500 per quarter from Bridge Day Spa.
“The spas will make $20,000, $30,000 a year total, and yet they’re pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars that we know of,” he said.
Dougherty said what they learned from federal investigators is that when one spa opens and is successful, another opens and then another.
“Before you know it, your area is inundated,” he said.
Asked about possible links between the spas in Martin County and others in Indian River County that officials disclosed Thursday, Dougherty made an analogy to ownership of Toyota dealerships.
“As it goes up the line, they’re all owned by Toyota,” he said. “They’re sort of like franchises.”
Federal agencies, he said, are working to “follow this pyramid, this organization to try and connect them and move to the top.”
“We can show an organization here with definitely five spas in this area that’s run by one person with another assistant,” he said.
He said federal officials are tracking the electronic trail of cash.
“We’ve seen excessive amounts of money come into these bank accounts and move around, way, way, way, way more than you would ever imagine a spa of any sort,” he said. “We’re talking tens of millions of dollars.”
He said women at the spas are taking tests and getting massage licenses, but don’t speak English. He said the tests are given just in English and Spanish.
“So how are they taking these tests?” Dougherty said. “We can’t say that it’s fraud but we … can say that they can’t speak the language and take the test, so how are they doing it?”
According to Dougherty, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has said she is looking into that.
Snyder has said the women came from China, and Dougherty said he can’t say whether they are here illegally.
“They have documents; now whether they’re legit or not, we don’t know,” he said. “What I can tell you is they come out of China and they … go through Flushing, New York.”
He said they arrive by plane and all their documents come from Flushing.
“That’s where the funnel comes to a tip,” Dougherty said. “When they come in this country and then they move out anywhere to L.A. to Miami, all over the place.”
Dougherty said in terms of the local impact, shutting down the spas is considerable, but maybe not so much in the big picture.
“It’s like the (drug) cartels: They get one load of dope caught out of 200, big deal, that’s the cost of doing business,” he said.
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