MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. – It’s “manifestly obvious” that a series of spa busts amid allegations of paid sex acts involve human trafficking, but bringing trafficking charges hasn't proven easy, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said Tuesday.
Florida law enforcement officials in Martin, Indian River and Palm Beach counties last week began disclosing details of a number of spas in which they said women offered paid sex services.
In many cases, officials used the term "human trafficking" in connection with the investigations, but trafficking arrests have been limited.
Investigators found evidence women were living in the spas, but Snyder said to bring a trafficking charge, a victim must cooperate.
“I need one of these women, under the patient and legal care of a public defender, to tell us exactly how it is that they’re coerced, what is it that keeps them from running out into the street and asking for help,” Snyder said.
Snyder said three women are in the Martin County Jail after the raids.
Four spas were targeted in Martin County, and three others were in Indian River County. The highest profile spa bust is in Jupiter, where police said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft paid for sex services twice in January before leaving in a Bentley.
“We’re trying to make their life as comfortable as possible,” Snyder said of the three women in the Martin County Jail. “We’re doing everything we can to get them to take one step toward us.”
One of the women is Lixia Zhu, 48. She was jailed on several charges, including racketeering and money laundering.
Snyder said that during an interview, Zhu said she came to the United States to work in a nail salon with a promise of high pay and started a few years ago at a business in Chicago.
“After a period of time she found herself being forced into the sex trafficking,” Snyder said. “She did say that she had relatives in China who she said would be in jeopardy if she cooperated. So that’s a pretty strong case.”
Snyder said he watched the interview.
“She was overcome with emotion and broke down sobbing,” Snyder said. “It was tragic to watch, it was gut-wrenching for me.”
Snyder said she shared that a man with a gun intimated he’d use it, and that her passports were locked up.
“She was clear that she was in fear for her life,” Snyder said.
Snyder said a Mandarin-speaking interpreter and public defender were there.
Halfway through the interview, Snyder said a Mandarin-speaking attorney arrived, demanding to see her. Snyder said that attorney spoke to Zhu, and she stopped cooperating.
“It threw a chill over the entire investigative division,” Snyder said. “We realized what had happened.”
Snyder identified the attorney as Baya Harrison.
Harrison, based in New York, said he and his father, Baya Harrison III, represent Zhu. The younger Harrison declined comment.
“On the surface it’s prostitution. I’m walking this delicate tightrope,” Snyder said. “There is a law against prostitution. But if you’re forced into it, we can help you, but you have to cooperate.”
He said sometimes women get coerced into trafficking and can’t get out. He said sometimes for survival purposes they take on a different role and start participating.
“I don’t believe her participation lessens my belief that ultimately she is a victim,” Snyder said of Zhu.
Snyder said as long as a demand for illicit sex from trafficking women keeps up, this will continue.
“It’s manifestly obvious to us that this is human trafficking, but without the evidentiary piece of a victim’s testimony we could not prevail in court,” he said.
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This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Florida sheriff: 'Manifestly obvious' this is human trafficking, but need victim cooperation for case