If you didn’t know any better, you might think Supee Spindler is living the American dream.
She’s run her own successful small business in Vero Beach since 2009 — now with two other therapists — on the city’s Miracle Mile.
The Thai House of Therapeutic Massage seemed relaxing the other day, with aromatic candles burning and soft music playing. It’s a place where patrons get facials, massages or “structural energetic therapy” to treat pain.
An immigrant from Thailand, Spindler, 70, is proud of her business, which she said has served thousands of clients. On her waiting room walls, she displays the licenses of her staff and her business’ health department inspection records — near a poster displaying the human trafficking hotline.
Lately, Spindler’s been living through an American nightmare.
She hasn’t talked to one of her daughters since June or seen her since Feb. 25, 2021.
That’s the day Vero Beach police and U.S. Homeland Security investigators went to the spa and took Spindler's daughter, Nisarat Jittasonthi, 47.
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Vero Beach police get complaint
Why? Police received a complaint from a former spa worker, claiming Spindler trafficked Jittasonthi, verbally and physically abused her and forced her to work for free.
Spindler told me she was shocked by allegations made by a Thai woman she tried to help, but had issues with at work. Spindler cooperated with authorities, allowing them to search her home and business, records show.
The complaint, which police forwarded to the feds, never mentioned Jittasonthi was Spindler’s daughter (according to a 2016 maternity test) or that Spindler was established as her daughter’s caretaker in Thailand after authorities there in 2015 said Jittasonthi suffered from five disabilities under the heading “mental subnormality.” Jittasonthi doesn’t speak English.
This documentation and more is contained in a lawsuit Spindler, through attorney Julia Graves, filed Aug. 26, 2021, attempting to see her daughter. The suit alleged the Florida Department of Children and Families and Catholic Charities, which was housing her in Palm Beach County, “unlawfully” detained Jittasonthi and deprived her of “her freedom for invalid and illegal reasons.”
Illegal, the lawsuit said, because Spindler was “cleared of all wrongdoing” after being accused by a “disgruntled employee.”
The Department of Children and Families conducted two investigations into the daughter's welfare, but could not “substantiate … findings of abuse, neglect, and self-neglect,” Brian Meola, DCF attorney confirmed in case pleadings.
Like a 'shell under the coconut'
Andrew Metcalf, a criminal defense attorney, represented Spindler during the investigation.
“None of (the allegations) had any basis in truth,” Metcalf said, adding Spindler was “nothing but cooperative. … (Investigators) thought they had something, but they had nothing.”
Spindler, concerned for her daughter’s welfare, wants her day in court to prove Jittasonthi is better served living with her mother.
That hasn't happened. Indian River Circuit Judge Janet Croom tossed the case, saying she didn’t have jurisdiction. DCF said it hadn’t had contact with Jittasonthi since Aug. 3, when she was in a “shelter for human trafficking victims and was receiving services and support from the facility.”
So Graves sued in Palm Beach County Dec. 2, 2021, only to learn Jittasonthi no longer was there.
“It’s like the shell under the coconut,” Graves said of authorities’ efforts to move Spindler's daughter.
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The unanswered question is why.
Homeland Security spokesperson Nestor Yglesias said he could not comment because of an “ongoing investigation.” Into what, he would not say.
Metcalf said silence is a classic ploy of the feds.
“They pride themselves on the fact they don’t have to answer questions until there is a federal lawsuit,” Metcalf said.
DCF, which, after 10 days refused to release the investigation to TCPalm, citing state law, would not comment further. Neither Catholic Charities nor Nicole Avila, who represented Jittasonthi in the lawsuit, responded to calls or emails.
Vero Beach immigration attorney Jimmy Benincasa also met with Spindler. The plan, court records show, was to have Jittasonthi return to Thailand for social services and spend time with her brother and sister before returning to the United States on a more permanent visa.
Spindler, who studied education and massage in Thailand, said she met Bob Spindler, a Christian missionary there, before accepting his invitation to join him in the United States in 2006.
The couple lived in California and were married in Houston before moving in 2007 to Vero Beach, where she took college classes to get licenses necessary to open her own business.
Bob Spindler was his wife’s receptionist before the couple divorced and he died in 2012. Two years later, Supee Spindler’s sister, who had been taking care of Jittasonthi in Asia, became ill. By then, Spindler was able to bring her daughter to the United States.
Because Jittasonthi spoke no English and could not take care of herself, Spindler said, her daughter, who could not be left home alone, did laundry and other menial tasks in the spa.
Steven Schwartz has known the family since shortly after the business started. He helped them with marketing, then became a client.
“She is a sweet lady,” Schwartz said of Spindler, adding she’s an excellent massage therapist. “She’s always there to help and share and give to people who are not feeling well.”
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Trying to help her daughter
He’s shocked by what happened to Jittasonthi.
“It doesn’t make sense at all,” he said, noting Nungning, Jittasonthi's nickname, was always nice, seemed well-loved and happy to be working with her mother. “She never looked abused or taken advantage of.”
In November 2019, Spindler and her daughter moved into a new home west of Vero Beach. Jittasonthi’s room still has posters and flash cards used to try and teach her English. English classes at an adult school were derailed by COVID-19, Spindler said.
Jittasonthi’s neat room also included stuffed animals, a Mickey Mouse puzzle, other cartoon-type toys and clothes.
It wasn’t until about two months after authorities took Jittasonthi from the spa Spindler learned of her whereabouts from a Catholic Charities case worker. Spindler said she spoke to her daughter in supervised calls about five times through June.
Spindler delivered clothes, medication, money — to buy Jittasonthi Thai food — and more to the Samaritan Center, a Catholic Charities facility in Vero Beach. Spindler said she received several pictures via text from the case worker, including those showing Jittasonthi standing in a room next to a doll house and eating dinner on her birthday.
In their last conversation, Jittasonthi told her mother shelter officials promised to get her a job making good money working with Thai people, said Spindler, who was skeptical.
In July, Spindler said, the case worker said her daughter was happy where she was, wanted to stay there and Spindler would not hear from the case worker again.
“They will not allow me to talk to you anymore,” Spindler said of the case worker’s message. “I have to do what I was told to do.”
Which leads to a wrinkle DCF’s lawyer raised in the lawsuit. It’s one neither Graves nor Spindler have been able to question in court: Jittasonthi was assessed in a DCF investigation over six days ending Aug. 4, 2021, and found to have the “capacity” to make her own decisions.
Should DCF claims be enough to keep a mother away from a daughter when the mother has other evidence from another country? At what point, if any, should the parent have a right to question the matter in court?
“I just want the truth to come out,” said Spindler.
Metcalf, who specializes in criminal cases, agrees.
“Supee doesn’t have a voice,” he said, noting the government has allowed her daughter to vanish into thin air. “Someone needs to help her.”
Hopefully at some point Spindler will be told the truth and both women can live their dreams.
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Local journalism like this needs your support. Consider subscribing to your local newspaper. See our current offers.
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Vero Beach woman can't find daughter, taken by feds in 2021 | Opinion