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AP Exclusive: Florida targeting massage parlor prostitution, trafficking

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When police busted several massage parlors engaging in prostitution in Florida in February, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft drew all the attention, being charged as a customer. What drew far less notice was that hundreds of other men were also charged in what seemed like a new approach for Florida authorities.

AP Florida reporters Mike Schneider, Orlando, and Terry Spencer, West Palm Beach, seized on the Kraft-driven attention to the story to dig into legal issues surrounding massage parlors and prostitution in Florida. With a deep dive into state records and a key interview with a local source, Schneider and Spencer scored an AP Exclusive that showed a longstanding pattern of minor charges and punishment for owners of massage spas used to sell sex – even when signs showed potential human trafficking.

A state Health Department inspector had originally tipped off police about possible human trafficking at the South Florida spa in the Kraft case,so Schneider took a look into that department’s records,going back a decade. Poring through 150 reports on spas that had licenses revoked and suspended for reasons including on-site sex acts and signs of human trafficking, Schneider found that usually only low-level massage therapists were arrested. Owners rarely were charged and typically faced only misdemeanors resulting in fines and probation. Johns typically were not charged at all.

An analysis of state records on massage parlors,and a key interview with a county sheriff, revealed the policy shift in the recent raids.

“In stark contrast,the investigation announced last month spanned several jurisdictions between Palm Beach and Orlando and focused heavily on the possibility of widespread human trafficking,” the story read. “Several spa owners,most of them women originally from China,were charged with felony racketeering and money laundering and could face years in prison. Authorities also charged 300 men accused of being patrons,including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and former Citigroup President John Havens.”

Spencer interviewed Martin County Sheriff William Snyder,whose agency spearheaded the investigation. Snyder made it clear – while conceding it would be difficult or impossible to prove trafficking – that he wanted to shut down the sex-massage industry in part by targeting the demand side.

“I have come to understand that as long as there is a demand,there will be a supply,” he said. “Even if the demand diminishes microscopically and a few women in some forlorn province in China are not enticed to come here under false pretenses and trafficked, it will all be worthwhile.”

Strong play included prominent display in The Washington Post.

For their enterprising use of state records and source-building to find an AP Exclusive in a story that drew enormous global attention, Schneider and Spencer win this week’s Best of States award.

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