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.
“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.