New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft still faces prostitution charges nearly a year after he was arrested in a sweeping three-county sex-for-pay probe that involved police video recording hundreds of alleged sex acts by licensed massage workers.
Initially announced as a potential human sex-trafficking investigation — assertions authorities later backed away from — the day spa crackdowns sparked a national debate over privacy rights and the government’s ability to secretly video record citizens, while in pursuit of criminal charges.
Ultimately, prosecutors only leveled human trafficking charges against one spa operator in Vero Beach, Florida as part of a felony racketeering charge.
Jupiter (Florida) Police Department’s months-long surveillance of Orchids of Asia, a storefront spa Kraft, 78, visited twice, coincided with similar investigations revealed Feb. 19, 2019 by Martin and Indian River counties’ law enforcement agencies.
The investigations culminated in the arrests of spa owners and workers, nearly 300 male clients and shuttered 10 massage businesses.
Since then, 112 men in Martin and Indian River counties who faced misdemeanor prostitution charges opted to enter a pretrial diversion program, records show. Prosecutors in Palm Beach County said they were unable to confirm how many of the 25 spa customers arrested agreed to accept diversion deals.
The diversion program required paying $350 in investigation costs and attending a class on the negative effects of prostitution and human trafficking, according to Assistant State Attorney Nirlaine Smartt. When completed, charges are dropped.
The privacy issues, as they relate to the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government, have attracted national defense attorney organizations and renowned legal experts rallying to support Kraft’s protracted legal battle.
Two of those experts, Stephen A. Saltzburg, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, along with New York University School of Law Professor Ronald Goldstock, authored a legal brief critical of Jupiter police’s use of covert cameras and cautioned against “wanton” government intrusion that may diminish privacy rights.
“We feel the issues are constitutionally significant and extend well beyond one investigation or one defendant, but could impact the rights of all Floridians,” Goldstock said via email.
The formidable fight Kraft’s lawyers have waged against two misdemeanor counts filed against him resulted in a May court ruling that suppressed video evidence police recorded at Orchids of Asia during five days as part of a sneak-and-peak warrant approved by a judge.
Palm Beach County Judge Leonard Hanser threw out the videos in part for concluding Jupiter police failed to meet minimization guidelines required to avoid officers taping activities not related to crimes.
Hanser’s order mimics video suppression rulings issued by three other judges in Palm Beach and Indian River counties, which the state is seeking to overturn in appeals filed to the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach.
The assigned 4th DCA judges — Martha C. Warner; Melanie G. May; and Cory J. Ciklin — consolidated the appeals for what could be months of litigation.
Initial briefs have been filed and it’s up to the district court to grant the oral arguments both sides have requested.
If approved, oral arguments could be held in early summer, lawyers involved have suggested, but a ruling could come months after that.
A separate court order suppressing spa videos recorded by Martin County sheriff’s investigators, which the state appealed to a panel of 19th Judicial Circuit judges, is on hold pending action by the 4th DCA.
The state’s appellate attorneys contend Hanser’s order suppressing the Jupiter police videos cited a failure of officers to minimize an intrusion “not into Mr. Kraft’s own 4th Amendment rights, but into the rights of certain third parties who have not been charged with any crime.”
Specifically, of 39 massage videos recorded by Jupiter officers, four failed to capture illegal conduct. Two customers were women and two were men.
Florida’s Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey DeSousa summarized in the state’s brief that based on video captured by cameras inside Orchids of Asia, “Mr. Kraft’s guilt is a virtual certainty.”
He argued that under settled law, Kraft “lacks standing” to vindicate the 4th Amendment rights of spa patrons who were video recorded but didn’t engage in sex acts and were never arrested.
“Mr. Kraft cannot assert that he was illegally recorded paying for sex, since even under a more rigid minimization protocol his conduct would have been captured by surveillance cameras,” DeSousa wrote.
“Government could run roughshod over privacy and constitutional rights while evading scrutiny and check,” wrote Shepherd, who declined an interview request.
“That outcome would be directly counter to the Constitution, civil liberties, and the rule of law.”
Robert Kraft lawyers: If state wins spa video appeal, ‘everyone loses’
A review of several hundred pages of appeal briefs filed through January shows the issue of when and how it’s proper for law enforcement to surveil and surreptitiously video record people is key to arguments presented by the state, Kraft’s attorneys and other lawyers with clients charged in the spa busts.
The scrutiny surrounding the much-criticized spa investigations also has generated collateral civil litigation against two municipalities and provided the law enforcement agencies a chance to weigh results and reflect on their methods.
Here’s a county-by-county look:
Palm Beach County
Orchids of Asia owner Hua Zhang, 59, manager; Lei Wang, 40; and two spa workers face dozens of prostitution-related charges as their attorneys fight the state’s appeal seeking to reinstate police video recorded inside the spa.
Zhang’s attorney Tama Beth Kudman, of West Palm Beach, said a key issue is a “bright line of privacy,” citizens expect while visiting a place of business.
“If the police are permitted to get away with what they did here,” she said, “then anytime they have a belief there are illegal activities going on in a place of business where ordinary citizens go and might undress, they could theoretically go in and videotape them.”
Jupiter police Chief Daniel Kerr declined comment.
In April, the town of Jupiter was sued in a federal class-action lawsuit filed by a “John Doe,” who claimed his rights were violated when he was filmed in a state of undress inside Orchids of Asia.
If the lawsuit doesn’t settle first, records show a trial is scheduled for June.
Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Dougherty said his agency currently is not using covert surveillance like they did to video record at four spas targeted over seven months.
“We’re kind of on ice until we get the final verdict from the appeals process,” Dougherty said. “The last thing we want to do is violate anybody’s rights.”
He declined to describe how cameras were installed in the spas, but in March Sheriff William Snyder told WPTV they had investigators “pose as repair persons” to gain access and place the cameras.
Snyder first disclosed during a media briefing Feb. 19, 2019 what he believed were possible links to human trafficking, but over time, investigators were unable to bring the charge.
Dougherty said based on their observations, they thought human trafficking was occurring.
“Prosecuting them is a whole different story,” he said. “But we wanted to give it a shot because if people are being trafficked, we want to prosecute the people doing it.”
The main barrier, he said, was lack of cooperation from the women.
“We needed to get the victims to cooperate with us and that was the final step we couldn’t get them to do,” Dougherty said.
He suggested the women feared retaliation to their families or themselves.
Overall, Dougherty said investigators experienced few mishaps.
“The way the laws were interpreted at that time, we wouldn’t change anything,” he said.
A Jensen Beach man was wrongly arrested after Martin detectives misidentified him as having patronized a spa raided in Stuart. His charges were dropped.
As of January, of the 86 men, or so-called “johns,” implicated in the Martin County spa investigations, 44 entered a diversion program, state prosecutors said. Half have finished the program and their charges were dropped.
Most of the women arrested in Martin County had their most severe charges dropped in exchange for pleading no contest to misdemeanor offenses.
Ruimei Li, a spa owner considered to be a key player, is serving five years of probation for pleading guilty to racketeering and other charges. She also had to pay $150,000 in investigative costs.
Indian River County
The City of Vero Beach still faces a federal lawsuit that claims to represent a class of up to 100 people who suffered an invasion of privacy when police conducted “impermissible, non-consensual videotaping” during the spa investigations.
As of mid-January, 64 of the 202 men in Indian River County charged with solicitation of prostitution entered a diversion program. About half have finished the program, meaning charges were dropped, Assistant State Attorney Steven Wilson confirmed.
In January, private equity firm founder billionaire John Childs, 48, who lives seasonally in Indian River Shores, pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor prostitution charge issued after the spa raids were revealed in February.
To Tallahassee defense attorney Michael Ufferman, these cases “concern what we as Americans cherish as a basic right of privacy,” he said.
“There’s an expectation when you have a massage that you’re going to disrobe to some extent,” said Ufferman, who’s litigating appeals on behalf of spa customers arrested by Vero Beach police and the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office.
“And you’re not expecting that there’s going to be video surveillance while you’re receiving that massage.”
He’s particularly critical of sheriff’s investigators, who, court papers show, faked a power outage to enter the spas with secret cameras.
“Based on the camera system they installed … they had to record all of the rooms or none of the rooms,” Ufferman said. “When they knew they were recording innocent conduct, they … nevertheless went forward and continued to record that innocent conduct.”
Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar did not respond to requests for comment.
During a 30-day period, sheriff’s detectives recorded 43 “prostitution events” and on four occasions, “a woman was recorded while engaged in what appeared to be lawful activity,” according to the state’s appeal brief.
When the investigation ended, sheriff’s investigators had recorded 67 massages over 34 days, with all but four involving sex acts.
Vero Beach Police Chief David Currey, whose detectives spent six months surveilling East Spa, said he’s proud of their investigation, which began after nearby businesses complained.
“We truly stand behind what we did,” Currey said, describing their work as “meticulous and thorough.”
“We did what we were told to do,” he said, “as far as how we minimized (the monitoring of covert cameras).”
He cited from the state’s appeals brief that showed of 145 massages filmed by investigators, 142 involved prostitution.
At least one East Spa massage worker told police she was coerced into performing sex acts.
Currey said that victim, known as Jane Doe #9, cooperated in terms of the human trafficking allegations.
“If you ask me, they were all victims of human trafficking,” he said.
The woman who ran spas in Sebastian and Vero Beach, Lanyun Ma, 50, faces a racketeering charge that accuses her of prostitution and human trafficking.
Currey said his agency isn’t currently investigating any spas and the ones they did investigate remain closed.
“We did our job,” he said.
Ufferman, meanwhile, said if the appeals court rules to keep the videos suppressed, he hopes the state will end the appeal and dismiss the remaining cases.
“I don’t think they’d have the evidence to move forward,” he said, adding if his side loses, he’d appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
If the 4th District Court of Appeal rules against the state, Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler said attorneys with Florida’s Solicitor General’s Office would decide the next step.
And a move to drop any charges, Butler said, would depend on the facts in each case.
“You can’t say they’d all get dropped or they’d all go forward,” he said. “It’s likely going to be a mix of the two.”
Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCpalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast.
Will Greenlee is a breaking news reporter for TCPalm. Follow Will on Twitter @OffTheBeatTweet