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The city, he said, had shut down four brothels posing as spas. Even before the news conference started, however, the case had begun to fall apart. Some sex workers — potential witnesses against the organizers — were gone.
The one person charged with trafficking in the case later was allowed to plead guilty to profiting from prostitution, a lesser charge. Charges were dropped or pleaded down. Spas often popped up in the same or new locations. Or how many icebergs are there? Hints of a broader organization not touched by law enforcement stings hover beneath the surface. Through a search of thousands of Florida public records ranging from corporate filings to massage licenses, USA TODAY found connections among more than a third of the 41 spas raided in the three recent operations alone, and links from them to a larger network of potentially suspect massage parlors all over the state.
Prosecutors defend their track record by noting that a felony trafficking charge is just one tool in their toolbox. Because of the difficulty of getting victims to cooperate, they can look to alternatives that do not require proof that a victim was coerced, such as racketeering or money laundering. Did we shut them down? Was somebody punished?
Was somebody held accountable? Was a victim rescued? Were there proceeds that were taken? Were business licenses forfeited? Did people go to prison? Did people go to jail? Even in that case, though, eight women pleaded guilty to prostitution-related crimes.
Florida law enforcement often falls back on charging women working in the massage parlors. Forty-two faced prostitution charges. After each of two summer raids in Hollywood, the department released a poster with mugshots of those charged, touting its aggressive approach.