When news broke last week that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft had been arrested and charged with two counts of solicitation of prostitution at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, in Jupiter, Fla., I felt a strong sense of déjà vu.
On June 5, 2013, Seven Days published my story "Unhappy Endings: Inside Vermont's Asian Sex Market." The exposé followed months of undercover work involving a half dozen Chittenden County "massage parlors." Most of these establishments had been in business for years. They operated in plain sight, advertised online and in local newspapers, and were largely known to Vermont's law enforcement agencies.
By visiting these businesses — though not availing myself of their illicit services — I discovered what experts called unmistakable signs of sex trafficking. All were cash-only businesses that admitted only male clientele. All were staffed by foreign nationals from either China or South Korea, several of whom admitted to me that they were in the United States illegally.
Often the women spoke limited English, lived in the establishments and were expected to work on demand seven days a week, from early morning until late at night. Most had little to no knowledge of the communities in which they lived and claimed that the only pay they received were the tips their customers might give them.
What was also evident was that Vermont's law enforcement agencies and state's attorneys at the time lacked the knowledge and resources to adequately combat what is a national problem. As human trafficking experts explained to me later, most of these establishments have ties to organized crime syndicates in larger cities and move their sex workers around as needed. And because these women had been instructed not to trust police officers or social workers, they almost invariably refused services offered by crime victims advocates and disappeared once an establishment was closed.
Indeed, one such massage parlor, on Battery Street in Burlington, shut down within two hours of my story hitting the newsstands.
And yet, when I reported the story in June 2013, this was not a new or unknown problem in Vermont. In 2003, about six months after I started working at Seven Days, I received an anonymous tip about an alleged prostitution ring operating out of a Williston massage parlor. But as I was still new to my job and the state, and also unsure of my source, I regretfully failed to investigate further.
Then in July 2004, the Essex and Williston police departments, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, raided the Tokyo Spa massage business in Essex Junction and two other “health clubs” in Williston and South Burlington. Those raids followed months of police surveillance and undercover investigations of three Asian massage businesses that, according to police, were fronts for "prostitution" operations.
In September 2010, I attended a meeting of Vermont's then-newly formed human trafficking task force, which was held in the Vermont attorney general's office. There, Lieutenant Rick Garey of the Essex Police Department, who had participated in the 2004 investigation, told the group that, in hindsight, he would have handled the busts very differently. In particular, he came to realize that the “prostitutes” he and fellow officers had arrested weren’t criminals at all but victims of an international human-trafficking ring run by a Korean organized-crime network.
In all, eight women of Asian descent were taken into custody, including three who admitted to performing sex acts for money. All were detained at the Franklin County Jail in St. Albans, cited on federal immigration violations, released and ordered to report to Immigration Court in Boston. Only one — the owner of the Tokyo Spa — was charged in state court with a felony, though she quickly fled the country to escape prosecution. As for the "prostitutes" who were charged, Garey told the task force members, “Our witnesses floated into the wind, and our investigation ground to a halt.”
Much has changed in Vermont since Seven Days published its initial exposé and follow-up stories. Police, crime victims' advocates and hospital emergency departments across the state are now more cognizant of the signs of sex trafficking. T.J. Donovan, who was then Chittenden County state's attorney and is now Vermont's attorney general, announced in 2014 that he would no longer prosecute cases of prostitution against minors, explaining that those crimes almost invariably involve sex-trafficking victims held against their will, often through the use of force, fraud or coercion.
Finally, all six establishments I visited have since closed.
But the problem of human trafficking continues to rear its head in Vermont, resulting in occasional arrests and criminal cases involving traffickers. At times, it's linked to the drug trade; people with addictions are vulnerable to being trafficked, authorities say. Last year, the state was awarded a $1.2 million federal grant to combat human trafficking.
As WCAX-TV reported in December, two Chinese citizens who were living in Concord, N.H., were arrested in South Burlington and charged with running an alleged interstate sex-trafficking ring in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. According to the indictment, the husband and wife are accused of using online social media sites to lure Chinese women into forced prostitution, where they were then kept holed up in hotel rooms and deprived of food, clothing and legal documents to ensure they wouldn't flee.
Correction, February 26, 2019: A previous version of this story misidentified the gender of the Chinese nationals recently arrested for sex trafficking in New England.