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Sheriff Who Oversaw Sex Trafficking Ring Bust Describes Investigation


In Florida, several very wealthy men were charged with solicitation last week after a sting operation. They include the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, the former president of Citigroup, John Havens, and private equity investor John Childs.

The sting uncovered a $20 million human trafficking operation. Women were brought from China with the promise of jobs at massage parlors, then their passports were taken, and they were forced to do sex work.

A warning - this conversation contains graphic descriptions of these women's living conditions.

William Snyder is the sheriff of Martin County, Fla. His office opened this investigation that led to these charges. Sheriff Snyder, welcome.

WILLIAM SNYDER: Yes, good afternoon.

KELLY: Good afternoon. So what tipped you off to sex trafficking in these massage parlors?

SNYDER: The original tip came in by way of a state health care worker. And when the worker went in, she noticed suitcases and other indications that perhaps somebody was living in this small storefront. She called us at the sheriff's office, and we began what turned into an eight-month investigation.

KELLY: You described it as a small storefront massage parlor. We're talking brothels in a strip mall. Describe the conditions that these women were living and working in.

SNYDER: They were staying inside the massage parlor for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They were actually sleeping on the tables where they provided the illicit sexual activity.

KELLY: But this investigation, as you allude to, it ended up involving massage parlors all over Southern Florida, right? Four counties, and you were working on this for months.

SNYDER: Yeah, eight months. And our case spun over into Palm Beach County. It also took us up into the Orlando area. And since the investigation began, I've had calls from two other counties in Florida saying they have similar activity, and they're looking to see how our methodology was so successful.

KELLY: I want to insert here just for the record that the men who have been charged are denying this. Kraft is denying any illegal activity. Childs is denying the charges. But speak to me about how complicated it is to work on a human trafficking case like this where you've got language challenges and women who don't necessarily want to cooperate with the sheriff.

SNYDER: Well, that's one of the reasons why this sex trafficking continues at such a pace. Invariably, our methodology has been up until we did this here - send a couple of undercover detectives in. They'll be solicited for sex, will arrest the workers and shut the place down. And the problem goes away, but not really goes away.

And so when this came in, I made the decision that we would treat this differently and that we would go after the traffickers and the men, the end users. And that's why we were so successful, and we have over 300 arrest warrants.

KELLY: What happens to the women now, do you know?

SNYDER: Well, as you and I speak, one of the women that's here, we're treating her as a victim. She's in protective custody. She said that she was offered a job making a lot of money in America in a nail salon. And before she knew it, she came here and found herself in the sex trafficking industry in massage parlors.

We have NGOs helping us along with Mandarin-speaking interpreters, and we're doing our very best to try to get these women some kind of help. You alluded to it earlier, and it's true, they tend not to want to cooperate because of the coercion point. And oftentimes, and this woman said it, she feels that her family in China is at risk if she cooperates with law enforcement.

KELLY: Is that what you mean when you say the coercion point?

SNYDER: Yeah. You know, to try to understand it, what is it that causes a woman to stay in these deplorable conditions where they're having sex with eight to 15 men a day and with absolutely no protection? The doors are not locked. You know, there's no one guarding them at night. We've had cases where they come over with their children and the children are being educated, but the cost is the mother is taken into trafficking.

KELLY: I was struck by the language you used when you announced these charges. You called the men allegedly involved monsters. And it made me wonder, you must see a lot in your job, Sheriff, was this shocking even by the standards of what you see every day?

SNYDER: You know, there's some crimes that somehow I'm able to get my mind around and understand the motivations. And they don't seem to me to be against the - for lack of a better term - the transcendent laws of the moral universe. In this case, when you have women that are held under coercion and forced to have repeated sexual encounters with men throughout the day, for a man to go in there - and I believe in my heart of hearts that they know these women are trafficked - I think they are the monsters.

And what I said before, there's no locks on the door - there are locks. There's the coercion point that keeps them in bondage. And the person with the key is not the trafficker. It's the men who go into these parlors and avail themselves of this human misery. In the three groups we have - the women, the traffickers and the men - I believe the men are the most guilty.

KELLY: That's Martin County Sheriff William Snyder. Sheriff Snyder, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

SNYDER: My pleasure. Y'all have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.