Kraft Case Could Raise Awareness Of Human Trafficking

April 22, 2020 0 By JohnValbyNation

SALEM, MA — Law enforcement officers and prosecutors are hoping the Florida investigation that netted Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft will raise awareness about human trafficking and help them speed up initiatives to combat it. Day spas — like the one in Jupiter, FL, where police say Kraft purchased sexual services — often coerce and blackmail women who have been trafficked illegally to keep their businesses staffed. A national network moves women to massage parlors around the country, with the women rarely spending more than a week or two in a single place.

And that has made such cases difficult to prosecute. Yet the problem is massive: the International Labour Organization estimates that, globally, sex traffickers generate $100 billion in profits each year.

“The women in these cases are usually very frightened,” said Carrie Kimball-Monahan of the Essex County District Attorney’s office. “They’re often under the control of another person and they’re likely dependent on that person for food and shelter and money. Often times they have an immigration status that would make them afraid to work with police.”

“It makes it extremely difficult to prosecute the trafficker,” she said.

It’s unknown if Kraft knew that women at the spa were illegally trafficked. He has declined comment, other than to deny the charges.

Related story: In Massachusetts, Strip Mall Brothels Flourish

The Selah Freedom Foundation, an organization whose mission is to eradicate sex trafficking, works with law enforcement agencies across the country to train police officers to spot signs of trafficking and help its victims. The group recently completed a training session for 41 police officers from New England.

“I think the truth of the matter is, even though legislation has done a great job at passing laws, real change won’t come until street crimes become protocol and law enforcement are properly trained,” said Selah CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Melendez Fisher. “These officers are still not fully equipped to understand exactly what it is they are looking at in regard to domestic abuse, sex trafficking and understanding the true story and background of the children they find on the street.”

Traffickers Blackmail Troubled, Desperate Women

Fisher said shutting down massage parlors can be like a “game of whack-a-mole” for law enforcement. “You can shut these businesses down, but they can pop up in the next town or the next county,” she said.

Hundreds of the illicit massage parlors operate in Massachusetts. And while prosecution of the traffickers who run them is rare, it can happen if victims can be identified.

In 2017, prosecutors in Essex County won conviction of Lori Ann Barron, who ran a brothel disguised as a massage parlor in Lawrence. Barron, who was convicted of sex trafficking, deriving support from prostitution and photographing an unsuspecting nude person, is serving a seven- to nine-year prison sentence.

Kimball-Monahan said Barron, of Salem, NH, targeted troubled and desperate women to work in the brothel, then blackmailed them with video of them performing sex acts on customers if they threatened to leave. She told women with children that if they did not continue to work at the spa, she would turn the videos over to the Department of Children and Families.

Barron would still be free if some of her victims had not come forward and agreed to testify. Barron had previously operated a brothel posing as a weight-loss clinic in Salem, NH. When she was arrested by police in New Hampshire in 2011, she was able to avoid jail time with a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge.

“Ultimately, several of the victims [in Lawrence] were brave enough to come forward and report it,” Kimball-Monahan said.

International Pipeline

Investigators believe the women in the Florida massage parlors, as well as most of the estimated 230 similar operations in Massachusetts, were lured to the U.S. from China with the promise of legitimate jobs and a better life. Traffickers often convince families to send their daughters to the U.S. with promises of more opportunities.

“Unfortunately, once they arrive, they are kept in captivity never to see the light of day,” Fisher said. “The girls are trained to be ruled by fear. Remember, sex trafficking involves force, fraud or coercion.”

In Florida, investigators lined up Mandarin-speaking interpreters after raiding the massage parlors targeted in the eight-month investigation, but only one woman agreed to testify. The cases against the men, as well as women accused of trafficking, are built largely on video of the men paying for and receiving sex acts.

Once in the U.S., sex traffickers often tell the women that their families will be harmed if they do not comply with demands to perform sex acts for customers, Fisher said. They are also told their families will be hurt if the women try to escape or tell anyone what is being done to them.

“What you find with victims of sex trafficking is that they will defend their traffickers and they will protect their abusers, because in their minds they are the only ones that could eventually get them to safety,” Fisher said.

Could Kraft Help Efforts To Fight Trafficking?

Kimball-Monahan’s boss, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, is also president of the National District Attorneys Association. That group is in the early stages of figuring out the legal hurdles that stand in the way of creating a national database to track traffickers and their victims. Closer to home, the DA’s office partners with the Essex Child Advocacy Center in Lawrence to work with My Life, My Choice, an anti-trafficking group that provides support to victims.

The national group wants to build a database, so that if a woman is identified as a human trafficking victim in one part of the country and is moved to another, law enforcement will know. But there are logistical and legal hurdles, and Kimball-Monahan said the effort is just in the exploratory stage.

“These women, moving from stop to stop along Interstate 95, are going to keep falling through the cracks if the police officer they come in contact with doesn’t realize they already showed up in the system in another part of the country,” she said.

The Kraft case, she said, “may be the impetus they need for things to move faster.”

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File photo of Lori Ann Barron by Salem, NH Police.

Dave Copeland can be reached at dave.copeland@patch.com or by calling 617-433-7851. Follow him on Twitter (@CopeWrites) and Facebook (/copewrites).