Two years, 30 arrests, 12 convictions: A task force’s track record

A team of Palm Beach County prosecutors and law-enforcement officers is credited with 30 human-trafficking arrests and 12 convictions since its work began in 2017.

WEST PALM BEACH — Before the Jupiter and Martin County day-spa raids that thrust local law-enforcement efforts against human trafficking into the national spotlight, there were cases such as Alston Williams, whom Palm Beach County authorities say forced women to sell their bodies for sex to support his lifestyle.

There were cases such as Ivan Zamora, who used violence and threats to force women from his native Cuba to work as strippers, authorities said in convicting him of labor trafficking and smuggling.

Those are two notable cases among dozens that Palm Beach County’s Human Trafficking Task Force has investigated since its formation in 2017. And while the day-spa investigation has not led to a single human-trafficking arrest, the task force has been credited with 30 arrests and 12 convictions related to the offense — the use of force, fraud or coercion to lure victims and then exploit them for sex acts or labor.

“Before the task force came into existence, it was very difficult to develop cases in this area,” Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said of the task force, which has not been actively involved in the day-spa investigation. “It was a long-standing frustration of mine, because we knew that human trafficking was in our midst, but there were very few cases to be filed.”

In 2018, the task force “identified” 25 suspects and “recovered” 26 victims of trafficking, according to statistics provided by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. Court records show 12 arrests for human trafficking in 2017 and 15 in 2018.

Palm Beach County Jail records show only one arrest for human trafficking in 2016, the year before the task force began its work. Multiple women alleged that Jonas Lee Crawford of West Palm Beach forced them to sell drugs and work as prostitutes.Crawford’s case remains the court system and is awaiting a jury trial.

Aronberg said several factors have made it easier for the task force to bring cases to trial. Top among them is that prosecutors often are involved early, while investigators build cases. Also, law-enforcement officers have received greater training in how to spot cases of human trafficking, and groups such as the Human Trafficking Coalition of Palm Beach County have taught the public about the resources available to victims.

Comparing the task force to a TV crime show, Aronberg said having prosecutors more involved in the early stages of an investigation has helped his office develop more cases.

“We moved prosecutors into the first half of the show,” he said. “Normally, we’re in the second half of the show. Normally, we receive probable cause affidavits from law enforcement, then we act on them. But when we work with law enforcement to develop cases, then it’s more likely that we’ll be able to file cases.”

Multiple convictions

According to court records, 12 men in Palm Beach County have been either been convicted of or pleaded guilty to human trafficking in the state and federal courts since the beginning of 2017. Six were sentenced in federal court, the most recent being 27-year-old Steven Snipe of West Palm Beach, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison on May 2 after he admitted to forcing a 15-year-old girl to work as a prostitute.

Williams, 42, was sentenced May 1 to five life-terms in prison. Zamora, 47, was sentenced in February to 10 years in federal prison. 

Based out of an undisclosed location in Palm Beach Gardens, four agencies — the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — staff the task force on a full-time basis, with other agencies assisting part-time. Four sheriff’s deputies are assigned to the task force, and the State Attorney’s Office has a full-time prosecutor assigned to the unit.

The task force is operating in the third year of a three-year, $1.5 million grant, which the sheriff’s office shares with Catholic Charities, a network of nonprofits whose mission includes providing assistance to human-trafficking victims. The sheriff’s office has applied for a renewal of the grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The specter of human trafficking has hung over the multicounty day-spa investigation since authorities announced the first arrests in February.

They said investigators found strong circumstantial evidence that an international operation had brought women to South Florida from China under the guise of having legitimate jobs at the day spas, only to force them to perform sex acts on customers. The women, most of whom had no local ties, also were forced to eat and sleep at the spas and in some cases turn over their passports.

The case against the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter gained national attention when New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a part-time Palm Beach resident, was named as defendant, accused of soliciting sex acts from workers in the day spa on two separate occasions in January.

To date, no human trafficking charges have been filed in Palm Beach, Martin, Indian River or Orange counties, and authorities say the question of whether the women who were trafficked will stick around to testify against their abusers has kept prosecutors from doing so.

Recently, a judge ruled that prosecutors can’t use as evidence videos of Kraft in the spa that investigators had secretly recorded, saying they violated his privacy and citing problems the warrant issued to record the video. The State Attorney’s Office has appealed the ruling.

More arrests in 2019

Yet in Palm Beach Countyat least three people already have been arrested in 2019 in other cases.

In February, authorities arrested 33-year-old Amber Lynn Peak of Lake Worth, alleging that she trafficked teenage girls throughout Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Peak gave the teens cocaine and the mood-altering drug MDMA, or Molly, so that they could stay awake to do more business with johns, authorities alleged.

In March, authorities arrested Juan Cresencio Matos, alleging that the 45-year-old man with ties to Boca Raton exploited a juvenile for sex. Also that month, authorities also arrested Marlon Ioselli at a traffic stop in Palm Beach Gardens, alleging that the 26-year-old Riviera Beach resident exploited a 15-year-old for profit.

Aronberg said public outreach efforts have encouraged more victims to come forward than in years past.

“The victims have to have a certain level of trust with law enforcement because many of them come from other countries. Others who are homegrown may not realize that there are resources available to them,” he said.

The task force has partnered with local organizations such as Human Trafficking Coalition to raise awareness.

The coalition’s president, Dr. Heidi Schaeffer, praised the task force for being “so collaborative and willing to have non-law enforcement (parties) get involved.” Becky Dymond, the founder of a local safe house for women, said police agencies alone may not have “the services they may need to help a survivor.”

“Because it’s a lifestyle, that usually means a survivor is out of a job or out of food. The more support you can provide a survivor, the easier it is to for them to cooperate,” Dymond said.

Local police agencies increasingly are being trained to identify signs of human trafficking. Past police reports, Aronberg said, would mention prostitution or drug possession but go no further. Now, he said, officers look for signs for such as “Are the prostitutes living on the premises? Are they cooperating with authorities? Are they held against their own will?

“There’s so many factors and this is where training comes in, to be able to better identify the victims of human trafficking,” Aronberg said.

Read the original article here.