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Martin County Sheriff William Snyder says two women at center of human trafficking investigation

Uncovered in an 8-month multi-agency investigation
Posted: 3:49 PM, Feb 19, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-25 16:11:08-05
Ruimei Li and Lixia Zhu
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STUART, Fla. - Two women are accused of running separate sexual trafficking operations out of local day spas from Jupiter to Hobe Sound.

In a news conference Tuesday, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder announced the results of an 8-month, multi-agency investigation resulting in the arrests of Ruimei Li, 49, of Jupiter and Lixia Zhu, 49, Stuart.

"This is a complex case that has been going on for months,” said Sheriff William Snyder. “We have dozens and dozens of arrests yet to come.”

Five day spas were targeted as a part of the investigation: Cove Day Spa and Therapy Spa in Stuart, Bridge Day Spa and Sequoia Apple Day Spa in Hobe Sound, and Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter.

According to Snyder, investigators were tipped off through a complaint filed by the Health Department in July 2018.

“They were cooking on the back steps of the business. These women were sleeping in massage parlors, on the massage tables and had no access to transportation,” said Synder, who noted the victims were averaging eight clients a day. “If you do the math, that is about 1,500 men a year, with no days off.”

Li and Zhu were given multiple charges including operating a house of prostitution, permitting prostitution, money laundering and racketeering.

Investigators seized $2 million to $3 million in assets.

Snyder says more victims may come forward and assured reporters more arrests would be coming. “This is the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”

Investigators uncovered about 100 “johns”, or end-users, who benefited from the “graphic sexual acts” the trafficked women were forced to perform, according to Snyder.

Multiple agencies participated in the investigation including the Homeland Security, IRS, Jupiter Police Dept., Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, Sebastian Police Dept. and the Martin County Health Dept., along with “law enforcement agencies from Palm Beach to Orange County”, according to Snyder.

“This was a coordinated, cooperative investigation,” said Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. “People should be put on notice. Those that partake in these types of crimes will find agencies working together hand-in-hand to make sure investigations are successful.”

Vero Beach police also says it was involved in investigating massage parlors and Martin County said it is related to its investigation.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline , Florida received 397 human trafficking cases in 2018. More than half of those cases were tied to sex-trafficking.

Labor trafficking cases came in second in the state, with 58 cases.

Hotels and motels topped venues for sex trafficking cases in Florida in 2018 (34 cases); residence-based venues came in second (29 cases), and illicit massage businesses came in third (22 cases).

The same data shows about half of all victims in 2018 were U.S. citizens. The other half of victims were categorized as foreign nationals.