Indian River County is located in the Treasure Coast region of Florida, on the Atlantic Coast north of Point St. Lucie. Its population is roughly 150,000, and its government seat is Vero Beach. Other substantial cities include Sebastian, Winter Beach, and Fellsmere. It was Florida’s 7th richest county and the 87th richest county in the U.S. by per capita income, at the time of the 2000 census.
The presence of prostitution and its associated crime and disorder problems in the county have been well documented for decades, particularly street prostitution and storefront brothels (e.g., massage parlors) along Route 1. Sex trafficking is also documented to have occurred in the city. In April 2014, a two-month investigation into online human trafficking led to the arrest of a Vero Beach man for allegedly offering several minors for prostitution between February and April, according to Sheriff’s Office reports. An apartment complex and two hotels along Route 1 in Vero Beach were used in the operation, according to the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office. The human trafficking investigation started with a tip that a man was forcing women to have commercial sex. Police interviews with confidential informants and one of the victims revealed that the man provided drugs to create an addiction and that they would have to work the debt off in the form of commercial sexual acts. The victims told detectives that if they did not perform sexual acts and immediately turn their earnings over, the pimp would threaten or use physical violence against them.
The first reverse sting known to have been conducted in the county occurred in 1989. A three-day deployment of a decoy and support team resulted in the arrest of 14 sex buyers. The sting was the product of community complaints and confirming evidence about a sudden surge in prostitution in the area. Periodic operations have continued through to the present, including a street-level reverse sting conducted in May of 2012 that produced four arrests. The names, ages, and photos of the arrestees have been released to the media, and some news outlets have reported them.
For several months in 2008, two Vero Beach message parlors along Route 1 were investigated for prostitution. The two storefront brothels were found to be parts of a larger prostitution ring extending to Boynton Beach and Daytona Beach. The Vero Beach operations were shut down and six arrests were made for racketeering and the unlicensed practice of health care. For a two month period (October-November) the brothels were under surveillance by a joint investigation team of the Vero Beach Police Department, Indian River County Sheriff’s Office, and Boynton Beach Police Department. During this time, dozens of men were observed entering and exiting the businesses. These observations were combined with other intelligence from the investigation and the amount paid, sex acts conducted, and identities of the sex buyers was determined. Investigators counted only one of 60 people who had entered the businesses to have received only a massage. In December of 2008, 35 men were sought on arrest warrants for solicitation of prostitution.
In January 2019, an investigation was conducted into human trafficking and prostitution occurring in a storefront “spa” brothels across several counties in Florida. After conducting surveillance and investigations in response to allegations, and then establishing probable cause, warrants were obtained and surveillance cameras installed in four Indian River County brothels. Three spas in Indian River County were shut down in the raids in Vero Beach, Sebastian, and unincorporated Indian River County. Four spas in Martin County and one in Jupiter were also involved in the multi-county sting, but law enforcement officials said there are no connections between the Indian River and Martin County spas. Other brothel stings occurred in Orange and Palm Beach Counties as well. The accumulated evidence initially led to arrest warrants for 54 male sex buyers in Sebastian. Additional warrants may be issued as the evidence is further pursued. The six-month investigation revealed human traffickers were luring vulnerable girls to massage parlors in Indian River County, where they were coerced into working as prostitutes. Ten spas from the Orlando area through the Treasure Coast into Palm Beach County were shut down as law enforcement began making arrests. Indian River County agencies issued warrants for 173 people, eight on charges ranging from human trafficking to racketeering, and 165 for soliciting prostitution. The sex buyers ranged in age from 19 to 84.
Most of the men will face charges for soliciting prostitution. Depending on the circumstances of the individual events, some of the men may not be booked into the County jail. Residents of Florida may receive a notice in the mail saying they are summoned to appear in court; out of state residents may have warrants issued for their arrest in Florida. Different agencies in Florida may handle charging and booking differently; e.g., in related investigations, Martin County arrested and then booked sex buyers, and posted each mug shot online; Palm County did not book them or post photos, and Indian River County agencies posted photos before the arrests occurred. Soliciting another to commit prostitution is punishable as a second-degree misdemeanor for a first offense and a first-degree misdemeanor for a subsequent offense. A first offense carries a jail sentence of up to 60 days, and a second offense carries a sentence of up to one year. Under Florida Statutes, punishment options for people charged for the first time with soliciting a prostitute may include a diversion program that may involve performing up to 100 hours of community service and attending a course on the harmful effects of prostitution and sex trafficking “if such programs exist in the judicial circuit in which the offender is sentenced.”
- Indian River County Sheriff’s Office
- Vero Beach Police Department
- Boynton Beach Police Department
- Indian River County Multi-Agency Enforcement Unit
Reverse Sting and Shaming:
- “Vero Police Arrest 17 in Anti-Prostitution Sweep”, Miami Herald, August 31 1986.
- “Prostitution Sting in Vero Beach Nets Four ‘Johns’”, NBC/WPTV-TV 5, May 24 2012.
Arrests and Shaming of Brothel Clients:
- “Two Vero Beach Massage Parlors Involved in Prostitution Arrests”, Indian River Press Journal, December 31 2008.
- “Racketeering Charges Land Seven in Jail”, Hometown News, January 1 2009.
- https://www.wptv.com/165-men-charged-with-solicitation-of-prostitution-in-indian-river-county (2019)
- https://www.tcpalm.com/indian-river-county/spas-connected-human-trafficking-arrests-opened-within-past-two-years (2019)
- http://www.wmbfnews.com/huge-florida-sex-trafficking-sting-results-nearly-arrests-warrants-with-more-still-coming/ (2019)
- https://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Dozens-Arrested-in-Massive-Sex-Trafficking-Busts-in-Florida (2019)
- https://www.sebastiandaily.com/community/sebastian-and-vero-beach-arrests-in-prostitution-sting (2019)
- https://www.sebastiandaily.com/crime/johns-island-foundation-president-arrested-in-prostitution-sting (2019)
- https://kdvr.com/2019/02/23/colorado-springs-man-allegedly-tied-to-florida-prostitution-sting/ (2019)
- https://www.northcentralpa.com/news/state/who-are-the-264-men-arrested-in-the-florida-day-spa (2019)
Background on Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in the Area: