TAMPA, Fla. — An international spotlight on Tampa Bay for Super Bowl LV drew warnings of what could come with bigger crowds — an influx of women and children sold for sex.
Law enforcement’s goal was to intercept and disrupt human sex trafficking. The Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office recovered a dozen women and teens who identified as victims. Four men were arrested for human trafficking and more than 100 people were arrested for buying or selling sex.
In the weeks leading up to the big game, the ABC Action News I-Team revealed exclusive details of local sex trafficking operations, outreach and rescues.
Following up with the Tampa Police Department, I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern found one human trafficking operation resulted in 46 arrests. Forty of those arrests were women for prostitution.
One man was arrested for human trafficking.
Seven women were rescued during the course of the operation and six took services, Tampa police said. The youngest victim was 18 years old.
Federal cases have been opened to look into the suspected trafficking of those six women, with Tampa police, Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI currently investigating.
But within the shared mission to eliminate human trafficking, the I-Team found criticism of who the law enforcement operations help and hurt.
Target: Human trafficking victims
Those who identified as sex trafficking victims were provided safe housing and services. Those who did not were arrested.
"Those who offer sexual services may be doing it against their will and an arrest may be their only chance at freedom," said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.
For the Tampa Police Department, Detective Andrea Hughes said the target going into the Super Bowl was to make as many contacts with potential victims of human trafficking a possible.
“Our target going into the Super Bowl was to make as many contacts with females as possible, or any females or males that may potentially be victims of human trafficking. So the types of operations we did were targeting those escort ads, prostitution ads, ads that potentially had human trafficking language in them, which would give us a bigger population of prostitution arrests as well.”
When asked why there weren’t as many sex buyers arrested, Hughes said going after the Johns was not the main focus of the operation.
No one was arrested for buying sex in the human trafficking operation that resulted in 46 arrests.
“We were going after potential traffickers and to rescue any girls that were in that lifestyle, and give them the opportunity to get out of that lifestyle within our contacts,” Hughes said.
In this operation, a Washington State man was arrested at a Tampa hotel and charged with human trafficking. He was identified as 21-year-old Patrick Lee Thomas.
According to a police report obtained by the I-Team, the victim had an active restraining order against Thomas for domestic violence. She told police they came to Florida for the Super Bowl after Thomas brought up the idea.
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The report goes on to say, “the victim stated that she did not want to have sex with the men” and that Thomas would set the prices, take the money, and “has threatened to beat her in the past for reasons such as not making enough money.”
Hughes said that in the weeks since the Super Bowl, TPD is hearing from other law enforcement agencies that some of the women arrested for prostitution are now coming forward as sex trafficking victims.
At the time of the arrest, Hughes said the women may be fearful to identify as victims to law enforcement.
“It gives them an opportunity to see what services are available to them in the time of our initial contact,” Hughes said of the arrest. “It may not always be the right time for them to be able to reach out for assistance and help.”
TPD said Selah Freedom, Created and the Florida Dream Center were all present at the operation to provide services to the women. Rahab’s Daughters also partnered with Tampa police and provided several of the victims with housing.
"I was 16 when it first happened"
Sharmila (Sam) Wijeyakumar, a survivor, founded the anti-sex trafficking nonprofit Rahab’s Daughters eight years ago in Chicago.
“I was trafficked multiple times, I was 16 when it first happened,” Wijeyakumar said. “I was sold at multiple Super Bowls and other events over time. And so for me, it was really important that we do something about it.”
A team of volunteers traveled with Rahab’s Daughters to the last six Super Bowls, leading up to Tampa’s turn in the spotlight. Last year, the nonprofit launched a local chapter to begin building connections.
The I-Team asked Wijeyakumar how the expectation of an increase in human trafficking was compared to the reality when you consider it was a Super Bowl that almost wasn’t, held during a pandemic.
“There was much more activity than we thought would happen here this year,” Wijeyakumar responded.
The number of online sex ads she and her team found tripled when compared to the 2020 Super Bowl.
Wijeyakumar said they identified around 6,000 ads for the Miami Super Bowl and Pro Bowl and found closer to 20,000 ads during their efforts for Tampa's Super Bowl.
Rahab’s Daughters set up two call centers leading up to the Super Bowl to help respond to ads for sex and reach out to potential victims. The organization reports it made 7,000 calls by hand and the rest of the 20,000 calls using an automated system.
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When the I-Team met with Rahab’s Daughters post-Super Bowl, they reported having provided services such as housing, food and clothing to 40 women and counting.
“Three that law enforcement referred to us so we could help them, that came out of stings,” Wijeyakumar said.
But when the I-Team shared the results of TPD's operation with Wijeyakumar, she expressed disappointment at the number of prostitution arrests.
“I am disappointed that anyone was arrested for prostitution and I hope we can continue to lower these numbers, but not being privy to the specific case details, it is hard to comment on why this happened. I hope we can continue to partner with law enforcement to have 0 arrests for prostitution and all arrests for the buyers or traffickers.”
"It's incredibly problematic"
University of South Florida Professor Jill McCracken saw the arrests as a further problem rather than a solution.
“We have these stings that are created and we find that the majority of people are women who are arrested for prostitution,” McCracken said. “Typically people with fewer resources are ultimately the people that we’re snagging in these operations.”
McCracken is the Co-Founder of Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) Behind Bars, a nonprofit serving people impacted by the laws against prostitution.
The group is critical of what it describes as a hype surrounding sex trafficking and big events like the Super Bowl.
“We decided to go to Tampa Bay and bail people out because we knew they were going to get arrested, and we believe that one of the victims that was arrested was a victim of trafficking,” McCracken said. “Now that they have an arrest record, they have a harder time finding mainstream employment, they have a harder time finding a place to live, and if they happen to be a victim of exploitation or trafficking, they’re going to have that much harder of a time trying to get out of that situation.”
“What’s lost in all of this is the people who are harmed by these operations. And primarily these are the women, who are just trying to make ends meet, who are trying to meet whatever needs they have, and that we go after them in this criminal way and I think it’s incredibly problematic,” McCracken said.
TPD defended its operation, pointing to the six women who accepted services and the women now coming forward as victims after their arrest, prompting new cases.
“That’s the ultimate goal, to be able to provide services and the opportunity for outreach and to be able to talk, for potentially them coming forward at a later date,” Hughes said, who wanted to make clear the human trafficking operations aren't isolated to big events.
There are resources available for victims to seek help:
- Selah Freedom
- Florida Dream Center
- Rahab’s Daughters
- Redefining Refuge
- Justice Restoration Center
If you believe you are a victim of human trafficking or suspect an adult is a victim of human trafficking, please visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline or call 1-888-373-7888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.