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Human trafficking busts net many arrests, but convictions prove to be more challenging

Posted at 10:17 AM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-30 10:59:01-05

Ten days out from the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies are preparing to police the shadows — crime hidden from the glow of the game day lights. Their goal: preventing the expected influx of human trafficking, women and children sold for sex.

Recent human trafficking busts have targeted the buyers, the “Johns.”

But I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern found court records show few arrests on charges of human trafficking and less than five convictions in Hillsborough County in as many years.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren said after the arrest, the challenges of building a human sex trafficking case grow.

The Florida Legislature defines human trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery, saying “victims of human trafficking are subjected to force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of sexual exploitation.”

“The difficulty in the convictions and in actually charging these cases, is because of the evidence required to prove someone was actually forced or trapped into this life,” Warren said.

There is also a heavy reliance on human trafficking survivors enduring what can be a grueling trial and being willing to testify against his or her trafficker.

Building a case against child traffickers in Florida can take years

“We have unfortunately had some cases where we did not have a victim to go forward,” Jennifer Johnson, chief of the Special Victims Unit for the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office said. “To come back to court and reopen those wounds can be very traumatic.”

Johnson said there is often a strong bond between a victim and his or her trafficker.

“These traffickers know how to become very close and to make their victims rely on them,” Johnson said. “So breaking that bond can become very, very difficult.”

That reliance could be for housing, food, and/or drugs. Some victims may have children by their trafficker, making it even harder for them to break loose.

Cases on the rise

The I-Team found in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office convicted one person of human trafficking a year. The most recent was Darien Pease, Jr. in 2019. Pease was sentenced to 30 years for trafficking a 15-year-old runaway.

In that case, because it involved a minor, Johnson said they were able to prosecute without the victim’s testimony.

Kids sold for sex and arrested for prostitution in Florida

The conviction of one person a year for human trafficking in Hillsborough County is up from the zero convictions on the same charge from 2015 and 2016.

Johnson said the small number of convictions doesn’t accurately reflect the scope of the human trafficking problem in the community. And she contends that court cases are increasing because of awareness.

“We have many, many cases pending currently,” Johnson said. “And I think that is because people are looking for it now.”

I-Team Investigation: Kids Sold for Sex

The Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office has 10 human trafficking cases pending, including a case with suspects dubbed “The Sinful Six.”

Five victims rescued in human trafficking bust, Hillsborough Sheriff says

A three-month-long investigation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office last year led to the rescue of five victims from an alleged sex trafficking ring. The six men were also charged with racketeering under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which can enhance the penalties.

The state attorney’s office said the RICO statute allows prosecutors to bring all of the evidence into one trial, rather than a separate trial for each defendant.

Warren said the statute is “usually reserved for drug kingpins and mafia bosses. But it gave us the opportunity to actually simplify the prosecution by showing that they were working together to commit human trafficking.”

All six men have entered not guilty pleas.

Hillsborough County’s state attorney’s office prosecuted 143 cases in 2019 related to human trafficking — charges for soliciting sex, transporting a person for prostitution and working as a pimp. That’s more than five times the number of similar cases prosecuted in 2016.

“We have more work to do, but we’re seeing the trajectory go way up. From having one or two cases a year to having a dozen cases a year. Things are moving in the right direction,” Warren told the I-Team. “It’s important that the community understands that the prosecution is just one piece of this though. We need to work with all of these community groups to raise awareness, it reduces demand, it reduces the supply, and it helps us find the people responsible for committing these crimes.”

Going after the Johns

Part of the approach to going after human trafficking in the Tampa Bay area is law enforcement setting up stings and operations to go after the Johns paying for sex.

71 arrested in month-long human trafficking operation in Hillsborough County

“When you talk about eradicating human trafficking, it all comes back to the demand,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister told reporters at a news conference announcing the arrest of 71 men on prostitution-related charges earlier this month.

An I-Team review of the most recent state data available found Hillsborough County led the state in the number of prostitution-related arrests in 2019. With 302 arrests, Hillsborough County passed up Miami-Date County with 297 arrests and Polk County came in third in the state with 227 prostitution arrests.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is widely known for its undercover stings that result in the arrests of hundreds on charges related to prostitution, netting buyers.

Related links:
154 suspects arrested in Polk undercover operation targeting prostitution, human trafficking
Undercover human trafficking, online prostitution sting nets nearly 300 arrests in Polk County
More than 100 suspects arrested during undercover human trafficking investigation in Polk County
'Operation Santa's Naughty List' | Polk deputies arrest 120+ on prostitution, drug possession

Sheriff Grady Judd prides the operations as a proactive approach to stopping human trafficking.

“When 9 out of 10 people, 8 out of 10 people look at Polk County and go, ‘I can’t go there. It’s a bust. It’s a sting. It’s an undercover operation,' I’ve stopped that human trafficker here,” he said. “So if that fear permeated every county like it did this county, it would be real tough on that human trafficker.”

But for the women caught up and arrested for prostitution in the very sting intended to help them, the outcome often isn’t favorable.

Attorney Brent Woody, who heads up a non-profit providing legal help to sex trafficking survivors, said most victims sold for sex do not identify as victims — at least not right away. And a prostitution arrest “often just keeps them stuck in that life,” Woody said.

“We’ve had a number of clients that we’ve represented where we’ve successfully expunged their records,” he said. “But the fact that we had to go back and do that, which takes months, compromised their ability to get ahead and out of the life.”

While Woody and his organization support law enforcement operations targeting and arresting sex buyers, “our position would be not to arrest the prostituted individual,” he said.

Sheriff Judd acknowledged that the “vast majority” of people arrested for selling sex are victims and that his department makes “every effort to identify them as victims before we put their mugshots up.”

Judd said his department works with local anti-human trafficking rescue organizations and counselors to offer immediate resources.

“Still it’s a challenge,” Judd told the I-Team, for the trafficked person to admit they are a victim at the time of arrest. “So we set up services to follow up with them after they bond out of jail.”

Polk County Sheriff’s Office told the I-Team it has arrested one person on a human trafficking charge in the last four years.

The man was never prosecuted for human trafficking. Prosecutors filed a “no bill” in 2018 on the charge due to insufficient evidence.

“Many times we have to take a watered-down charge,” Judd said. Victims are afraid, he said, “and without the victims testifying against their traffickers, it’s very difficult to make a case, if not impossible.”

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Rescue operations

Misty LaPerriere, with the anti-human trafficking non-profit organization Selah Freedom, works with law enforcement to identify human trafficking and connect survivors with resources.

“Typically it takes us seven to eight points of contact with a survivor before they’re ready to accept help,” LaPerriere said.

LaPerriere told the I-Team there are times that an arrest leads to a rescue.

“I will share with you, most of the survivors themselves say without an arrest, they wouldn’t have gotten help,” she said.

That’s the reason Judd stands by his operations.

“We’ve got to have a way to find them, to identify them, to get them out of the night and into the light.”

Judd said if he saw a better way to identify victims of human trafficking, his department would.

“What are they to do? Let the Johns run wild and have no accountability? Let the human traffickers continue to profit off of the ladies? The victims?” he asked. “We’re not doing that here. We’re going to do everything we can do to identify these ladies and help them. Guaranteed.”

Starting this month, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it can begin filling a public database with the names, addresses and photos of those convicted of paying for sex. As cases make their way through the legal system, so far, no names have been added.

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 them at 1-888-3737-888. If you suspect a child is a victim, please call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.