HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Six men are behind bars and five women have been rescued from a human trafficking ring in Hillsborough County.
Sheriff Chad Chronister announced the arrests Tuesday morning alongside State Attorney General Ashley Moody and Misty LaPerriere, with Selah Freedom.
The investigation started in January when deputies found a stolen car from Ohio in a parking lot. After they approached the car and spoke to the people inside, they arrested the driver and a female passenger for grand theft auto.
But Chronister says the deputies are trained to spot human trafficking and they believed at the time there was more to the story.
“After making covert contact with the female, she told detectives about other women like her who were being trafficked by a group of men that would post their photos online and advertise them for sex,” said Chronister.
That prompted a months-long investigation into a group of at least six men that Chronister says were working together to traffic women — controlling them with drugs.
“By supplying them with heroin and methamphetamine in such large quantities that they became what’s known as dope sick. This is when a person, in this case, our female victim, are so dependent on drugs they become physically sick when they are not high,” Chronister said.
They eventually arrested the six men, which included 43-year-old Bradford Pugh, who Chronister believes is the ringleader of the group.
“At one point Pugh even bragged on social media that he’s been doing this for 15 years,” he said.
The five women are now being helped by Selah Freedom.
“A lot of times they come out with PTSD or they have multiple symptoms like they don’t wanna sleep with the lights off,” said LaPerriere. “That’s where our trauma therapy comes into play to help them with that.”
They provide other services too - some more immediate to when they are rescued like shelter, clothing, and food and then services down the road to help them recover like education and job placement.
Attorney General Moody says prosecuting human trafficking cases is extremely difficult.
“Oftentimes when victims are rescued, and you can talk to anyone who leads a victim organization, they will tell you that victims often blame themselves,” she said.
She says a lot of times victims think they’re in love with their trafficker even though they were abused and sold for sex. She says that makes them more reluctant to step forward or testify against them.
“They don’t want to testify against the person they have overtime began to believe is their protector or guardian which in fact the opposite is true,” she said.
The men were charged with human trafficking but also Rico violation which can carry steeper penalties.
“When you use charges involving criminal organizations like Rico, you get enhanced penalties, you have the ability to use co-conspirator statements — there are many reasons to do that and I commend the Sheriff's office for going after the traffickers,” she said. “Those that are profiting from this horrific, evil crime.”