Pasco Not Immune To Human Trafficking, Officials Say
Just because there hasn’t been a big case here yet doesn’t mean the crime trend hasn’t arrived.
A teenage girl walked through a Lutz neighborhood on an October day in 2010.
While there was nothing unusual about the act on the surface, this case was very unusual, said Pasco County Sheriff’s Detective D. Boyer, who is also a member of the Clearwater Tampa Bay Area Task Force On Human Trafficking.
This girl didn’t live in the neighborhood and she was clothed only in a bra and panties.
Alarmed, neighbors called the sheriff’s office.
They were right to do so, Boyer said.
As it turned out, the girl, only 13 at the time, was a human trafficking victim authorities in Maryland were looking for. While full details of that case are not available for release, Boyer said the girl, a runaway, had been trafficked in Maryland, came to Florida, and was believed to have been trafficked here.
How did she end up in the Lutz neighborhood?
According to Boyer, a married couple took her in. By all accounts, they didn’t know her story, her age or that authorities wanted to bring her home to Maryland.
The girl disappeared from Pasco before deputies arrived in the neighborhood. She was eventually recovered and the case surrounding her continues.
“The red flag was the neighbors,” said Boyer, pointing out the need for residents to report suspicious activity.
What Is Human Trafficking?
According to the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, this crime involves the commercial use and exploitation of people who are forced into the sex trade or other forms of servitude for the gain of another. It may involve “forced prostitution and pornography, involuntary labor, servitude and debt bondage.”
Trafficking is an international problem with an estimated 27 million people enslaved worldwide. It is also estimated there are at least 2.5 million victims in the United States alone. While many of the victims are illegal immigrants, many are also American citizens, especially underage runaways, officials say. This crime has grown rapidly on the international level and is second only to the drug trade for criminal participation.
Human trafficking is also a difficult crime to identify and prosecute, experts say.
“If you were robbed at the ATM, you’d give the information to the officer and go back home and have a support mechanism in place,” explained Lt. George Koder of the Clearwater Police Department and a task force member. “Most of the victims we come across don’t have that. They don’t realize they are victims.”
Koder explained that trafficking victims are either brought into the country illegally or they are runaways who might believe the situations they find themselves in are better than what they escaped from.
“The victims aren’t going to call 911,” he said. “The teen girls aren’t going to call the police. The undocumented immigrants aren’t going to call. We need the public to understand what’s going on to protect their own kids.”
The Runaway Connection
Koder and Special Agent Bill Williger of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement both say there’s a strong connection between trafficking and American runaways.
“The runaways are a huge problem,” Williger said. “They come from low income or broken homes or foster care. (They are) children that are allowed to slip through the cracks. Nobody cares what happens to these children.”
Williger said teens, mostly girls, but not always, are lured into the domestic sex trade by pimps offering them a better life with “promises of money, cars, clothes. Before these girls know it, (they’re with) five, 10, 15, 20 guys a night.”
Pasco County has had 559 reported runaway cases since Jan. 1 of this year, said Sgt. Mel Eakley.
Eakley doesn’t believe that all runaways will fall into the hands of traffickers, but he said it is a concern.
“Runaways are the pool of people they like to exploit,” he said. “It’s a lot easier once they leave home. It’s easy pickings obviously.”
When underage victims of human trafficking are discovered by law enforcement, the criminals involved do face tough penalties if they are caught and successfully prosecuted, said Dani Bennett, public affairs officer for ICE.
“Obviously sex trafficking is going to carry the most stiff penalty,” she said. Traffickers can face up to 15 years to life.
A recent change in conspiracy law also makes it possible for all “underlings” to face stiff penalties in a trafficking case, she added. This means not only the trafficker, but a complicit doorman at a hotel, a person who collects money for the trafficking trade and even the driver who transports victims could all face maximum sentencing.
Why Is Pasco County Concerned?
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office has been an active participant in the Tampa Bay task force for some time now. While there is only one active case being investigated with Pasco ties, according to Boyer, that doesn’t mean more cases aren’t out there.
“Human trafficking is most often a hidden issue that exploits vulnerable men, women and children,” said Sheriff Chris Nocco. “We are partnering with community organizations to help us identify these victims of modern-day slavery and bring the criminals who prey upon them to justice."
Pasco Cpl. Alan Wilkett is also involved in the task force. It’s his job to help raise awareness about the crime, teach residents what to look for and create a support network for victims in Pasco if and when any are found.
“We want to get ahead of it,” Wilkett said. “We do anticipate we have some going on (here).”
Pasco Circuit Court Judge Lynn Tepper agrees with Wilkett.
“I have girls that are on runaway status,” she said. “They are a prime risk.”
Tepper said she’s seen girls come into her courtroom who have been “branded” by pimps.
One girl in particular, “her chest is branded with her pimp’s name,” Tepper said. “She’ll tell you he’s her boyfriend.”
Tepper is concerned about the manner in which victimized runaways often protect their traffickers.
“They are approached initially, ‘Hey, you need a place to stay?’ The next thing you know, they’re having sex with them. Then they’re having sex with their buddies. (It’s the) Stockholm syndrome. They believe that’s their boyfriend, but it’s their pimp.”
Tepper said Florida's status as the No. 3 state in America for human trafficking is also a cause for concern.
"Tampa Bay is No. 3 in the state," she said. "Every 30 seconds a human being is being sold, bought or forced into slavery. It’s the second most lucrative business for organized crime. You traffic in drugs, you sell it once it’s gone. You traffic human beings ... (you can get paid) 20 times a day."
The lasting impacts on victims are also a concern.
"(When) a young girl is trafficked (for sex), her life expectancy is seven years," she said. "That’s why we have to be concerned. Obviously, because I deal with children, I have grave concerns over minor domestic sex trafficking."
Ask Wilkett why he’s so passionate about raising awareness and his answer is simple: “This is a crime that under no circumstance will be tolerated in Pasco County. It’s unbelievable. It makes your blood boil that there are people being victimized over and over again.”
For more information on human trafficking, visit the task force’s website at catfht.org.