178 people have been arrested in a disturbing child sex trafficking ring centered on a 13-year-old girl whose own mother allegedly sold her for sex or drugs in Florida.
‘The sheer number. The all-day, everyday, all-the-time solicitation and sexual activity and talk about cash for money and clearly meeting. I had never seen something just that prolific,’ Tallahassee Police Department Investigator Elizabeth Bascom, who first uncovered the victim being sold online, said.
‘When you can go online and order a pizza and a girl at the same time, and the girl shows up to your door before the pizza, our society is in trouble. OK, that’s where we are. It is unbelievably accessible,’ she said, calling the abuse ‘horrific‘.
The Tallahassee Police Department announced Tuesday a total of 178 arrests as the result of a two-year investigation known as Operation Stolen Innocence that was first launched in November 2018.
Officials say the victim was 13 and 14 when most of the alleged offenses occurred but the abuse may have started before her 13th birthday.
Authorities say she is on the road to recovery and doing well given the situation.
Overall 106 people face felony charges including human trafficking and lewd and lascivious battery on a child under 16, and 18 of those are being charged federally. Meanwhile, 72 face misdemeanor charges, including solicitation of prostitution, and notices to appear.
Some of the people linked to the case include a grade school physical education teacher and a high-profile booster for Florida State University, as per the Tallahassee Democrat.
DailyMail report: The probe began when police learned that images of a child were posted online on a website known for advertising prostitution.
Police haven’t said if the victim’s mother was involved or charged in the sex trafficking ring but defendants told investigators during interviews that the girl’s mother wouldn’t allow anyone to have sex with her unless they brought money or drugs, as per police reports.
Some defendants said the encounters took place in a filthy apartment or in hotels and motels across town.
Several women were also charged in the case for arranging paid ‘plays’ with the girl in exchange for cash.
The meetings with the victim were arranged over text, Facebook and other social media apps that took months for investigators to comb through.
Doug Russell, the former chairman of the Seminole Boosters Inc, which is the fundraising arm for Florida State University Athletics was arrested in September 2019 and charged with solicitation of prostitution in the case, the Tallahassee Democrat reported last year.
According to the report he responded to an ad for sex and was told a price, but it’s not clear if he ever went through with the visit.
His attorney Richard Greenberg said his client waved arraignment, pleaded not guilty and will seek a trial by jury.
The State Attorney’s Office agreed to drop a solicitation charge if he complied with terms of a deferred prosecution agreement and he agreed. In the pact he must refrain from any violation of law, provide necessary information to prosecutors, pay a $100 fee and get tested for STDs.
Jermaine Miller is another one of the suspects in the case. He was an official write-in candidate for the Tallahassee City Commission.
He was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior involving a child under 16, the outlet reported in July.
Gym teacher Brian Winsett, 51, who taught at Woodville PK-8 School, was also arrested in July for sex crimes with a 13-year-old girl.
He was arrested on multiple counts including lewd and lascivious behavior and solicitation for prostitution, according to a July report, and placed on administrative leave.
In an interview with police Winsett admitted to having sex with the girl and traveling to a residence to meet her. Investigators also found texts on his cellphone about prices and potential meeting locations.
The victim plans to testify in court.
‘She does have things to say. She was able to say this has seriously impacted her life, and it is very difficult at times. But she is working to get her life back,’ Bascom said.
‘The arrests in this operation are the culmination of the diligent work from our dedicated investigators, who have worked tirelessly to bring justice to the victims in this case,’ Tallahassee police chief Lawrence Revell said Tuesday.
‘I cannot say enough about the work that you all did and how proud I am of each of you,’ he added.
Under Florida law, a person commits lewd and lascivious battery by engaging in sexual activity with a victim 12 to 16 or by encouraging or forcing someone under 16 to engage in sex. Ignorance of the victim’s age is not a defense under the statutes.
The investigation was aided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State Attorney’s Office and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office.
State Attorney’s Office Felony Chief Lorena Vollrath-Bueno said approximately 50,000 people are trafficked in the US each year and the human trafficking industry is worth roughly $150billion worldwide.
Investigators urge victims of sex trafficking and people who are aware of victims to speak out. People can report information to the Human Trafficking Hotline by calling 1-888-373-7888