Nearly 200 arrested in Florida human trafficking investigation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – An investigation into human trafficking over the past two years has led to the arrests of nearly 200 people on criminal charges ranging from solicitation of prostitution to human trafficking of a minor, the Tallahassee Police Department announced Tuesday.

“This investigation is a testament to how diligent our investigators work to enhance the quality of life for everyone in this community, especially our vulnerable population,” Tallahassee Chief of Police Lawrence Revell said. “They worked tirelessly to bring justice to the victim in this case and were able to make an unprecedented number of human trafficking related arrests.”

The two-year investigation, known as Operation Stolen Innocence, was launched in November 2018 after police learned that images of a child had been posted online on a website known for advertising prostitution. The initial goal of the operation was to rescue the child depictured in the photographs.

Tallahassee Police Department Investigator Elizabeth Bascom first uncovered the victim being sold online.

“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,” Bascom 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.”

During the course of the investigation, detectives uncovered a mountain of electronic evidence that helped them identify which suspects were involved and how. That evidence led to the arrests of 178 individuals, 106 of whom face felony charges along with 72 more facing misdemeanor charges. One of those charged is a grade school physical education teacher. Police said others charged come from all walks of life.

"All economic levels and backgrounds,” Revell said. “It’s very widespread.”

While identifying information about the victim is confidential, officials told Capitol News Service she is on the road to recovery and doing well given the situation.

Capitol News Service was also told the prosecution phase of the case will likely take many months.

“It is difficult to comprehend the depravity of these criminals who prey on the most innocent in our society. Thanks to the collective efforts of the Tallahassee Police Department and [Department of Homeland Security] special agents, our local communities are significantly safer today,” Kevin Sibley, acting special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in Tampa.

Authorities said human trafficking of minors involves children being manipulated or exploited into some type of work or sexual acts. While some might be under the impression that this does not take place in the U.S., the police department said that’s not actually true. In fact, an estimated 199,000 incidents happen in the country every year, and Florida ranks among the top five states for reported cases.

In 2019,1,887 victims, 427 traffickers and 243 trafficking businesses were identified in Florida by the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Today, the Tallahassee Police Department is concluding a large-scale human trafficking investigation. This is a live feed from the press conference.

Posted by City of Tallahassee Police Department on Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Ways to recognize human trafficking victims:

- They appear to be underfed.

- They show signs of injuries or abuse.

- They avoid eye contact and police.

- They lack ID or personal possessions.

- They’re never seen away from people.