Police reports from Tallahassee’s biggest-ever investigation into child sex trafficking paint a heartbreaking picture of a girl barely in her teens forced into a life of prostitution and drugs — with her own mother and others orchestrating her agony.
One man told police that when he went to meet the girl at an apartment, she came to the front door wrapped in a blanket.
“He followed the child victim upstairs to a bedroom,” a report says. “There was no bed in the room, only a pallet for sleeping on. There was also trash everywhere.”
Another man told investigators he went to her place twice but it “didn’t work out.”
“(He) stated he was uncomfortable with two adults being present in the home the first time and dog feces being on the walls the second time,” the report says.
The girl and her mother were both addicted to drugs, some of the customers said in sworn interviews with the Tallahassee Police Department. One man, who said he first met the girl when she was a runaway, admitted taking street drugs with her and having sex with her twice.
“(He) went on to state the child’s victim’s mother would not allow him to see the child victim unless (he) had narcotics or money,” the report says.
The girl, only 13 when much of the abuse happened, was subjected to a revolving door of customers from Tallahassee and elsewhere eager to pay for sex with her in the shadows. She is among untold thousands of young victims whose lives are scarred forever by commercial sex trafficking.
“It’s a stolen childhood,” said Dr. Suzanne Harrison, director of clinical programs at FSU’s College of Medicine. “These kids are subject to such personal violence and abuse that their development is halted and altered in a way that can never be recovered. And many of them don’t ever survive it.”
The young Black girl’s ordeal first came to light over the summer, when the Tallahassee Democrat began chronicling arrests in an unusually secretive case that appeared focused on a single victim.
On Tuesday, months after the arrests began, police unveiled results of Operation Stolen Innocence, a two-year investigation into the network that trafficked the girl. In all, 178 people — men and women of all ages, races and backgrounds — were arrested on charges including human trafficking, lewd and lascivious battery on a child, possession of child pornography and solicitation of prostitution.
TPD began the operation after spotting the girl in an online listing, Chief Lawrence Revell said during a news conference. After rescuing her, they unearthed a mountain of electronic evidence, including sexually charged messages between the girl and her customers and graphic images documenting her own abuse.
‘A horrible situation’
The crimes happened when the girl was 13 and 14, though investigators and experts suspect her victimization began well before that.
She was “originally recovered” from human trafficking when she was 13, according to police reports. But reports suggest she may have returned to “the life” — a term used by victims of trafficking — at least once.
For a time, she lived on the streets, though it’s unclear how long she was homeless. She was enrolled in school — in one text exchange, she turned down a proposition by a customer because she was in class.
At other points, she lived with her mom, whose identity is not publicly known. She lost custody about two years ago, according to police reports. One of the defendants told police the mom called him one day saying her daughter “was picked up and taken away.”
Operation Stolen Innocence:170-plus people charged in Tallahassee child sex trafficking network
“What I envision is a girl who was probably neglected, probably sexually abused as a very young child and grew up with that being her normal and because she was a child probably didn’t know any different,” said Harrison, a professor of family medicine and rural health. “It sounds like a horrible situation.”
Revell declined to confirm whether her mother was involved in her trafficking or charged in the investigation, saying he couldn’t release information that might identify the victim. But police reports indicate the mom welcomed customers into her home.
During one text exchange with the girl, a man asked whether she had a “driver,” a coded question to find out whether she was bringing along “a pimp or another form of security, which the defendant would be threatened by,” police reports say.
“It’s my mom she’s cool asf (as f—),” the girl replied.
More than 40% of children who are trafficked were recruited by their own family members, according to data from the International Organization for Migration and the Polaris Project, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Children are four times more likely than adults to be recruited by family.
Robin Hassler Thompson, executive director of the Survive & Thrive Advocacy Center, said she has heard from colleagues of a rise in familial trafficking over recent years, a phenomenon that overlaps with the opioid crisis.
“You might have situations where families are desperate,” she said. “You might have situations where a mom or a parent becomes addicted to drugs and literally might sell herself. And then when that’s not enough, she might sell her child.”
‘They lure them in’
Human traffickers use flattery, money, clothes, expensive gifts and other methods to lure in children, often over social media or elsewhere online, including gaming. They might ask for a photo, which can escalate to an exchange of nude pictures, something traffickers can hold over children as blackmail.
“It may start as … just a simple attention,” said Elizabeth Bascom of TPD, a lead investigator in the case. “Giving you something you need, money for your family to buy food, clothing that your parents can’t afford to buy you. There’s a romancing period to it, and then the manipulation starts to turn into something more forceful and more sinister.”
It can happen to any child. But those with a high number of traumas — what experts call adverse childhood experiences — are most at risk, Thompson said. That can range from divorce or death of a loved one to domestic violence and physical or sexual abuse.
“They build trust,” said Thompson, who co-chairs the Big Bend Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “They lure them in with whatever the vulnerability or the need of the youth is, and then they demand some sort of payback.”
“Drugs are often involved,” she continued. “They’ve often used preceding abusive events as a way to control the person. The flip side of that is if the person becomes addicted, then getting more drugs to sustain their habit can be a motivator.”
The girl at the center of the Tallahassee investigation was trafficked by others, including young people she knew from the street and her customers, who spread word about her to friends and coworkers.
“Hey I told some of my friends about you,” one of the defendants said in a message to the girl.
One woman, 25 at the time, “solicited, recruited and then enticed” the girl to have sex for cash — a “play” in the sex worker world. The woman, later charged in the probe, texted the girl and asked how old she was, explaining, “I ask cuz I gotta play want some 1 young.” Police reports say the woman’s cellphone showed 23 contacts with the girl over just three months.
‘A lifelong journey’
Authorities say the girl, who is still a minor, is in recovery and doing as well as can be expected. She is prepared to testify in court, though police and prosecutors hope to minimize her appearances.
She and other child victims face uncertain paths once they’re freed from their traffickers. Some go into foster care or state-run safe houses. Others are reunited with family as long as they weren’t involved in their abuse. Some move far away.
Harrison said she’s worked with victims who fall in and out of the life six or seven times before they’re finally able to escape. Some victims who can’t break away eventually become recruiters themselves.
“I worry about this young girl and what her life entails from here forward,” she said. “I worry about whether she’s really going to have a path to recovery and how complicated that’s going to be and all of the resources she’s going to need.”
Thompson, whose nonprofit works directly with trafficking victims, said victims can heal, though it can take a lifetime.
“There are survivors who will speak about what they’ve gone through and how they came out the other side,” she said. “So it’s a lifelong journey.”
Human trafficking by the numbers
Human trafficking, an estimated $150 billion global industry, is the commercial exploitation of one person by another through sex work or forced labor. Estimates suggest there are 50,000 victims a year in the United States, though it’s a notoriously under-reported crime.
The Polaris Project said it responded to 11,500 instances of human trafficking in 2019 involving 22,326 individual survivors, 4,384 traffickers and 1,912 suspicious businesses. Nearly 900 complaints came from Florida.
The Florida Abuse hotline received 10,239 calls alleging human trafficking between fiscal years 2015-16 and 2019-20.
How to get help
Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. For information on services available in the Tallahassee area, visit the Survive & Thrive Advocacy Center’s website at https://www.surviveandthriveadvocacy.org/.
Roll call of the arrested
Here is a list of defendants facing felony charges in Operation Stolen Innocence:
- Michael Tyrone Harris, 51, Havana
- Jarred A. Jenkins, 26, Department of Corrections
- Travis Alexander Thomas, 37, Midway
- Jamichael Reshard Cox, 30, Department of Corrections
- Anthony Rivers, 25, Tallahassee
- Momodou Lamin Janneh, 26, Tallahassee
- Stephen Lee Pichard, 53, Tallahassee
- Joshua Ricardo Curry, Tallahassee
- Briahnna Venus Banks, 24, Tallahassee
- Helen Kimberly Anderson, 27, Tallahassee
- O’bryan K Finley, 36, Tallahassee
- Erik Oben Rivers, 47, Tallahassee
- Shuntae Lamar Kirksey, 25, Tallahassee
- Manor Joseph III, 57, Tallahassee
- Daryl Lamar Howard Jr., 34, Tallahassee
- Christopher L. Williams Jr., 24, Tallahassee
- Tony Dickey, 36, Tallahassee
- Jordan Jenkins, 27, Tallahassee
- Trayveontaye Jamarquez Cheesmon, 21, Chattahoochee
- Joseph Austin, Jr., 45, Tallahassee
- Tinara Lashay Spears, 22, Tallahassee
- Essence Katana Blue, 24, Tallahassee
- Maricio Lavant Scott, 30, Tallahassee
- Alfred Bernard Marktorion Simmons, Jr., 22, Tallahassee
- Adavion D Barnes, 23, Tallahassee
- Norphles Washington, 28, Tallahassee
- Malcolm Jerome Carter, 29, Tallahassee
- Phillip Wesley Watkins, 42, Tallahassee
- Samuel Bryant, 39, Tallahassee
- Michael DeWayne Wooten, 42, Tallahassee
- Jontae Jamel Jackson, 39, Tallahassee
- William Glenn Ellis, Jr., 58, Quincy
- Jermaine Miller, 29, Tallahassee
- Brian Omar Johnson, 49, Tallahassee
- Jacob Dewitt Greene, 32, Tallahassee
- Eric Sheldon Daniel, 30, Tallahassee
- Michael Tybireous Jarcord, 51, Tallahassee
- Terrence Faulk, 38, Tallahassee
- Danny Earl Richards, 50, Telogia, Florida
- Brian Gerald Winsett, 50, Tallahassee
- Dustin Kyle Claypool, 23, Tallahassee
- Tokusei J. Pfeiffer, 44, Tallahassee
- Durell Thomas, 34, Tallahassee
- Houston Wagner IV, 23, Tallahassee
- Martravius Terrell Gilbert, 21, Tallahassee
- John Fitzgerald Coates, 56, Tallahassee
- Ontario D. Lawrence, 45, Tallahassee
- Mark L. Barineau, 58, Tallahassee
- Michael O’Hara Jones II, 34, Tallahassee
- Jamil Reymundo Gardner, 31, Tallahassee
- Henrarles Tankachap Ekokobe, 26, Tallahassee
- Max Oliver Serge Saint Albin, 26, Unknown
- Korenna N. Williams, 23, Tallahassee
- Jamar D. Nicholson, 23, Tallahassee
- Kenneth L. Monroe, 29, Tallahassee
- Anthony Hill, Jr., 31, Tallahassee
- Synara Bouie 37, Quincy
- Anthony B. Logan, 24, Tallahassee
- Latonya Wilburn, 46, Tallahassee
- David Zachariah Brown, Jr., 23, Tallahassee
- George Williams, 43, Perry
- Brittany K. Brown, 30, Tallahassee
- Robert L. Wiggins, Jr., 33, Tallahassee
- Sherley Duvain, 21, Tallahassee
- Brandon Marteze Richardson, 30, Tallahassee
- Steven Garrett, 30, Tallahassee
- Bacari Phillips, 29, Tallahassee
- Jasmine Fields, 20, Tallahassee
- Dwayne Ladarris Blake, 31, Tallahassee
- Robert Lee Williams, Jr., 24, Monticello
- Damion Javier Boone, 25, Tallahassee
- Marq-Twoine D. Lindsey, 26, Tallahassee
- Tavaris Devon Paul, 25, Quincy
- Rasheed Amin Mercer, 38, Tallahassee
- Damonta Tyrell Morris, 26, Tallahassee
- Marco W. Gaines, 29, Quincy
- DeAntwon Leshawn Ray, 29, Quincy
- Kendrick Lorenzo Hayes, 29, Tallahassee
- Victor Molina, 22, Quincy
- Garland Darnell Bullock, 31, Tallahassee
- Maurice D. Towels, 38, Tallahassee
- Dwight C. Cross, Jr., 28, Tallahassee
- Alpha O. Gaines, Jr., 27, Tallahassee
- Bahkarie Floyd Sweeting, 23, Tallahassee
- Kelly Devarius Payne, 32, Tallahassee
- Jacorbin Tharon Simmons, 30, Tallahassee
- Brandon Marshawn Morris, 24, Tallahassee
- Ali F Barber, Jr., 19, Tallahassee
- Ellis Ibiso Jack, 22, Tallahassee
- Charrez Constantion, Jr., 25, Quincy
- Dontavious Perkins, 23, Cairo, Georgia.
- Dontavious Phillips, 29, Midway
- Frederick Lamar Jones, 31, Havana
- Apollo S. Kenon, Jr., 25, Gretna
- Gerardo Lopez De Nava Cazares, 24, Monticello
- Tevaris James Hogan, Sr., 30, Tallahassee
- Quentiz Allen Barnes, 31, Tallahassee
- Denzel Javon Washington, 23, Tallahassee
- Jerry Lee Moore, Jr., 27, Tallahassee
- Kurtis Antonio Morris, 40, Tallahassee
- Jirard Quinn Kincherlow, 38, Montgomery, Alabama
- Eldred Keith Jennings, 39, Lamont, Florida
- Keith Antonia Johnson, 50, Tallahassee
- Detroy Lamont Garrett, 42, Tallahassee
- Destin Reche Banks, 32, Tallahassee
- Daniel Alexander Mitchell, 32, Tallahassee
Contact Jeff Burlew at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.
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