Interstate 95 has become a human pipeline, transporting young girls working as sex slaves and agricultural workers forced into involuntary servitude.
Human trafficking is growing in Northeast Florida and across the Sunshine State, according to police, legal and state officials.
“Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Victims of human trafficking are subjected to force, fraud of coercion for the purposed of commercial sex, debt bondage or forced labor. They are young children, teenagers, men and women. Trafficking in persons occurs throughout the world, including in the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“It is very unreported and not understood,” said Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Lt. Scott Dingee, head of the department’s integrity unit and special investigations units. Most of the cases investigated are sex crimes, although there have been a few cases involving forced labor at area farms and in Chinese restaurants.
Dingee noted that his department, with the help of local and federal prosecutors, aggressively targets and prosecutes traffickers, sending some to prison for life.
In 2011, Ian Scott Gordon was charged with holding a 15-year-old girl at hotels along Philips Highway and Arlington Expressway, giving her crack cocaine in exchange for sex. Then he sold her as a prostitute.
“He’d sell 15 minutes of her time — pieces of her innocence and future — for $20 a pop. It was violent, brutal, cruel and unusual,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mac Heavener said at Gordon’s sentencing, according to The Florida Times-Union. Gordon is serving a life sentence in federal prison.
Prosecutors estimate she was assaulted by 50 men over a period of just a few weeks.
Federal prosecutors said the girl was held naked so that she was less inclined to escape. She eventually escaped and called her mother.
Dingee notes the Internet makes it easy for customers to find women and teenage girls for sex. When Jacksonville police want to make a sting of prostitutes and traffickers, they simply go to well-known sex websites and make a date. Often, young girls are offered.
“They are from a runaway type of situation, difficult upbringing, broken homes. The victims may be sexually molested at home and are already sexualized,” Dingee said.
So far this year, Dingee and other officers in his unit have investigated 15 trafficking cases, involving up to 60 victims, including seven juveniles.
Nine of those cases are in various stages in the federal court system, either pending indictment or trial.
One man, Ruell Alexander Brown, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced in April to more than 15 years in prison for human trafficking.
Brown told an investigator he placed a tattoo on one woman that read, “Property of King David.”
In addition, police have made 24 arrests this year on state charges of prostitution or deriving support from prostitution, Dingee said.
To help fight the problem, the Northeast Florida Human Trafficking Task Force was formed. It includes the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the State Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, state and local social service agencies, the Florida Coastal School of Law Immigration Rights Clinic and concerned citizens.
During high-dollar events in Jacksonville, like the Super Bowl or the Tournament Players Championship, prostitutes “can make hundreds of dollars a day. They tend to charge more for young girls. Young girls make more money,” Dingee said.
Drugs and trafficking are often linked, Dingee said, as many smart traffickers realize they can sell a pound of cocaine only once but can sell the services of a prostitute over and over again.
The problem has reached epidemic proportions in most major Florida cities, Dingee said.
“Some cities don’t recognize it as well as we do in Jacksonville. We take a proactive approach,” he said. “Every major city has similar amounts. We tend to do a better job of making cases.”
Ericka Curran runs the Florida Coastal School of Law’s Immigration Rights Clinic, which provides legal aid and assistance to young girls and immigrants who are caught in the sex trade.
“It’s a bigger problem than we know,” said Curran, an assistant professor of clinical skills, who had done work in both Seattle and South Africa on problems dealing with human trafficking before coming to the school in 2007.
Since then, the clinic has worked on 11 human trafficking cases and has recently taken on four new cases.
“There are some pretty horrifying cases,” she said.
“A lot of them we don’t know about. A lot of them we don’t find out,” she said about the secretive dealings of sex traffickers.
Curran’s first case in Jacksonville involved a 15-year-old girl from Central America brought to the United States to work as a domestic worker, but learned she was sold as sex worker.
“She escaped and ran and sought help,” Curran said. “She was very brave.”
The legal clinic helped her get a place to stay and services to help her get back on her feet.
“A lot of these women are forced or coerced and are either minors or quite young, who don’t have other choices,” Curran said.
Curran and the students in her clinic help get immigrants permanent resident status. Curran said many of her students speak Spanish, which is a plus when dealing with victims who don’t speak English.
“These are tough cases. Victims are so scared. Traffickers are smart, they move them around, so they have no connections,” she said.
The victims often don’t even know where they are and are kept in bondage by fear, coercion, drugs, sex abuse and beatings. Immigrants fear they can be deported or their families could be harmed if they seek help or go to the police.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said three children were rescued in Tampa in August during an FBI sting on sex trafficking. “Operation Cross Country” focused on underage victims of prostitution and led to more than 150 arrests nationwide.
In Jacksonville, police arrested 21 people, including two pimps; a warrant was issued for a third. Two of the women arrested had just turned 18 and had no record, Dingee said.
They were caught by undercover officers who were planted in hotel rooms and made “dates” for sex with young women through the Internet. Other officers were placed undercover in hotel and motel parking lots, looking for girls sent out on the streets to solicit for sex.
Teens arrested are covered under the Florida Safe Harbor Act and not typically charged. Teenagers are returned home, if possible, or placed into the foster care system. The act mandates that teens victimized by trafficking be placed in specialized homes, but there is no money to build them, Dingee said.
In many cases, the prostitutes are loyal to their pimps, despite the fact they are treated so poorly.
“They don’t consider themselves as victims,” he said.
And many former prostitutes continue to live in fear after they have been freed by police.
“They are convinced if they go in and testify, they will be killed,” he said.
“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery, and human traffickers subject children, women and men to sexual exploitation and forced labor,” Bondi said at an Oct. 3 meeting at the University of South Florida, which brought together 700 law enforcement officials, members of the legal community, service providers, health care professionals, educators and other first responders.
Gov. Rick Scott kicked off the meeting, the second statewide summit on human trafficking, noting that human trafficking affects more than 27 million people worldwide, including an estimated two million children.
“As a father and a grandfather, it is important that we protect our most vulnerable,” Scott said.
Bondi said human trafficking is a $32-billion-a-year industry.
In 2011, Florida ranked third in the number of calls received by the National Human Trafficking Resources Center’s hotline.
The task force has periodic sessions to keep schools, civic clubs and others aware of Jacksonville’s human trafficking problem.
“We want to raise the collective consciousness of the community by taking the issue to the streets,” Dingee said.