'Operation Stolen Innocence': More than 170 charged in Florida child sex trafficking network

Jeff Burlew, Tallahassee Democrat

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A two-year investigation by the Tallahassee Police Department into the horrific sexual exploitation of a teenage girl netted a staggering amount of arrests, with more than 170 people charged over recent months.

On Tuesday, Tallahassee police chief Lawrence Revell and state and federal officials announced results of Operation Stolen Innocence, a highly secretive investigation into the commercial sex trafficking of the girl, who was 13 and 14 when the alleged offenses occurred.

The investigation, which police officials declined to even acknowledge for months, was likely the biggest of its kind in Tallahassee’s history, Revell said.

More than 100 people were charged with felonies, including human trafficking, lewd and lascivious battery on a child under 16 and production and possession of child pornography. Another 72 were charged with misdemeanors, including solicitation of prostitution.

Those swept up in the investigation include a former write-in candidate for local office, a P.E. teacher and a former chairman of Seminole Boosters Inc., a fundraising arm for Florida State University athletics. Several of the defendants are women, charged with helping to arrange paid “plays” with the girl in exchange for cash.

"I know it's hard to believe that something like this happens here in our community," said Lorena Vollrath-Bueno, felony chief for the State Attorney's Office. "But it does."

The investigation began in late 2018 after investigators spotted the girl in an online sex-for-pay listing.

The Tallahassee police Special Victims Unit set out to rescue the child, who cooperated in efforts to bring charges against the people who exploited her. Revell praised the police work.

"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," he said. "I cannot say enough about the work that you all did and how proud I am of each of you.”

Numerous agencies worked with police in the investigation: 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.

U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe vowed to continue going after child sex traffickers. Nearly 20 of the defendants, including some from out of state, face federal charges.

“We in local, state and federal law enforcement are all working together as a team to dismantle their networks and to pursue, prosecute and punish those who are involved,” he said. “Operation Stolen Innocence is an excellent example of how all levels of law enforcement can put it all together and get it done, to take down a child trafficking network right here in our community.”

Victim's existence was 'horrific'

Police would not discuss details that could identify the victim – including whether her mother was involved or charged in the sex trafficking ring.

A number of defendants told investigators during sworn interviews that the girl’s mother wouldn’t allow anyone to have sex with her unless they brought money or drugs, according to police reports. Others described encounters that happened inside a filthy apartment and hotels and motels across town.

The meetings were arranged over text messages, Facebook and other social media and apps, leaving a vast electronic trail of evidence that took investigators months to unravel.

Elizabeth Bascom, one of the lead police investigators, called the girl’s exploitation “horrific.” She said the abuse probably began even before her 13th birthday.

Revell said the girl is “on the road to recovery, and she’s doing well given the situation.” Bascom said the girl plans to testify in court, though it’s unclear at this point how many of the cases will go to trial.

“She does have things to say,” Bascom said. “She was able to say that this has seriously impacted her life, and it is very difficult at times. But she is working to get her life back.”

‘Any child can be at risk’

Vollrath-Bueno, a veteran prosecutor of child sex crimes, said human trafficking is a $150-billion-a-year global industry, with nearly two-thirds of the profit coming from commercial sexual exploitation.

She said estimates suggest 50,000 people are trafficked each year in the United States alone.

“The exact numbers ... are hard to define because human trafficking, like many crimes, lives in the dark,” she said. “It is notoriously underreported.”

Vollrath-Bueno said victims can be adults or children, male or female and exploited for sex or labor. In the U.S., she said, the average age a child enters the sex trade is 12 to 14.

“Children with low visibility in the community, unstable home lives, mental health issues, drug issues, frequent runaways, are most at risk,” she said. “I say ‘most’ because any child can be at risk.”

Investigators urged victims 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.

For a complete list of those charged, click here.

Follow reporter Jeff Burlew on Twitter: @JeffBurlew

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: 170 charged in Tallahassee, Florida, child sex trafficking network