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Amid RNC, law enforcement targets sex traffickers in Tampa

TAMPA — The girl was 15, skinny with blond hair and greyish blue eyes, when she made a Myspace page. She was home alone in Clearwater, missing her dad who was in the hospital, she wrote.

A woman who befriended her on the website said she was 18.

But the woman was 32. Months later, she kidnapped the girl and took her to Atlantic City. There, the girl said, men tied her up, hit and choked her.

"I was sold 12, 13 times a day," said the girl, whose name is being withheld because she is the victim of a sex crime.

Advocates of human trafficking victims fear that such scenarios are playing out in Tampa this week during the Republican National Convention.

Any event that draws large crowds also attracts pimps with women and children for sale, said Linda Smith, founder of Shared Hope International, which works to strengthen human trafficking laws across the country. Smith, a former Republican U.S. congresswoman from Washington, called the RNC "a party."

Locally, law enforcement agents have been working to catch human traffickers.

Just last Friday, Tampa police arrested Elanda Charles, 23, of Bradenton at a motel on Busch Boulevard. They charged her with trafficking two teenaged girls, 16 and 17, who said they had come to the motel with Charles for prostitution, according to police reports.

Smith said the culture of hiring women and girls for sex proliferates among businessmen who travel. Rooted in pornography, it moves to men playing out their fantasies often in hotels across the country.

The trend has grown to include younger girls and more violence, Smith said.

The victims' average age is 13, she said. But 11 isn't unusual.

Men find them at strip clubs or online.

Theresa Flores, founder of Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution, said listings for escorts increased in the past two weeks about 60 percent in Tampa and in Charlotte. N.C., where the Democratic National Convention starts next week.

"Quite a few advertise that they are there for the RNC," she said. "You can assume some are trafficked."

To indicate youth, those posting use terms such as "barely legal," "cherry" and "ripe." A photo that doesn't show a face usually indicates that a minor is involved, Flores said. Traffickers know the photo can add a charge of child pornography if they're caught.

Before the convention, Flores and nearly 400 hundred volunteers labeled more than 50,000 bars of soap with a message and a number to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Volunteers took the soaps along with pictures of missing bay area girls to more than 200 motels from Clearwater to Brandon. Most hotel workers took the soap, part a national outreach effort.

Volunteers from Created, a church that helps women in the sex industry, prayed for women at strip clubs along Dale Mabry Highway and Nebraska Avenue each night of the convention.

The girl approves of the volunteers' efforts.

"There's a lot of people who think this would never happen to my daughter," the girl said. "It could."

Often, she said, adults use girls to recruit other girls, sometimes on Facebook.

The girl said men paid $300 to $400 each to abuse her. She escaped at 16 after her captor was arrested.

"I try not to live in fear," said the girl, who is now 21 and lives in Temple Terrace. But she still checks the closets when she gets home and sleeps with a knife under her mattress.

Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com.

To help

If you witness girls being trafficked, call 1-888-373-7888.

Amid RNC, law enforcement targets sex traffickers in Tampa 08/29/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 10:48pm]
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