TAMPA — Eric Antwan Bell, prosecutors say, looked for teenage girls in crisis. His prey were those from broken homes, runaways without money living on the bruised edges of society.
He befriended them, promised to take care of them and offered them a refuge, prosecutors say.
What Bell was doing in Tampa, according to an indictment, was building a stable of prostitutes.
Bell, 38, who lived in Bradenton but used an apartment in Tampa, was sentenced Monday to 30 years in prison to be followed by 15 years of supervised release. He had pleaded guilty in February to four charges of sex trafficking of minors.
The investigation started when a 15-year-old girl told the Pinellas Sheriff's Office that Bell had forced her into prostitution after she met him at a Tampa bus stop in 2009. She knew him by the name "Santana."
The girl said she performed 15 to 20 "tricks" per day and earned $40,000 to $50,000 for Bell, who kept most of it.
"What Mr. Bell did was inexcusable," said prosecutor Stacie Harris. "He used, abused children for his own gain and raped them for his own enjoyment."
His prison term is three years short of the maximum called for by sentencing guidelines.
Bell's attorney asked for a 20-year sentence, noting Bell had helped police in other investigations and might now be in danger because he has been named publicly as a snitch.
Bell stood Monday before U.S. District Court Judge James Moody Jr. in a blue jail jumpsuit and said he was contrite.
"I apologize," Bell said. "I accept full responsibility for everything I did. … I accept my responsibility in full."
Moody seemed unmoved and referred to Bell's extensive criminal history, which started when Bell was 12 and includes violence, drugs, theft and possession of counterfeit money.
"The facts of this case are bad enough," Moody said. "It's like the whole world is out there to serve you and there are just no rules that apply."
Bell's girlfriend, Neang "Pocahontas" Prom, 30, whom prosecutors say was one of Bell's top prostitutes, was sentenced Monday to a little more than three years in prison on sex trafficking charges.
She was accused of posting online advertisements for at least three teenage girls and collecting the money they made as prostitutes.
One of the couple's victims asked Moody to give Bell the maximum allowable sentence.
The woman, now 18, said she was 14 when she met Bell as she walked to a store. Bell told her she was pretty, and the woman said she thought Bell was interested in her romantically.
Bell persuaded her, prosecutors say, to work as a prostitute, with all proceeds going to Bell. The woman, like other victims, said Bell raped her.
"My childhood was taken away from me when I was young and I was forced to be an adult before my time," said the woman, who is not named because of the nature of the crime. "They should know that they hurt me and ruined my life so they could help themselves and have money. I want their lives to be ruined so they can't ruin any other lives."
The woman's mother told the judge, "My daughter was preyed upon by monsters."
The case was investigated by local, state and federal members of the Tampa Bay/Clearwater Area Task Force on Human Trafficking.
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.