LARGO — A 19-year-old woman took the witness stand Tuesday and told a terrifying tale of being raped, beaten and forced to work as a prostitute — but that wasn't all.
In the opening day of a human trafficking and sexual battery trial, the woman described an elaborate and intimidating system designed to prevent her from escaping or calling for help.
That way, she and other young women would keep prostituting themselves inside the Vegas Showgirls strip club near St. Petersburg and earning money for the men who kept her captive, she said.
And even as she was held captive, she was asked to lure other girls and young women into the sex business, she testified. The St. Petersburg Times is not naming the woman because of the nature of the allegations.
But the attorney for Colin Anthony Dyer, 37, the man on trial, said his client is innocent. No physical evidence connects him to any crimes, and the state's case "rests on the shoulders" of two women who are not credible, the attorney said.
The 19-year-old, who previously worked as a dancer at the Baby Dolls club in Clearwater, said the trouble began right after she agreed to move into an apartment provided by a man named Kenyatta Cornelous and to work at Vegas Showgirls.
She said Cornelous — who has been called the ringleader of the sex trafficking ring and is still awaiting trial — told her it would now be her job to dance, be a prostitute and give free sexual favors to his associates, including Dyer, whom he called "Uncle C."
Dyer, 37, took away her cell phone and identification and slept in the apartment to prevent her from leaving, she said. The second-floor window overlooked a kind of junkyard with a barbed-wire fence, so she could not leap out.
Cornelous' men stationed themselves inside and outside the strip club so she and other dancers could not escape, she said. At one point she tried to use a customer's cell phone to call for help, but was almost discovered, she said. She knew she would "get beaten or raped or worse" if caught trying to leave.
Nonetheless, she said she was told to recruit other girls — including some under the age of 18 — to work alongside her. The men would drive her through St. Petersburg and stop at places such as the Central Plaza bus terminal, looking for prospects. She says Cornelous told her to approach women and teen girls and look for those who were addicted to drugs, had abusive boyfriends or were generally down on their luck.
"I do specifically remember him telling me 'the more vulnerable the better,' " she said.
Regarding prostitution at Vegas Showgirls, she said she was told to work in the VIP rooms where "the customer goes with you and expects you to have sex with him." She said she endured "oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex, sex that hurt, sex that humiliated." She said she was given a fake ID to make it seem she was old enough to sell the customers alcohol.
In a telephone interview outside of the trial, Vegas Showgirls manager Chip Jones denied the club had anything to do with the allegations. Jones said customers pay $165 for 15 minutes in the club's VIP rooms — $100 of which goes to the dancers — but denied that sex occurs there. He also said, "No one knows what goes on behind the doors."
At one point during the woman's 10 days of captivity, she said, one of the dancers at Vegas Showgirls decided to spend about $40 she had earned on an outfit. But this meant the dancer was short on cash and could not pay the customary 10 percent of her earnings to the DJ and another 10 percent to the club manager.
So later that night, at a $600,000 rented house in Treasure Island where Cornelous stayed, she said Cornelous "hit her in front of all of us" and "she was forced to give oral sex to the guys in front of all of us in the living room right there."
"He told us he was setting an example, and that was the lesson, for not making enough money and spending money without permission."
She says she eventually escaped when she was able to call her father, who came to the club and rescued her.
Dyer, 37, was born in England, where he went to college and played professional basketball, said his attorney, Bryant Camareno. He said his mother lives in Florida.
Camareno said Dyer voluntarily spoke to detectives for five hours about the case because he wanted to clear his name. He also may testify on his own behalf. And, he said, Dyer quit his association with Cornelous before some of the events described by the woman took place.
The trial resumes today.