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Strip club owners, investigators meet to fight human trafficking

Department of Homeland Security special agent Bill Williger talks about human trafficking with members of Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking on Tuesday during a meeting at the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Department of Homeland Security special agent Bill Williger talks about human trafficking with members of Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking on Tuesday during a meeting at the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel.

TAMPA — The room full of dancers and strip club owners listened in silence as the woman on the recording sobbed.

"I didn't know what I was getting into," she cried. "I feel so stupid because I fell into his trap."

Addressing the room of club workers, Special Agent Bill Williger with Homeland Security told them the woman on the recording was one of 25 human trafficking victims in a 2009 Pinellas County case. She, along with others, was forced to dance at the Vegas Showgirls nightclub on Gandy Boulevard, he said.

In conjunction with National Human Trafficking Awareness month and in hopes of building a partnership between Homeland Security and those in the adult entertainment industry, Williger and other agents spoke Tuesday to about 100 people at the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel.

"People just immediately assume that strip clubs are associated with sex trafficking or human trafficking," said Don Kleinhans, owner of Tampa's 2001 Odyssey. "This was an eye-opener for me. There's such a difference between girls who choose to strip and girls who are forced to strip."

Club owners, many of whom are members of Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking, came from Tampa, Orlando and Miami for the second meeting between Homeland Security and COAST in the past few years. Following the first meeting, agents received tips in five trafficking cases that led to prosecutions.

The meeting came days after authorities shut down a Miami Beach strip club and arrested two men and a female dancer on human trafficking and other charges after they found a 13-year-old girl dancing nude at the club.

"We had never really thought about (human trafficking) or talked through that because I always immediately assumed that sex trafficking was more massage parlors or prostitution houses," said Kleinhans, who was also at the initial meeting two years ago. "We started to open our eyes and ears a lot better than we had before."

A recent count found 43 strip clubs in Tampa Bay, Williger said. "We never had any insight into this industry before," he said. "We were kept at arms length and we didn't know how to relate to dancers, really."

Information the dancers relay is pivotal, Williger said, even if they don't realize they're doing it. He and the other agents say they gain insight from the questions the women ask, the statements they make and their body language.

"The intelligence these girls provide us is second to none," Williger said.

One dancer, who goes by the stage name of "Gogo" at 2001 Odyssey, said she knew about some of the things the agents discussed, but didn't realize the extent to which human trafficking was occurring in the bay area. She said she's glad more club owners and dancers are becoming aware of the signs.

"All of the club owners talk to each other and can inform each other and share concerns," she said. "And most clubs have monthly meetings where we can pass information along."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Strip club owners, investigators meet to fight human trafficking 01/14/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 14, 2014 9:18pm]

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