They promised vulnerable young women a better life, officials said, then delivered hell on earth.
Three people were arrested this weekend in connection with what the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office called a human trafficking operation. Authorities say this is the first case in the area, perhaps in the state, where the victims are local residents, recruited and held hostage.
The victim in the arrest reports, whose name was withheld because of the nature of the crime, was held against her will between Feb. 16 and Feb. 26. She was raped, assaulted, threatened with bodily harm or death if she fled, the reports say, and forced to work as a prostitute. She was also forced to dance at the Vegas Showgirls nightclub in St. Petersburg. Officials say there are more victims.
Deputies arrested Kenyatta Cornelous, 38, Edward Jones, 47, and Corinna Shaffer, 24, all of Treasure Island, this weekend. Cornelous, being held without bail, is charged with sexual battery, and all three are charged with human trafficking.
Deputies also are looking for Colin Anthony Dyer, 36, in connection with the case.
The investigation started in March, when Detective Jeremy Lewis received a tip and contacted the first victim. He's one of four Sheriff's investigators working with the Clearwater Police, the Clearwater Area Human Trafficking Task Force and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on the case.
At a news conference Sunday, Sheriff's Office officials outlined how the young women were lured in. Those involved would look for young women who appeared down on their luck at bus stations, for example. Then they would offer help to improve their lives.
The women were taken to a leased home in Treasure Island. Arrest reports say the three lived at 10214 Tarpon Drive, a home worth nearly $600,000 according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser.
"As soon as they got to the home, that's where the horror began," said Capt. Teresa Dioquino of the Sheriff's Office Criminal Investigations Unit.
Their cell phones and all their personal identification were taken away. The abuse was violent: mental, physical and sexual, with an attempt to control their minds, Dioquino said. The women were forced to dance and sell themselves at various nightclubs. Warned that they would be harmed or killed if they escaped or talked to anyone, someone watched them wherever they went.
"We do know there was some drug involvement, too," Dioquino said.
The girls were forced to recruit, Lewis said, and to endure "brainwashing to the point that they feel they have nowhere else to go."
Shaffer's bail was set at $60,000. Court records show she was arrested three times in 2007 and once in February for nudity in an establishment that sells alcohol. She was to appear in court next month on a February prostitution charge.
The bail for Jones was set at $50,000. In 2006, Jones and Cornelous were both cited in Tampa for driving without a valid license.
Dyer has had several minor scrapes with the law in Florida, including driving without a valid license and probation violations, since an aggravated assault charge in Orange County in 1999. The disposition of that case was unclear Sunday.
Some neighbors noticed the comings and goings at the house.
Next door neighbor Charlie Helinger, 55, said he never saw anything that looked criminal, but one thing did strike him as odd: "I would be out on my dock doing things, occasionally the guys would be out fishing but the girls would never ever be out back."
Helinger said he thought the women worked at a bar because he saw them only in the evenings.
"I didn't know what they were doing, but I kind of assumed that maybe these guys owned a bar, maybe that they were dancers and they were driving them to the job because every day at 5 p.m. these girls would pile into the van and go."
Helinger said he's seen as many as four women get into the van, but he wasn't sure if they were the same women every time. The women he saw appeared to be in their mid 20s, he said.
Chip Jones, the manager of Vegas Showgirls, 10570 Gandy Blvd., St. Petersburg, said Shaffer danced there under the stage name "Lacy" and has worked at the strip club "off and on" for about a year.
"Vegas had nothing to do with this. It's just a club," he said. "They just worked here. We didn't know anything that was going on the outside."
The owner of the house, Rose St. Germain of Holiday, said she thinks two of the three arrested, Cornelous and Shaffer, are on a lease, which is up this month. She said they planned to stay on month by month.
"They told me they worked at a bar in Tampa," she said. "I've gone over there a couple of times and I've never seen any indications of anything like that."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170. Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.