It started with one.
They found a woman who endured abuse, rape and beatings, they say — a woman held captive in a $600,000 Treasure Island home, forced to dance and prostitute her own body.
But it didn't stop at one.
"This broke it open," said an investigator, Pinellas County sheriff's Capt. Teresa Dioquino. "A lot of tentacles sprung off of this case."
Now, Tampa Bay may sit in a ring of something often associated with dank rooms and Third World countries.
Human sex trafficking.
• • •
What police claim happened inside the house — what may be happening in other local cases — fits the predatory manifesto of traffickers all over the world.
"We're starting to find more and more cases where our youth is being targeted right here in the U.S., right here in Florida," said Giselle Rodriguez of the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking. "We're starting to see cases involving homeless adults. They look for people that are down and out on their luck, who are desperate to get themselves out of debt.
"They promise the American dream."
Kenyatta Cornelous, 38, Edward Jones, 47, Corinna Shaffer, 24, and Colin Dyer, 36, who turned himself in Monday, are all charged in connection with the case.
They brought women to the home with promises of prosperity, deputies say, then took their phones and identification and began a cycle of sexual and mental torture and mind control. They brought the women to strip clubs, where they were forced to dance and sell themselves while trailed by "handlers."
It's a classic model for exploitation. It happens in trailers, seedy motels, five-star resorts and mansions. It happens to men and women, young and old. It happens in a country where people have basic freedom.
So when it starts to get bad, why don't the victims just leave?
"They're afraid," said Mark P. Lagon, executive director of the Polaris Project, a U.S. organization that combats trafficking. "They're afraid of their exploiter killing or harming them, and they're afraid that they won't be seen as a victim, that police or immigration officials or society will treat them like a criminal, like an illegal alien or like a dirty, disposable person."
So they stay.
• • •
Vegas Showgirls, a squat stucco building beside Derby Lane on Gandy Boulevard, has a sign out front.
What happens at Vegas stays at Vegas.
But sordid allegations led investigators right back to the club. At least one victim was forced to dance there against her will, officials said.
Shaffer, who danced off and on at Vegas Showgirls under the name "Lacy," has four previous arrests related to prostitution or nudity in an establishment that serves alcohol. During her last arrest at Vegas Showgirls in February, seven other women ranging from 18 to 26 were also arrested on various charges, including prostitution for four of them.
"Vegas had nothing to do with this. It's just a club," owner Chip Jones said Sunday. "They just worked here. We didn't know anything that was going on on the outside."
Employees standing at the door declined to comment Monday.
Lagon points to the sex industry. He points to newspapers and magazines that print ads for illegal massage parlors. He points to the Internet.
"The sex industry is the enabling environment of human trafficking," he said. "It takes many forms. Latin brothels, Asian massage parlors, minors and migrants sold for sex on craigslist. There are the faces of sex trafficking, and businesses who are accomplices need to look at themselves in the mirror."
Where there is demand, he said, there will be supply.
At 2:30 p.m. Monday, there were 10 cars in the parking lot at Vegas Showgirls.
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.