Pinellas County sheriff's investigators who broke up a sex trafficking ring over the weekend hope more victims will come forward now that the suspected ringleaders are in custody.
"We want to reassure any victims that they can come forward now that these individuals are in jail," said sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.
The Sheriff's Office believes it may be the first such organization in the Tampa Bay area, maybe even the state, investigated for enslaving and abusing local U.S. citizens.
Four people are in custody and more arrests may be in the works. They are accused of enslaving, raping, prostituting and terrorizing at least one young woman. There are definitely more victims, authorities say, but they must come forward to advance prosecutions.
The story of one victim is rendered in harrowing detail in the arrest warrant of alleged ringleader Kenyatta Cornelous.
It started with an offer of a place to live, and a sip of a Coke. The young woman — who was pregnant at the time — doesn't remember what happened next, she told authorities.
When she awoke the next morning, she thought she had been drugged and raped.
It was just the beginning.
The Sheriff's Office won't discuss the size of the ring or exactly how many victims there may be. But some clues as to how the ring operated, and how it was brought down, are in court records.
In March, a tip led detectives to the victim, whose story led to this past weekend's arrests. Whether she was still a prisoner when they spoke to her is not known.
Deputies have not named her and will not disclose her whereabouts. All the Sheriff's Office will say is that she is over age 18 and she is safe.
What about the other victims?
"This was a very methodical process to ensure the safety of all those involved," said sheriff's Capt. Teresa Dioquino.
• • •
The victim needed a place to stay. Kenyatta Cornelous told her she could move into his St. Petersburg apartment right away. She could pay him later — after she earned some money.
He and Colin Dyer, a suspect who was also later arrested, even helped the victim move her belongings in.
Her first night in the apartment was Feb. 16. The next morning, court records say, she awoke thinking she had been drugged and sexually assaulted.
When she tried to leave, Cornelous and Dyer told her she couldn't, records say. She tried to jump out of a window but they stopped her, she said.
Cornelous sat on an ottoman in front of the front door, the victim said, and explained the rules:
She now worked for him and his cohorts.
She would get a job at the Vegas Showgirls strip club using the fake identity they provided to her.
They would take every penny she earned.
"Cornelous told her that they would kill her if she left," Clearwater police Detective James McBride wrote in the arrest warrant.
• • •
The victim said she and other women were forced to prostitute themselves, records say, at rates of $150 for 15 minutes, $250 for 40 minutes and $500 for an hour.
Women were also taken by the ring to clubs in Pasco and Broward counties, records say.
The victim said she saw other women abused, but no arrests had been made in connection with the abuse of anyone else.
The sexual abuse was constant. The victim said Cornelous raped her eight times between Feb. 16 and Feb. 26 and Dyer raped her 12 times in those 10 days.
It was also punishment for those who didn't make enough. That's why Cornelous sexually abused one woman in front of the others, the victim said.
The victim said an attack by Dyer — he slammed her into a counter and kicked her on the ground — led her to lose her baby, records say.
She told officials she suffered from heavy bleeding and cramping but her captors refused to take her to a doctor.
• • •
Cornelous, 38, now faces two counts of capital sexual battery, which carries a life sentence, two counts of human trafficking and deriving proceeds from prostitution. Dyer, 36, faces one count of capital sexual battery and two counts of human trafficking.
Edward Jones, 47, faces two counts of human trafficking. Corinna Shaffer, 24, faces one count of human trafficking.
Jones and Shaffer were drivers and handlers of the women, authorities said. All were held Tuesday in the Pinellas jail.
Karen Stauss, a top official with the antitrafficking organization Polaris Project, said it's one of the most extreme cases of sexual slavery and abuse she's seen in her six years helping survivors of these crimes.
It's also a wake-up call.
"I think this shows that it does happen in the commercial sex industry," she said, "and that it happens to U.S. citizens and not just to foreign nationals."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.