Teenage girls are being forced into prostitution in Pinellas County — that's the grim allegation in at least three recent cases that police are calling human trafficking.
"Human trafficking" is a felony crime that is troubling and easy to misunderstand.
It conjures images of people shipped in from foreign countries and forced to work long hours in slavelike conditions. And this happens.
But it's not only immigrants.
It can also be one American exerting control over another, "and making them do things where you gain a profit off their actions," said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He said Pinellas has seen cases of human trafficking in lawn businesses, the food industry, massage parlors and others.
"Unfortunately, I would say it's a much bigger problem than people know or want to accept," said statewide prosecutor Nick Cox, referring to people being forced into the sex trade as well as into labor. "I think it's right under our noses and a lot of times we don't know it."
He added, "I didn't realize how big the problem was until the attorney general told me to get to working it."
Some recent cases involving prostitution include:
• In May, the Sheriff's Office accused three people of running a trafficking ring in which two runaway girls, ages 15 and 16 and renamed "Candy" and "Diamond," were forced to have sex with as many as five men a day. Men found the girls through Internet ads.
• In September, a 21-year-old St. Petersburg woman pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to engage in child sex trafficking. Authorities said she posted nude pictures last winter of two teen runaways on an Internet site and made the girls perform sex acts at motels around Pinellas.
• This month, deputies charged a 60-year-old woman with trafficking a 14-year-old foster child. She offered the girl up for sex to a 25-year-old man who was charged with lewd and lascivious battery, authorities said.
Gualtieri said it's a matter of debate as to whether human trafficking is increasing or if it's simply getting more attention as authorities learn more about the problem and put more emphasis on it.
He said in at least some cases, "we're seeing the drug dealers that are now migrating over to human trafficking and get into prostitution." He recently formed a Special Victims Unit to crack down on human trafficking cases.
Advocates say there's a difference between prostitution — a commercial sex act — and trafficking.
"Typically, a prostitute is a knowing, willing person. A victim of human trafficking is someone who's being exploited, being forced to commit a crime," said Jeremy Lewis, executive director of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators. "We don't consider our victims to be prostitutes."
Lewis said authorities use a range of charges to prosecute traffickers and their cohorts, including solicitation (a misdemeanor sometimes applied to johns) and deriving proceeds from a prostitute (a third-degree felony often applied to pimps).
"I personally believe there's more than one way to skin a cat, and if we have to use different statutes," so be it, Lewis said. "Human trafficking victims don't call 911, and that's where we have to train the community to identify and report."
In May, statewide prosecutors filed a case accusing three people of recruiting women in strip clubs, getting them hooked on cocaine, oxycodone or other drugs, and forcing them to work in brothels.
The case began with a tip that came into an anti-trafficking task force, and it prompted Attorney General Pam Bondi to say "we are united together to make Florida a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking."
The three were charged with racketeering and conspiracy. One of the accused, Holly Cannarelli, 55, already has pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy and has agreed to testify against the others arrested with her. She faces up to nine years for the charges.
Jorge Angulo is a defense attorney representing two of the people arrested in recent cases. Speaking in general, not about those cases in particular, he said it's clear that some prey on "women who are not able to find the resources that they need to escape the life that they've fallen into."
But he too draws a distinction between prostitution and trafficking, and said authorities need to make sure they don't claim a simple prostitution case is something more.
"Prosecutors and the police need to be careful that they don't overuse the charge, because if that happens and they get too many cases that get dismissed, then the general public will no longer have faith that they're trying to do the right thing. These cases need to be taken cautiously."