CLEARWATER — The investigation started when a 15-year-old girl told a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office investigator that a Tampa man had forced her to prostitute herself and to give him the money she made from "johns."
The girl, a runaway, said a woman she had met at a Tampa bus stop in November 2009 had called a man named "Santana" to come and pick the girl up. "Santana" had said he'd give her a place to stay, no strings attached.
She told the man she was 15. He raped her as soon as he got her to his home in the Highland Pines neighborhood near U.S. 41 and Interstate 4, court documents say.
He also made her undress, took pictures of her and uploaded them onto Internet sites, advertising her as an escort, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa in January.
For the next three weeks, "Santana" raped her daily, videotaped her sexual encounters with adult men and threatened to kill her if she told anyone, the girl told detectives.
According to the complaint, she charged about $150 per "date," performed 15 to 20 "tricks" a day and estimated that she handed over $40,000 to $50,000 to the man during the time she lived with him.
After the girl escaped and reported the abuse, the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking immediately got involved and quickly identified a suspect: 37-year-old Eric Antwan Bell, a felon with an 18-page arrest history in Florida that dates back to 1992.
The task force was formed in 2006 when the Clearwater Police Department won a U.S. Department of Justice grant. It's now held up as a model and provides training to other law enforcement agencies. The task force includes members of several local agencies, as well as state and federal investigators and social services agencies that assist the victims. It was recently awarded nearly $350,000 in additional federal funding for the next two years.
As of January, its investigations had led to 37 convictions, and 25 victims of severe abuse had been identified, according to the task force's website.
As for Eric Antwan Bell, he fled the Tampa Bay area around the time a federal warrant was issued in January. He was arrested by federal agents in New Jersey on Wednesday and will be extradited to Tampa, according to a Clearwater police spokeswoman.
Task force investigators — who couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday — learned early in the investigation that Bell wasn't working alone and that the girl wasn't his only victim, according to the complaint.
A Tampa woman named Neang Prom, who goes by the nickname "Pocahontas," is believed to be his top prostitute. She is accused of posting online advertisements for at least three teenage girls and collecting the money they made as prostitutes. She was arrested in January.
The girl who was picked up at the bus stop told investigators that Bell often wore a gun in his waistband. She said Bell sold oxycodone and marijuana from the home. Authorities did not provide details about how the girl eventually got away from Bell.
Investigators serving a search warrant at Bell's home found firearms, ammunition, body armor, and cameras and computers containing pornographic images of the victims, the complaint said.
The charges against Bell include production of child pornography, sex trafficking of a minor and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The charges against Prom include sex trafficking of a minor and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.