PALM HARBOR — A classified advertising website that has attracted national controversy over its alleged role in the trafficking of underage prostitutes was used to advertise two minor girls whose activities led to the arrest of a Palm Harbor man this week, authorities said.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Friday that the website, backpage.com, was used to offer two teenage runaways for sex. James Perdue, 61, was arrested Wednesday on a felony charge of procuring a person under the age of 18 for prostitution in connection with the ads.
Gualtieri said Perdue admitted to sheriff's deputies that he associated with the two girls and showed them how to use backpage.com. However, Perdue denied that he acted as their pimp or procured any financial benefit from the arrangement.
"He claims his only benefit from this was that he enjoyed the company of the girls," Gualtieri said.
The girls engaged in prostitution on at least 10 occasions, Gualtieri said, adding that detectives continue to investigate and "strongly believe" there are more victims. "I think it's really the tip of the investigation," he said.
An additional charge of promoting a sexual performance by a child was lodged against Perdue on Thursday. According to an arrest report, detectives discovered a video of Perdue brandishing a sex toy in the presence of a juvenile.
Gualtieri said Perdue was also arrested in 2007 when deputies conducting a traffic stop discovered that he was wearing a similar sex toy while driving with a runaway teenage girl as his passenger.
Perdue was being held at the Pinellas County jail in lieu of $32,150 bail.
Some who live near Perdue's house in the 600 block of Ninth Street in Palm Harbor said they often observed teenagers — both boys and girls — coming and going from his house.
"It was just kids, hanging out with this old dude," said neighbor Nick Flowers.
Gualtieri said this is the first instance he knows of in which the Pinellas sheriff's office has investigated underage girls being sold on backpage.com.
He said the case raises concerns about the site, which has faced harsh criticism from state attorneys general, including Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, for enabling the trafficking of minors. The site, similar to craigslist in format, features an adult ads section that authorities say is used by pimps in addition to consenting adults.
"Look at Backpage," Gualtieri said. "How many of those are young girls in similar circumstances?"
A representative of Village Voice Media, which owns backpage.com, did not respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon.
In the past, Village Voice Media has defended the site, saying its employees work closely with law enforcement officials to identify minors who might be advertised online.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.