Last week Pinellas authorities rounded up what they're calling the first human sex trafficking ring in Tampa Bay — and possibly Florida — that enslaved local women.
One victim described being beaten, raped and terrorized, and said the ring prostituted women in strip clubs in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The charge raises troubling questions in the Tampa Bay area, which is bustling with strip clubs, lingerie modeling shops, massage parlors, escort services and all kinds of neon-emblazoned, adult-oriented, X-rated businesses.
The booming commercial sex industry makes Dewey Williams, Clearwater's deputy police chief, think this won't be an isolated case.
"There will be more," said Williams, who chairs the bay area's human trafficking task force. "This isn't the end of it."
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Human trafficking is a crime that just started to come into focus in the Tampa Bay area these past few years.
In 2006, a federal grant funded the Clearwater Area Task Force on Human Trafficking, which until now has focused on crimes involving migrants and runaway juveniles. One of its biggest busts was in 2007, when the task force broke up a slavery ring prostituting Central American women in portable brothels in north Pinellas.
Last week's arrests opened their eyes to what could be a new problem.
"This is new turf for us as far as domestic human trafficking goes," said Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats. "Whether this is a trend or something that has been ongoing for some time in this industry has yet to be determined."
Local law enforcement agencies say they're not aware of any other rings operating in area strip clubs. But the potential for abuse exists, Williams said, which is why authorities watch the clubs closely.
Famed strip club proprietor Joe Redner takes issue with linking sex trafficking to strip clubs, calling this latest case an unfortunate anomaly.
"There's no place for sex traffickers in adult businesses," said Redner, who owns the Mons Venus in Tampa.
"If you operate your hotel properly, then you'll have a well-run hotel, you won't have a house of prostitution," he said. "If you operate your adult business properly, you won't have those problems."
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One club in particular, however, shows how a licensed adult business can become entangled in prostitution — and even allegations of human trafficking.
Vegas Showgirls at 10570 Gandy Blvd. is a dank club lined with mirrors and dark couches along the walls. Two dancing cages straddle a sparkling pole.
It tends to fill up as nearby Derby Lane empties out. It takes $8 to get in the door. A 15-minute private dance in one of the VIP rooms costs $165; 30 minutes goes for $265.
But a victim of the domestic trafficking ring said that her captors prostituted her and other women inside Vegas Showgirls, according to court records, for $150 for 15 minutes, $250 for 40 minutes and $500 for an hour.
She said her captors kept a close eye on them at the club, never let the women stray far, and collected every dollar they made.
The club's owners have denied knowing anything about the trafficking operation and authorities say they are cooperating with the criminal investigation.
But there have been other incidents at the club:
In a six-month span in 2007, Pinellas sheriff's deputies raided the club three times, making 22 arrests for nudity and two for prostitution.
Five more dancers were arrested in a raid in February. In the past, the owners have fought the county in court over adult business requirements.
Technically, the government can shutter an adult business. But it's an arduous measure that is rarely used.
"In seven years representing clubs and dancers, I've never seen it," said lawyer Brandon Kolb, who has represented dancers across Tampa Bay in nudity cases.
"Basically, you're shutting down a business," said Assistant Pinellas County Attorney Carl Brody. "That's not something the courts like to do."
In Pinellas, the county has to prove the business is a continuous nuisance that is an immediate and continuous hazard to the community. It also must prove that there is no alternative but to seek an injunction to shut the place down.
"I don't think we've ever brought an injunctive action against a licensed business," said Brody, who added that no such action is planned against Vegas Showgirls.
Hillsborough County faces the same limitations in its power to shutter clubs or properties where illegal activity has been reported.
So does Pasco County, where most of its sexually oriented businesses are in commercial districts that no longer allow them. The existing ones were grandfathered in before the code was changed.
Redner, however, said it's unfair to single out adult businesses as the only locations where illegal activities could take place.
"How about the streets?" he said. "The streets are a place (for prostitution.) How do you blame the streets?"
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.