CLEARWATER — Law enforcement authorities are planning to shift more resources to what they say has emerged as a growing — and disturbing — criminal enterprise in Pinellas County.
More and more, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, young women are being corralled into prostitution rings against their will.
These girls, usually runaways, are forced to dance in strip clubs then pimped out at nearby hotels, Gualtieri said.
"We had one two nights ago. She's 15 years old," Gualtieri told county commissioners during a workshop Wednesday. "It is becoming a very significant problem."
Because of that, the sheriff is starting a "special victims unit" to focus just on local human trafficking. The unit will be composed of five deputies and a sergeant and start in July.
Gualtieri plans to shift deputies from other positions, so there will be no additional cost for the new unit.
No arrests have been made in the most recent case involving the 15-year-old. Because the case is active, Gualtieri would not give many details. He said intelligence led to the discovery of the victim, who stripped at a club on U.S. 19 and was being forced to prostitute herself at a nearby motel.
"She also identified several other girls," he said.
Human trafficking has been a focus of law enforcement here for the past several years and got heightened attention this spring after several high-profile arrests across the Tampa Bay area.
In May authorities busted prostitution rings out of Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Polk County.
Law enforcement said pimps set up dates on websites, including Backpage.com, and force the girls to have sex for money, threatening them with violence. Gualtieri said many of the men have a sort of psychological hold over their young victims.
Recently, Attorney General Pam Bondi held a news conferences announcing increased enforcement. And a little more than a week ago, Gov. Rick Scott signed two laws aimed at helping victims.
"It's primarily local," Gualtieri said, "and we're going to do something about it. It needs a commitment."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.