An undercover sting targeting child prostitution led to the rescue of six Tampa Bay area youngsters and the arrest of five adults, FBI officials said Tuesday.
Federal and local authorities carried out the investigation as part of a national effort called Operation Cross Country II, which rescued a total of 47 child prostitutes around the country during a three-day sting that took place last week.
It was the latest effort by the Innocence Lost Initiative, a program started in 2003 to target domestic sex trafficking of children.
"It's a rapidly growing problem that we're seeing nationwide," said FBI Tampa spokesman Dave Couvertier.
He said pedophiles look for underage victims on social networking sites or by visiting prostitution "hot spots," like motels along Nebraska Avenue, truck stops and casinos. They also frequent adult businesses to track down children through pimps or other prostitutes. All are places investigators focused on during the operation.
"There's a large underground network," Couvertier said.
He said pimps recruit prostitutes by preying on runaways or homeless and vulnerable children looking for affection on the Internet. Pimps are attracted to young people struggling with a drug habit, and barter drugs for their services.
The adults rounded up in the sting included two pimps and three female prostitutes, authorities said.
Officials said the pimps were Edgar Carlos Bueno, 41, of 4714 W Pearl Ave. in Tampa, charged with transporting for prostitution, possession of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia; and James S. Sims, 29, of 4850 Heron Pointe Drive in Tampa, charged with deriving support from proceeds of prostitution.
The arrested adult females were Celedonia Helen House, 20, of 8208 Clermont St. in Tampa, charged with prostitution; Kokiela Tresce Eaves, 19, of 1523 W Broad St. in Tampa, charged with prostitution, uttering a forged instrument and two counts of grand theft; and Jo Jo Missy Shipp, 28, who has the same address as Sims, was charged with two counts of offering to commit prostitution.
Of the six juveniles rescued last week, who were all 16 or 17, one said she had been involved in prostitution since she was 12, Couvertier said.
"Once they're groomed and conditioned, they are threatened and coerced into that lifestyle of prostitution," he said.
Locally, the FBI partners with the Tampa police and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office for undercover stings. Four of the six young people recovered in Tampa were listed as endangered runaways with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Once authorities rescue them, they are referred to a local child protective services agency to be placed in protective custody.
During a news conference this week in Washington, D.C., to announce the results of Operation Cross Country II, FBI deputy director John S. Pistole called sex trafficking of children "one of the most violent and unconscionable crimes."
"There are few law enforcement missions more important than protecting our nation's children," Pistole said in remarks on the FBI's Web site.
Couvertier said the latest sting netted the largest number of children in one operation since the initiative began in 2003.
Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.
Innocence Lost Initiative
-Established in 2003.
-Resulted in 265 indictments and 365 convictions on state and federal charges.
-Recovered 575 child victims.