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Women give harrowing testimony of Tampa Bay human trafficking ring

Peter Kitt, 42, of St. Petersburg has been charged with racketeering and conspiracy.
Peter Kitt, 42, of St. Petersburg has been charged with racketeering and conspiracy.
Published Oct. 15, 2014

LARGO — Peter Kitt is accused of driving prostitutes from hotel to hotel in Clearwater, Largo and Tampa, setting them up in cheap rooms and supplying them with a steady stream of customers, pills and crack cocaine.

Some say he actually liked one of his nicknames: Willie the dumb--- driver.

But why would Kitt favor a name that made him sound like a low-level nobody?

"Throw people off," one of the people who testified against him said.

Kitt is in his third week of trial in Pinellas County, and dumb is the one thing statewide prosecutors have not accused him of being.

Kitt, 42, of St. Petersburg, ran a prostitution ring that consisted of drug-addicted women recruited from strip clubs and other locations, according to assistant statewide prosecutors Joseph Spataro and Julie Sercus. Wiretapped phone calls, intercepted text messages and the testimony from the women who worked as prostitutes have all been presented to the jury in a trial that casts light on the shadowy world of the sex trade that lies just below the surface in the Tampa Bay area.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called the operation "modern-day slavery" in a May 2013 news conference with then-Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway and other local officials. But during trial this month, defense attorney Garry Potts has cross-examined each of the women to ask if they were physically restrained from leaving. Most said no but added that they heard enough threats to know better than to try to escape.

Kitt has been charged with racketeering and conspiracy, accused of running a criminal enterprise with two others. Since their arrests, his co-defendants Shawn Franklin and Holly Cannarelli have pleaded guilty to similar charges, and both testified against Kitt.

One 27-year-old woman nicknamed "Gia" testified last week and gave a chilling account of getting caught up into the sex ring. She said she went to the Mons Venus strip club in Tampa to dance — her first night there — but needed a ride home to her mother's home. (The Times is not identifying her because she is the victim of a sex crime.)

Kitt offered to give her a ride. After he let her into his car, he said he needed to make a "quick stop" at a hotel.

"That was where I was first introduced to pills and crack cocaine and everything," she said. He kept her at the hotel. "That's when prostitution began," she said in a halting voice.

"At that point, I knew there was no turning back," she said.

The customers would pay $100 to $150 each, and it all went to Kitt, she said.

After a few days at that hotel, she said, he took her to another and then another.

"Zero to 60, you went from working one day at Mons Venus to becoming a drug-addicted prostitute?" prosecutor Spataro asked.

She said yes.

"Why didn't you leave?"

"Have you seen him?" Gia said. She said he was "very intimidating" and considered her his property.

But under cross-examination by Potts, she said she had left on occasion and visited her mother.

Franklin, who has pleaded guilty to his part in the scheme, said he would stay in the hotel rooms with the women to keep the business moving.

Kitt made sure the young women in hotels had drugs. When they ran out, they started getting sick from withdrawal and wanted to use their cash from customers to buy drugs.

Kitt wouldn't allow it. If they did, Kitt would tell them they were "taking food out of his mouth," Franklin said.

The trial could go to closing arguments today.

Contact Curtis Krueger at krueger@tampabay.com. Follow @ckruegertimes.