TAMPA — What began as a routine traffic stop at the start of the new year has now led to the arrest of six men that detectives say orchestrated an extensive human trafficking ring throughout the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister announced Tuesday.
They were dubbed the “Sinful Six” by authorities who discussed the case at news conference held at the Falkenburg Road Jail.
There, the sheriff stood alongside Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, representatives from the non-profit victims advocacy group Selah Freedom, and poster boards displaying the mugshots of half a dozen men arrested as a result of an undercover human trafficking investigation.
The investigation has so far freed five women from a life of coercion, abuse and prostitution, officials said.
All six men were arrested in the months following that fateful traffic stop in January, when patrol deputies discovered a vehicle that had been reported stolen in Ohio. They followed the vehicle to an unnamed big box store parking lot and arrested the male driver and his female passenger on charges of grand theft auto.
But the way the woman behaved during the traffic stop stuck with the deputies, Chronister said on Tuesday.
“Fortunately, the case did not stop there, as our deputies believed there was much more to the story,” he said. “Based on their interaction with the two suspects, deputies believed the uncooperative female could be a victim of human trafficking. And in this instance, they could not have been more right.”
Eventually, the woman trusted detectives enough for her to divulge that there were other women like her who she said were being forced into prostitution as a means to pay for their drug addictions, facilitated by the “Sinful Six,” Chronister said. The five women are now in the care of anti-human trafficking organization Selah Freedom, which is providing housing, drug treatment, mental health counseling and other social services.
All six men were being held in the county jail on charges of coercion for a sex act by human trafficking and two counts of racketeering under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as the RICO statute, the sheriff said.
“I think what made it so horrible and horrific was that it was such an organized criminal enterprise,” Chronister said Tuesday. “At one point the ringleader bragged on social media that he has been doing this for 15 years.”
That ringleader was 43-year-old Bradford Alan Pugh of Seffner, investigators said. He is accused of advertising the women online, posting photos of them on the dark web, promising sex for money.
II was Bradford who worked out the logistics, Chronister said, driving the coerced women to meet men in hotel rooms he paid for.
Pugh, who was arrested Feb. 7, was being held in lieu of $1.03 million bail on seven charges of human trafficking and two racketeering charges, according to jail records.
The Sheriff’s Office said his co-defendants are Scott Collins, 39, Jeryme Hunter, 46, Michael Johnson Lee, 40, David Marty, 40, and Jeremy Montalvo, 27.
Investigators said they used maintained control over the woman by supplying them with such large quantities of heroine and methamphetamines that they became “dope sick.” That’s when a person is so dependent on drugs they become physically sick, Chronister said.
That heightened level of physical and mental manipulation traffickers use to control their victims’ is what makes such cases so difficult to prosecute, Moody said.
“Oftentimes when victims are rescued they tell you they blame themselves, or believe they were in love with their trafficker and are reluctant to testify against the person who, over time, they’ve come to believe is their protector when the opposite is true,” said Moody. She said this is the first instance in Florida of using the racketeering statute to prosecute human trafficking.
By treating the six like an organized crime ring, the Attorney General said, prosecutors can rely on more than just the victims’ testimonies in court. They can also seek enhanced penalties and provide statements from co-conspirators as evidence.
The five women are now working with investigators and have identified three more victims who continue to be exploited by the same operation, Chronister said. More arrests will likely be made and more victims will be found, the sheriff said.
Misty LaPerriere, national law enforcement liaison for Selah Freedom, said that in the few months since Hillsborough County formed its new Human Trafficking Task Force, the group is now working with 32 victims linked to trafficking rings in the Tampa Bay area.
“These women defined the word courage when they decide to step forward and change their life,” Moody said. “We commend these women, and know they will likely save the lives of many more women throughout the state.”
Anyone who believes they are a victim of human traffickers or believe they know a victim is asked to call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at (813) 247-200 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.