Tampa police arrested a well-connected Georgia youth motivational speaker they say invited a 16-year-old girl to a Hillsborough County hotel room and offered to pay her for sex Friday.
Jimmie Gardner, 57, is facing charges of human trafficking, lewd or lascivious touching of a minor and battery. Gardner is the brother-in-law of former Democratic Georgia state representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. He lives in Georgia with his wife, Leslie Abrams Gardner, who works as a federal judge in the state. They married after he was exonerated on a wrongful conviction for sexual assault that led to him serving 27 years in prison.
Police say Gardner invited the girl to his hotel room around 1:43 a.m. Friday. Once there, he offered to pay her in “exchange for sexual acts,” according to a Friday news release from the Tampa Police Department. The girl agreed, but later told Gardner that she had changed her mind.
Police say Gardner became angry and told her to leave.
The two had started arguing when Gardner put his hands around the girl’s neck and choked her, according to the release. Gardner then left the hotel room and the girl called 911.
After Gardner left, officers arrived and spoke with the girl.
During that time, Gardner turned himself in at the Tampa police headquarters on West Tampa Bay Boulevard.
He was taken into custody and booked into Orient Road Jail, where he is being held without bond, jail records show. He is facing one felony count of human trafficking for commercial sexual activity of a minor, one felony count of lewd or lascivious touching of a minor and one misdemeanor count of battery.
Gardner was raised by his great-aunt in Tampa, where he played baseball on the Belmont Heights Little League team and graduated from Tampa Bay Technical High School. In 1984, Gardner was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and played with them in the minor leagues for four seasons. He spent his off-season studying business management at Tampa College.
Five years later, Gardner was wrongly convicted in the 1987 sexual assault of two women in West Virginia. He was exonerated and released from prison in 2016.
Since then, Gardner has spread a “message of positive thinking and resilience” to high school and college students in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere across the country, according to his website.
“In the beginning, I was very bitter,” Gardner told the Tampa Bay Times in 2017 about his wrongful conviction and the decades he spent in prison. “But I realized the bitterness and anger created all sorts of toxins within me. By the grace of God, I was able to become a better person.”
A year later, Gardner was the keynote speaker at Belmont Heights Little League Baseball Park’s 50-year reunion in Tampa.
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Gardner is scheduled to make his first appearance in a Tampa courtroom Saturday.