CLEARWATER — The women, recruited from strip clubs and trained as prostitutes in a Pinellas County brothel, were offered drugs to fuel addictions that would help hold them prisoner.
If they refused the drugs, authorities said, they were controlled through sexual assaults and brutal beatings.
Their captivity in what Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called "modern-day slavery" ended with the Friday arrests of two men authorities say were leading a Pinellas County-based human-trafficking ring involving at least 16 local women.
Peter D. Kitt, 41, of Tampa and Shawn D. Franklin, 42, of St. Petersburg are charged with racketeering and conspiracy. They were being held at the Pinellas County Jail, where Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway said they wouldn't be allowed to post their $1 million bail each unless they could prove their revenue stream.
Bondi — flanked by representatives from more than a half-dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agencies that assisted in the bust — warned during a Friday news conference in Clearwater that the investigation isn't over.
"We are united together to make Florida a zero-tolerance state for human trafficking," Bondi said.
She pointed to a poster showing 16 silhouettes.
"We have got to change the philosophy of how we think about prostitution. … These women are victims," she said, and added, "If you're one of the johns involved in this, we're going to go after you too."
Holloway said the investigation began last June, when Tampa police sent a tip about Kitt to the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking.
Police found guns, drugs and women's driver's licenses in Kitt's vehicle when he was arrested during a Largo prostitution sting a few days later, Holloway said. But Kitt bonded out of jail.
The task force began working with one victim, who described the operation and helped identify other victims.
According to the informant, Kitt pushed the women, all in their 20s, to develop addictions to cocaine, oxycontin or other pills, Holloway said.
Once the women completed training, authorities say Kitt set them up in hotels or other accommodations around the bay area, where they were instructed to solicit johns or meet with men who viewed ads Kitt set up on BackPage.com.
Kitt, or Franklin, who police said acted as the "enforcer" in Kitt's absence, would check in with the women multiple times daily. Those who were not compliant enough paid a price, according to authorities. Kitt carried a bullet in his pocket and would threaten to kill the women, police said, or the men subjected them to beatings so severe that at least one woman ended up in the hospital.
So far, authorities say, they have rescued three of the 16 victims. They are in the care of faith-based or other groups that work with the task force. Officials hope other victims will come forward.
"We don't want to lock these girls up," Holloway said. "They've been through a lot."
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Friday's arrest harkens back to another local human trafficking case. In 2009, Kenyatta Cornelous of St. Petersburg was arrested and charged with sexual battery and human trafficking. In March he was sentenced to 19 years in prison for his part in what authorities said was a sex-trafficking ring that recruited down-on-their-luck women by first inviting them to a $600,000 rented home in Treasure Island. Later, police said, the women were forced to dance at strip clubs, including St. Petersburg's Vegas Showgirls, prostitute themselves, and recruit needy women into the ring.
Colin Anthony Dyer, also arrested in that case, was found not guilty in 2010.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.