By HOWARD ALTMAN | The Tampa Tribune – Updated: 06/08/2010 07:21 pm
CLEARWATER – A down-on-her-luck exotic dancer, she thought she was heading toward a better life when the men came and picked her up, took her to a job interview at the Vegas Show Girls strip club in Pinellas County, then Apt. 219 on 49th Street in St. Petersburg – her new home.
But once she got into the apartment and the door closed behind her, she says the bright new beginning turned into 10 days of horror.
She was held captive, her phone and identification confiscated. Forced to endure savage beatings and repeated rapes. Taken to Vegas Show Girls, where she was forced to perform sex acts, then see the money she earned for them confiscated by what she described as a brutal human trafficking organization that used her as a sex slave. Kept from communicating with the outside world.
“This was no Hollywood movie,” Pinellas County prosecutor Della Connolly said this afternoon as she delivered her opening statement in the sexual battery and human trafficking trial of one of her accused tormentors, Colin Dyer. “This happened right here in Pinellas County.”
Dyer, 33, who investigators say was the second in command of the human trafficking organization, is charged with one count of sexual battery and two counts of human trafficking and faces a total maximum of 60 years in prison. The alleged ringleader, Kenyatta Cornelous, and two other defendants, Edward Jones, 48, and Corinna Shaffer, 25, have waived their right to speedy trial and have an Aug. 31 pre-trial hearing.
Connolly’s opening statement only got more dramatic as she recalled the horrifying events said to have taken place between Feb. 16 and Feb. 26, 2009.
After 10 days of abuse, the now 19-year-old woman, who is not being named by The Tampa Tribune because of the nature of the allegations, finally managed to get to a phone while working at Vegas Show Girls, the club where she said she was forced into prostitution. She called her father, telling him to show up at the club with $20 and pretend to be a customer.
On Feb. 26, 2009, he arrived at the club, pretending to be her customer as his daughter recounted the sexual abuse, the beatings and the degradation. After listening in shock, the father grabbed his daughter and took out of the club, followed by Cornelous, Dyer and others, until he could call police.
Defense tells different tale
Defense attorney Bryant Camareno, in his opening statement, had a completely different version of events.
First, he instructed the jurors to consider the source of the bulk of the prosecution’s case – two women who were exotic dancers before these events and who continued to dance since.
The accuser “is a very good actor,” Camareno said.
His client – who was born in England, college educated there and played professional basketball in Europe – is innocent. So innocent, in fact, that in May 2009, when he saw his face plastered on newscasts, he called an attorney and drove from Orlando to Pinellas County where he withstood five hours of questioning by detectives before being arrested.
There was no human trafficking organization, Camareno said. There was no rape, no beating and no physical evidence that there was.
The only business arrangement between Dyer and Cornelous was to sell food from a mobile kitchen. Dyer had been a bouncer and had a lot of connections, selling food from a mobile kitchen outside strip clubs to patrons hungry after a night of ogling.
Cornelous also asked Dyer to put his name on the St. Pete apartment lease because Cornelous had bad credit.
That’s where the accuser and Dyer met, Camareno said. She was one of Cornelous’ many girlfriends, but not his main one, so she was asked to move into the apartment while Cornelous and his other women lived in a beach house at 10214 Tarpon Drive Treasure Island.
There was no 10 days of torture, Camareno argued. The accuser moved between the apartment and the Treasure Island house and went to work at the club.
After a few days, Dyer had reconciled with his girlfriend, grew tired of the accuser and all her dancer friends showing up at all hours of the day and night and wanted nothing to do with them, Camareno said.
Accuser takes the stand
After the opening statements, the accuser arrived in the courtroom. Wearing a black and white print dress, black Capri pants, with a cloud and rain drops tattooed on her left arm and appearing to be about seven months pregnant, she walked past Dyer – wearing a white shirt, tan pants and white shoes – and took the stand.
She talked about how she was dancing at Baby Dolls for about a few months when things started to sour with her boyfriend at the time. She told people at the club she was looking for a new place to live. One of them, she said, was a woman named “Pinky,” who, unbeknownst to her at the time, was working for Cornelous recruiting women into the sex trade.
Pinky told her about Cornelous, about how he could help her find an apartment, and gave her his number.
The two talked on the phone several times before they agreed that Cornelous would offer to put her up at an apartment he had, for $500 a month. If she had trouble coming up with the money, not to worry. She could pay him in installments.
On Feb. 16, 2009, the accuser testified she was picked up by Cornelous and Dyer. They took her to lunch, at Piccadilly’s Restaurant in St. Pete. Then they went to Vegas Show Girls, where Cornelous said he had connections and could help her get a job. She filled out an application, performed a dance audition and was told to report the next night. Then the men drove her to the apartment.
And that’s when the torture began, she testified.
After recounting the horrors, including explicit details of the rapes and beatings – both for the sheer pleasure of the men and as a form of punishment for “disobedience” the accuser talked about how she would take men to the VIP room at Vegas Show Girls, where the men would pay a door girl for time they would have sex with the accuser. And that the money was collected by Shaffer.
She also talked about how she, too, was driven around St. Petersburg by the men and told to recruit other women.
“Vulnerable women is what they wanted,” she testified.
One was a 14-year-old they met at a bus stop, but she got on the bus before she could be recruited. Another was a “beautiful girl from California” who likewise never gave in.
After describing the organization chart of the human trafficking group and explaining pictures of the apartment to the jury, Pinellas County Judge R. Timothy Peters abruptly adjourned the trial until Wednesday, where it is scheduled to resume with the accuser still on direct examination.
Acquaintance denies knowledge
Chip Jones, a manager at VIP Show Girls, said in a telephone interview after court recessed that while he knows Shaffer, who used to work at the club, he has no knowledge of the accusations made by the accuser.
Men are charged $165 for 15 minutes use of the VIP room, said Jones, adding that he has “no idea” what takes place behind closed doors, but that there is no sex going on at the club.
“We preach to the girls not to do that and if they are asked, just walk out and there will be no problems,” he said.
Jones said he met Cornelous and Dryer a few times, but only as customers.
Jones did offer some information that seemed to back up the accuser’s testimony. Shaffer, whose stage name is “Lacy” would “drive the girls, four or five of them, here.”