Tampa-area task force targets child prostitution

By JOSH POLTILOVE and JOSÉ PATIÑO GIRONA

The Tampa Tribune

Published: September 27, 2010

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nowBuzz up!TAMPA – Sometimes the pimps recruit them on the streets, preying on children from broken homes. Others are found on the Internet.

The pimp nurtures the child, working to gain trust, affection and respect. When the bond is sealed, the juvenile is forced into prostitution.

“They get the promise of love and a life,” Tampa police Detective Mike Victor said. “The only thing they see is the inside of a motel room.”

Roughly five years ago, the FBI started a national initiative to halt juvenile prostitution. Locally, the Tampa Area Crimes Against Children Task Force was formed in 2009.

Comprised of investigators from Tampa police, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI, the task force has rescued 43 youngsters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

They ranged in age from 13 to 17. One was a boy.

About 70 percent of the juveniles were in the state foster care system, FBI Special Agent Greg Christopher said.

“When it comes down to it, they are victims,” he said. “No kid is going to make a conscious effort to become a prostitute. It goes from coercion to full-fledged force.”

To demonstrate his power, the pimp might burn the child with cigarettes, brand her with his name or rape her.

Since the task force started working cases during the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa, investigators have arrested 10 to 15 pimps, Christopher said.

In one operation, undercover agents scouring Craigslist found an advertisement for erotic services from someone who appeared underage. After asking for the Super Bowl Special, a detective was quoted a price of $300 for two girls and was met at a Marriott in Tampa by an 18-year-old and a girl who claimed to be 17 but was actually 14.

In another incident in July, a Tampa man was arrested on sex trafficking charges after the task force said he pimped out a 17-year-old girl in a hotel room.

In most cases, the juveniles aren’t prosecuted, Victor said.

But it’s a battle to keep the youngsters from returning to prostitution – they’re intimidated by their pimps and the streets are what they know.

“We consider it a success if we can save one kid’s life out of five,” Christopher said.

The children can be reunited with family or set up with a foster family. Some are sent to the Girls Education and Mentoring Service in New York or the Children of the Night in California, organizations that help young prostitutes seek better lives, Christopher said.

This month, Christopher received the State/Federal Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award in relation to crimes against children.

“It’s a group effort. It’s not just me. We do it as a team,” he said. “For a lot of these kids, they don’t have a voice.”

Reporter Josh Poltilove can be reached at (813) 259-7961.

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