27 people found in human trafficking raids in Largo, Clearwater

LARGO — The two white vans would pull up to the nondescript beige duplex on the dead-end street early in the morning.

At the honk of a horn, a dozen or more Hispanic and Asian men and women would come out of the home and pile into the vans.

Neighbors wouldn’t see them again until late at night or early the next morning when the vans reappeared to drop them off.

“That’s seven days a week,” said 67-year-old Sylvia Leuci, a home health nurse who works at a home across the street.

Just a few miles away in Clearwater, a similar scene was unfolding each day at a one-story tan home with a single-car garage and an overgrown lawn.

On Wednesday, the FBI and local law enforcement officers raided both homes and a Chinese restaurant on East Bay Drive as part of an investigation into human trafficking.

In all, authorities found 27 people living in the two homes at 2820 Oaklawn Ave. in Largo and 2401 Havana Drive in Clearwater.

Investigators are looking at the possibility that the people were being forced to work at the Country Super Buffet at 5010 East Bay Drive, said special agent Dave Couvertier, a spokesman for the Tampa field office of the FBI.

No arrests were made, he said, but the investigation is ongoing.

Corporate filings with the state list the registered agent of the business as Jian Hui Wang, who also was renting the Largo home.

The people found at the homes are being treated as victims and were being interviewed Wednesday to determine the circumstances of their status in the United States, investigators said. Most are Hispanic and Asian, and all appear to be adults, Couvertier said.

The Salvation Army and World Relief are working to assist the people with housing, food and clothing, Couvertier said.

At the Largo address, 19 people were found.

“We noticed these big vans coming and going with all of these people,” said next-door neighbor Michelle Kramer. “They leave early in the morning and don’t get back until late at night, like midnight, sometimes 1 (a.m.).”

Kramer said “tons of people” lived at the home and they rarely communicated with neighbors. There are three bedrooms in each of the two units, she said.

Mike Modha, 45, of Lutz said the home belongs to his business partner, Akshay Patel. Modha, a Realtor, said Patel left him in charge of the property when he went to England to seek treatment for health problems more than 18 months ago.

Modha said he rented the duplex in January to Wang, whom he knew as Kenny. The rent is $1,300 and the lease says that six people can stay in each unit.

On the lease, Wang listed his employer as Royal Buffet at 9550 U.S. 19. in Port Richey. Modha said Wang told him he would use one duplex for himself and another for restaurant workers.

Except for one month, Wang always paid the rent on time Modha said.

“If they broke the law, they should be punished,” said Modha, himself an immigrant who came from Gujarat, India, 12 years ago.

In September, he and his wife became U.S. citizens.

At the Clearwater address, eight people were found.

Neighbors said the residents, who appeared to be Asian, had lived there since summer. Emily DeGarmo, 22, who lives across the street, said “they had a lot of people coming in and out.”

The home’s owner could not be reached for comment.

Early Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen FBI agents, Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies and other authorities were going in and out of the house. They carried items in brown paper evidence bags and in black and yellow bins.

“This specific situation should serve as what I refer to as a wake-up call to the folks in our local community,” Couvertier said. “It can happen anywhere. It’s not limited to this area.”

Human trafficking is a worldwide problem that usually takes the form of forced labor, domestic servitude or forced prostitution, the most common of the three. In the United States, it’s estimated that anywhere from a couple of thousand to several thousand people a year are victims of human trafficking, Couvertier said.

According to a 2009 draft of a report by the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University, labor trafficking is the most prevalent type of human trafficking in Florida.

A finalized 2010 version of the report, commissioned by the state Legislature, notes that Florida was the third-leading state, with 296 calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline in 2009.

Between May 2009 and June 2010, the state Department of Children and Families received reports of 156 trafficking incidents through its hotline. Of those, 22 cases were verified as trafficking, the report said.

Worldwide, 49,105 victims were identified in 2009, according to the 2010 Trafficking in Persons report published by the U.S. Department of State.

Officers with the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking said their investigation began several months ago with a tip from a source they declined to identify. During the investigation, they were able to gain intelligence that led to Wednesday’s search warrants.

Couvertier and Clearwater police spokeswoman Beth Watts said it’s important for people to be aware of what’s happening around them and to report suspicious activity.

“It will help us, hopefully, to rescue women, children and men brought in (to the United States) under the ruse of promises of a better life,” Couvertier said.

Unfortunately, Couvertier said, “They don’t know what’s waiting for them on the other side.”

Times staff writer Mike Brassfield and Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Suspect anything?

Clearwater police said some signs of human trafficking include large numbers of people living in the same home, people who seem abnormally withdrawn or afraid and indications people are being held against their will, such as locks on windows. Authorities ask that anyone who thinks they have come into contact with a victim of human trafficking in Pinellas, Pasco or Hillsborough counties to call the Clearwater/Tampa Bay Area Task Force on Human Trafficking hotline at (727) 562-4917. In other areas, contact the Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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