BELLEAIR — The 20-year-old woman with the bright eyes and curly brown hair was dancing at a Miami strip club when she met him.
She had been sexually abused as a child growing up in foster care and yearned for love, affection, attention.
He gave it to her, at first.
She agreed to move with him to Cleveland. The first night in the new city, the man told her to change her clothes. He had a job for her to do.
“That night changed my life,” she said.
For the next four years, the woman was forced to prostitute herself in cars, alleyways and cheap motels.
The woman, whom the St. Petersburg Times is not identifying, shared her story with a rapt audience of about 125 people Tuesday at a fundraising luncheon for the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators at the Belleair Country Club. Law enforcement authorities at the fundraiser say the woman’s story is a classic case of human trafficking.
Gregory Christopher, a special agent with the FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force, said the agency recovered about 30 juvenile victims in the Tampa Bay area last year who were forced into prostitution.
“We have an endless supply of victims in this area, unfortunately,” he said. “A lot of them are runaways or foster kids.”
But children aren’t the only victims. Just last month, a multijurisdictional task force found 27 people living in two homes in Largo and Clearwater. Authorities say they believe the people, adults from Latin American and Asian countries, were being forced to work in a Largo restaurant. That investigation is ongoing.
In the United States, the FBI estimates that several thousand people a year may be victims of human trafficking, which can include sexual exploitation, domestic servitude or forced labor.
Tuesday’s luncheon was sponsored by the Zonta Club of Pinellas County, a group dedicated to women’s rights issues. Founders of the nonprofit IAHTI, which was formed in October 2009, said their intention is to help human trafficking investigators worldwide to share resources, intelligence and investigative techniques in cases that often cross jurisdictional boundaries.
One goal is to educate the public to recognize signs of human trafficking, such as multiple people living in the same home, indications of people being held against their will such as bars or locks on windows, or people exhibiting excessive fear, anxiety or intimidation.
Part of the challenge for law enforcement is that victims are often threatened by their captors so they don’t report the crime, said IAHTI executive director Jeremy Lewis, who founded the association along with Clearwater police Detective James McBride.
“It’s the community who’s actually going to find or identify the victims and bring it to our attention so we can investigate,” Lewis said.
The woman who spoke at the luncheon, now 34, said she never reported the abuse to police because her main concern was “getting out of there.”
But before she got the chance, she spent four years crisscrossing the country with her pimp, forced to sell her body in more than a dozen states.
“I worked seven days a week … 11 at night to 8 the next morning,” she said. “I couldn’t keep track of how many men I was servicing.”
The man who said he would take care of her cursed her instead. Through years of manipulation, she was scared to leave him, she said, afraid of what he would do to her and worried she wouldn’t be able to care for herself. But she finally escaped when the man abandoned her for a couple of weeks in Las Vegas in January 2001, she said.
“I am set free of that life. I’m no longer a victim. I’m a survivor,” she told the crowd Tuesday.