Over 170 arrested in 'unprecedented' child sex trafficking investigation

Demonstrators in Keene, New Hampshire, gather at a 'Save the Children Rally' to protest child sex trafficking and pedophilia around the world, on September 19, 2020.
Demonstrators in Keene, New Hampshire, gather at a "Save the Children Rally" to protest child sex trafficking and pedophilia around the world, on September 19, 2020. | AFP via Getty Images/Joseph Prezioso

Over 170 people have been charged in recent months as part of a two-year investigation uncovering a sex trafficking network in Florida that has led to an “unprecedented” number of arrests. 

With the help of state and federal authorities, the Tallahassee Police Department announced Tuesday the results of Operation Stolen Innocence, a secretive probe into the commercial trafficking of a teenaged girl that yielded dozens of arrests.

Charges range from solicitation of prostitution to human trafficking of a minor. An investigation began in Nov. 2018 when police investigators saw images of a child being posted on a website advertising sex for money. 

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“This investigation is a testament to how diligent our investigators work to enhance the quality of life for everyone in this community, especially our vulnerable population,” Police Chief Lawrence Revell said in a statement Tuesday. 

“They worked tirelessly to bring justice to the victim in this case and were able to make an unprecedented number of human trafficking-related arrests. I could not be prouder of the steadfast efforts of our investigators and the joint effort with our partners to stop the illegal and dehumanizing practice of human trafficking.”

The investigation uncovered an “enormous amount” of electronic evidence that required months to analyze but helped authorities to determine how many suspects were involved and to what extent they were involved. 

According to the department, 106 suspects were charged with felonies, while 72 face misdemeanors and notices to appear. Eighteen face federal charges. 

TPD chief Lawrence Revell said during a press conference that the operation was likely the largest of its kind in Tallahassee's history.

Among those netted were a local candidate for office, a teacher and a former chairman of the fundraising arm of Florida State University athletics, according to The Tallahassee Democrat

Operation Stolen Innocence started in 2018 when police spotted the girl, who was 13 at the time, in a sex-for-pay listing on the Internet.

Several federal agencies coordinated with local authorities to carry out the operation, including the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Florida, the U.S. Marshals Service.

“It is difficult to comprehend the depravity of these criminals who prey on the most innocent in our society,” said Deputy Special Agent Kevin Sibley, who leads the DHS investigations team in the Tampa area. “Thanks to the collective efforts of the Tallahassee Police Department and HSI special agents, our local communities are significantly safer today as a result of this investigation.”

Revell explained that the young girl whose exploitation led to all the arrests and charges is doing well given the circumstances and is “on the road to recovery."

At present, it is not clear how many of the cases will go to trial. However, one of the lead investigators in Tallahassee says the girl around whom this operation was launched does intend to testify about her experiences in court.

“She does have things to say,” Elizabeth Bascom of the Tallahassee Police Department, was quoted as saying by The Tallahassee Democrat. 

“She was able to say that this has seriously impacted her life, and it is very difficult at times. But she is working to get her life back.”

The announcement in Florida comes on the heels of series of rescue missions the U.S. Marshals have conducted across several U.S. states amid ongoing efforts to combat the sex trafficking of minors.

Late last month, the Department of Justice announced that 27 missing children were rescued in Virginia as part of a five-day law enforcement effort called "Operation Find Our Children.” 

In September, the U.S. Marshals reported that local and federal law enforcers rescued more than 70 missing minors nationwide since August as part of “Operation Homecoming."

In August, it was announced that during the first three weeks of "Operation Safety Net" in Ohio, 25 children, ranging in age from 13 to 18, were rescued.

Internationally, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement revealed that at least 113 alleged child sexual predators across the U.S. and South America have been arrested as part of Operation Protected Childhood. The operation was a joint effort of international law enforcement. Since 2017, the operation has resulted in at least 781 arrests and 1,383 executed search warrants. 

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