Two people arrested and charged with the human trafficking of 16 and 17-year-old girls at North Monroe Street hotels last week caught the eyes of the community and human trafficking experts, who say the case may be part of a larger enterprise in Tallahassee.
"I would take this as a literal tip of the iceberg," said Robin Hassler Thompson, a Tallahassee attorney and consultant with the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State.
"Sex trafficking is far more prevalent than people understand," she said. "It's out there, it flies under the radar, it's completely clandestine and secret."
In 2013, Florida ranked third behind only California and Texas for the most calls made to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center with 1,722. About 31 percent of the victims nationwide were children.
The arrest of Derek Reddick and Christine Thurman is evidence that human trafficking is a reality in our area, said Meg Baldwin, executive director of Refuge House.
"I think it's fair to view the arrest over the weekend as symptomatic of a larger problem," said Baldwin, whose organization provides counseling to victims of sexual violence and human trafficking.
On May 23, a 16-year-old Georgia girl was found inside the La Quinta Inn on North Monroe Street with Yichun Han, 61, of Tallahassee. Both were nude when officers with the Tallahassee Police Department arrived.
Han told police he used Backpage.com to pay for sex several times a week and with this girl in particular on more than one occasion.
The girl's circumstances seemed similar to that of a 17-year-old Boynton Beach girl who was found working as a prostitute at the Super 8 motel just down the street in late January.
Members of the Big Bend Coalition Against Human Trafficking, including investigators with the TPD, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigations, had been following Thurman and Reddick in connection to both girls, leading to their arrests.
The reasons young girls and boys get caught up in human trafficking operations vary, but often they have difficult home lives and are seeking the promise of something better.
In these cases, both girls had left home. In the case of the girl from Thomasville, she left her house with the understanding she would babysit Thurman's children in Destin.
"They are preyed upon by these pimps and traffickers who promise to love them and take care of them," Thompson said.
Vulnerable children, particularly adolescents, are perfect victims for the crime, Baldwin said. Some are pushed out of their homes by their parents or simply have no safe place to go and end up on the street, leading to a life of prostitution. Those forced into prostitution often are the victims of sexual abuse themselves.
"The majority of them began to experience sexual exploitation before the age of 18," Baldwin said,. "Many of the women who come to us after the age of 18 have been enmeshed in a system of exploitation for quite a while."
Some people have the misconception that foreigners are more likely to be victims of human trafficking in the United States, but as in the most recent cases, experts say that's just not true.
"In our region, the majority of prostitution both involving minors and women are U.S citizens," Baldwin said. "This is historically the pattern."
In 2013, more than 1,900 victims reported to the NHTRC were U.S. citizens.
Ralph Bradley, special agent in charge with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Tallahassee, said the North Monroe Street corridor is a hub for this type of crime.
In the case of the 17-year-old from Boynton Beach, investigators found that her movements may not have been limited to Tallahassee. Ads for her were also posted in Thomasville, Pensacola and Panama City.
"It's easy access. It's right off the interstate, there are a number of hotels that are up there that are available for use. I think it's more of a convenience factor," Bradley said.
Investigators, Bradley said, are still looking into the matter to see if the local human trafficking and the prostitution operations may involve others.
"Is this a one-time opportunity or are we dealing with a group of individuals that recruit young women?" asked Bradley. "If it reveals that it's an organization, then we're going to expand and try our best to find those other participants."
"It can be simply just a prostitute and a pimp that's working," he added. "But in this regard, since we've got two victims, we've got two violators, we believe that there may be others out there that we're going to continue to investigate."
In addition to the teens, two other violent confrontations at the Econo Lodge on North Monroe Street involved women working as prostitutes with Backpage ads.
On May 1, a man was found shot to death in an Econo Lodge motel room. An Alabama woman, Amber Ward, 18, was arrested in his murder. On May 19, a woman with a Backpage ad was beaten with a baseball bat and sexually assaulted outside of the same motel.
"The Internet has been an incredible facilitator of this type of crime," Thompson said. "The more the Internet is used, the more this is happening."
Officer David Northway, TPD spokesman, offered a warning to those who may be using the site to solicit sex.
"We are aware that the Backpage site does exist and if you're using it for illegal activities, you should probably stop because it may be a cop on the other end of the line," he said.