The Tallahassee Police Department arrested 178 people allegedly linked to a sex-trafficking network after a two-year investigation.
Officials charged over 100 people with felonies, such as lewd battery on a child under 16, human trafficking, and production and possession of child pornography, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. An additional 72 people face misdemeanor charges, such as the solicitation of prostitution.
Police Chief Lawrence Revell and federal officials announced the findings from a secret investigation dubbed Operation Stolen Innocence that initially looked into the sexual exploitation of a girl who was allegedly assaulted when she was 13 and 14.
“We know it’s going on in our community,” Revell said. “We need to address this, and we know it takes state and federal partners.”
Police said the solicitors, referred to as Johns, came largely from the southeastern region of the country, including Mississippi and Alabama. The Johns were said to be of a variety of ages, races, and economic backgrounds.
Some of the Johns revealed in the investigation reportedly include a former write-in candidate for local office and a physical education teacher. Some of the defendants were women, who were charged with helping to set up “plays” with the girl for money.
The investigation began in late 2018 after investigators identified the girl in an online sex-for-pay listing.
The police department’s special victims unit set out to rescue the girl and helped cooperate in the efforts to bring the charges.
Elizabeth Bascom, one of the lead investigators for Tallahassee Police Department, said the victim’s exploitation was “horrific” and that abuse likely began before her 13th birthday.
“This was a child, 13 turning 14 … who worked through her birthday as if it did not exist, who worked through Thanksgiving while we sat at tables and enjoyed our families, who worked through Christmas like it wasn’t even there,” Bascom said.
Revell said the girl is working on recovery and doing well. The victim is expected to testify in court, but it’s unclear how many cases will go to trial.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there have been nearly 900 cases of human trafficking incidents reported in Florida this year.