In November 2018 officers with the Tallahassee Police Department became aware of a young child that had been posted to a website advertising sex for money. Investigators with the Special Victims Unit set about to rescue the girl.
"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" Elizabeth Bascom of the Tallahassee Police Department, one of the lead investigators, was quoted as saying.
That girl's rescue is what sparked a two year long investigation dubbed "Stolen Innocence."
In a press release posted by the Tallahassee Police Department on November 17, the rescue of that first girl "uncovered an enormous amount of electronic evidence that required months to evaluate."
Analysis of that electronic evidence "helped investigators further develop the case and determine how many suspects were involved and to what extent." As a result, a total of 178 individuals have been arrested.
72 of those arrested have been charged with misdemeanors and 106 have been charged with felonies, 18 of those are facing federal charges.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat many of those arrests took place between July and mid-November.
"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, Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell said.
During the course of this investigation, TPD worked in partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Florida, the U.S. Marshal's Service, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State Attorney's Office and the Leon County Sheriff's Office.
“We in local, state and federal law enforcement are all working together as a team to dismantle their networks and to pursue, prosecute and punish those who are involved,” U.S. Attorney Larry Keefe said. “Operation Stolen Innocence is an excellent example of how all levels of law enforcement can put it all together and get it done, to take down a child trafficking network right here in our community.”
"It is difficult to comprehend the depravity of these criminals who prey on the most innocent in our society," Homeland Security Investigations Tampa Acting Special Agent in Charge Kevin Sibley said.
Human trafficking is a notoriously under-reported crime so accurate statistics concerning prevalence are difficult to nail down. But Tallahassee is now keenly aware that there is a problem in their own community.
"We know that it's going on here in our town," Revell said. "We know that we have to address it. We're committed to changing this, to have more and more positive impacts and rescue more and more children."
Revell revealed that each of the individuals charged so far can be tied directly to the first victim who is reportedly "on the road to recovery, and ... doing well given the situation." They have not ruled out the likelihood that there are more victims and are asking that anyone with information contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.