The operation, called “Stolen Innocence,” which began in November 2018, wrapped up on Tuesday — and those allegedly involved face charges ranging from solicitation of prostitution to human trafficking of a minor, the Tallahassee Police Department said in a press release.
It began when department investigators spotted images of a child posted on a website that advertises sex for money, authorities said. The girl was 13 and 14 when most of the alleged offenses occurred — but the abuse may have begun even before her 13th birthday, Elizabeth Bascom, one of the lead investigators, told The Tallahassee Democrat.
A total of 72 suspects were charged with misdemeanors and notices to appear, and 106 people were hit with felony charges — 18 of those being charged federally, according to authorities.
Those swept up in the investigation include a former chairman of the Seminole Boosters, Inc., a fundraising arm for Florida State University Athletics, a former write-in candidate for local office, and a physical education teacher, according to the Democrat.
The former chairman, Doug Russell, a longtime lobbyist, was arrested in Sept. 2019 and charged with solicitation of prostitution, the paper reported at the time.
His attorney, Richard Greenberg, filed a notice stating that his client had waived his arraignment, pleaded not guilty and would seek a trial by jury, according to the report.
The State Attorney’s Office agreed to drop the charge if Russell complies with the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement — which stipulates that he must refrain from any violations of law, provide any necessary information to prosecutors, pay a $100 fee and get tested for STDs, the outlet reported.
Jermaine Miller, who was an official write-in candidate for Tallahassee City Commission, was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior involving a child under 16, the outlet reported in July.
And Brian Winsett, 51, who taught PE at Woodville PK-8 School, was arrested on multiple counts including lewd and lascivious behavior and solicitation for protitution, according to police and another July report.
He was placed on administrative leave as a result, Leon County Schools spokesman Chris Petley told the Democrat.
Both Miller and Winsett were also charged with unlawful use of a communication device in furtherance of the crime, authorities said.
Several women were also allegedly involved, charged with helping to arrange paid “plays” with the teen in exchange for cash, according to the report.
The teen was rescued by the police department’s Special Victims Unit, and cooperated in efforts to bring charges against those who allegedly exploited her, the outlet reported.
She is “on the road to recovery, and she’s doing well given the situation,” Elizabeth Bascom, one of the lead investigators, told the local paper.
“She does have things to say,” Bascom said. “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.”
A number of defendants claimed in sworn interviews that the girl’s mother wouldn’t allow anyone to have sex with her teenage daughter unless they came with drugs or money, according to police reports obtained by the Democrat.
A police spokeswoman could not confirm to the Post Wednesday whether the teen’s mother was involved in the network in any capacity.
Some of the defendants described the encounters taking place inside a filthy apartment, as well as various hotels and motels, according to the report.
Social media, including Facebook, as well as apps and text messages, were used to arrange the meetings — creating a long trail of electronic evidence, the outlet reported.
Federal authorities were also involved in the investigation.
“[Our investigators] worked tirelessly to bring justice to the victim in this case and were able to make an unprecedented number of human trafficking related arrests,” Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell said in a statement. “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.”