A two-year-long investigation into the sexual exploitation of a teenage girl has led to the arrest of 178 people in Florida in one of the biggest child sex trafficking busts ever, the Tallahassee Police Department announced on Tuesday. The department recently concluded the highly secretive operation, called 'Operation Stolen Innocence', involving human trafficking and child sex trafficking right within the Capital City community.

According to the Tallahassee Police Department, 18 people in the state capital face federal charges, 106 were charged with felonies and 72 suspects were charged with misdemeanors. Child sex trafficking has been on the rise in the United States in recent years, with Florida ranking third in the number.

Lost Innocence

Child Abuse
Representational Image Pixabay

According to the Tallahassee Police Department chief Lawrence Revell, 'Operation Stolen Innocence' was launched after the image of a 13-year-old girl was found on a prostitution website that advertises sex for money. That was in November 2018. Police set up a Special Victims Unit to rescue the child to ensure her safety.

However, the rescue operations opened up a can of worms leading to a larger racket involving large-scale child sex trafficking. Since then police have arrested 178 people, with charges ranging from solicitation of prostitution to human trafficking of a minor. Police said all suspects are from the southeast region, spanning all the way to Mississippi and Alabama.

Revell appreciated the efforts of the police department for successfully cracking such a big case. "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. 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," Chief Lawrence Revell said in a statement.

Highly Secretive Operation

Child abuse in Malaysia
Child abuse (Representational Picture) Reuters

The investigators also uncovered "an enormous amount of electronic evidence," according to Tallahassee police. Poring through the evidence took months and for a long time police didn't even acknowledge that such an investigation was going on.

However, the police did not release any specifics on individual cases to prevent from identifying any of the victims. In most cases, the meetings were arranged over text messages, Facebook and other social media and apps.

As for the girl, whose investigation led to the operation, a number of defendants told investigators during sworn interviews that the girl's mother wouldn't allow anyone to have sex with her unless they brought money or drugs, according to police reports.

Those arrested include a former write-in candidate for local office, a P.E. teacher and a former chairman of the Seminole Boosters, Inc., a fundraising arm for Florida State University athletics. There are also several women who were arrested and charged with helping to arrange paid "plays" with the girl in exchange for cash.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, around 199,000 incidents of human trafficking occur annually in the United States, with Florida ranking third in the number of reported cases behind California and Texas, according to the Florida Department of Health.