By Jamison Uhler on November 15, 2013—
“The story comes from the girl next door in Clearwater. A good student and good daughter, Crystal was close to her father.
But at age 15, as her dad was passing away from a terminal illness, a simple change of her online status update was all it took for a woman, who said she was 18, to prey on a vulnerable child.
“It basically started with the Internet,” says Crystal. “I ended up hanging out with this person. She seemed cool. She would take me to the hospital, she would drop me off. We’d hang out. We’d go to the beach just like a normal friend.”
But when Crystal’s father died, the Department of Children and Families came for her and she went running to her new friend. She hid in a house in one of Tampa’s rougher neighborhoods.
And then, that new friend had Crystal right where she wanted her. “I went to go call my brother and she knocked the phone out of my hand and punched me in the face,” says Crystal, now 22-years old. She says she was beaten repeatedly and was frightened.
Then, she says, the woman who later turned out to be 31 years old threatened to call DCF if Crystal tried to run. Just days before she was to enter the 9 th grade, Crystal says she was driven north to a rundown duplex in Atlantic City, NJ against her will. She recalls being led to a guarded basement with dirty mattresses on the floor and a handful of young girls.
She says all of them were held captive. “They were like 13, 14. One of them looked really young. I mean they never told me their age we were never really allowed to talk to each other because the guys would tell us we needed to shut up,” she recounts.
One day before her 16th birthday, Crystal was sold for the first time. $600 was the price her trafficker negotiated. Still a virgin, Crystal says was tied up as a man negotiated with her trafficker.
“He was asking her really weird stuff like if he could pee on me and if he could smack me, if he could choke me” she says.
FBI Special Agent Greg Christopher leads Tampa’s Innocence Lost Task Force. In just 5 years, he has helped rescue more than 100 children in the Bay Area who were being sold for sex.
Many are sold out of seedy Tampa motels or openly on websites like Backpage.com. The girls who are trafficked come from all walks of life. “We’re talking about kids in and out of foster homes, group homes that are recruited but we also have victims who come from stable families,” Christopher says.
Experts who deal with children who are sex trafficked say minors caught in the trade are groomed. Many are even brainwashed by the physical and sexual abuse.
The 20-25 girls Christopher rescues a year he says are just a fraction of how many kids like Crystal are out there hiding in the Bay Area’s dark underworld that people don’t want to know exists. “Some of our cases we have had victims that the cases were called in as child abductions, literally snatched up and abducted and forced into prostitution,” he says.
Estimates show nearly 300,000 children under the age of 18 are trafficked in the US every year. Statistics state Florida has the third most victims.
For Crystal, one final escape attempt in New Jersey was successful. 6 years later, she counsels some of the Bay Area girls like the ones Special Agent Greg Christopher helps rescue.
But some days her mind goes back to the girls in that basement in Atlantic City. “I’ve always wondered if they ever escaped or are they alive,” Crystal says. “where are they now?””
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