Engaging the community, Collier Sheriff fights to end human trafficking

Sex trafficking is a nearly $100 billion global industry. Law enforcement in Southwest Florida is doing its part to track down traffickers and help rescue victims that need it the most.

“I really believed that no one was ever gonna help me,” said Krista Hicks, a human trafficking survivor.

Feeling hopeless, alone and just a teen, Hicks said she was raped when she was 13-years-old and later trafficked in Fort Myers for sex and labor. Now, she devotes her life to helping other young survivors as executive director at One More Child Anti-Trafficking in Central Florida.

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“I am shocked that I get to sit here; I’m shocked at this beautiful life I get to live,” Hicks said. “And it shouldn’t be so shocking. This should be where we, as a community, bond together to face this injustice and face it in a way that my story becomes the norm.”

Making turnaround stories, like Hick’s, the norm is something Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk strives to achieve. His office launched Florida’s first federally funded human trafficking unit in 2005.

“I don’t want just one unit looking at human trafficking,” Rambosk said.

He wants all deputies on alert and trained to spot human trafficking. His goal is to make a rescue instead of an arrest when trafficking victims are identified.

“A lot of people believe young ladies chose prostitution as a way of life,” Rambosk said. “We’re not seeing that, in fact we’re seeing just the opposite. We’re seeing that young ladies have been duped, coerced, addicted to drugs, and forced to participate through prostitution but it’s all for money.

“It’s making money,” Rambosk said. “This is an organized criminal enterprise.”

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Sheriff Rambosk drives home that message when speaking to community groups throughout Collier County as he said it is modern enslavement. The sheriff’s office is counting on the public to be its extra set of eyes and ears.

CCSO Human Trafficking Unit Sgt. Wade Williams also speaks out in the community. He said they are more likely to solve crimes by talking to witnesses and receiving tips from the public than using DNA or fingerprints, which are highlighted in popular crime shows like CSI.

Since 2014, the sheriff’s office has investigated 98 human trafficking cases making 20 arrests, including this case.

The small number of arrests pertain to the complexity of the cases. The victims have numerous vulnerabilities and that can significantly affect their ability to work with law enforcement.

The victim’s trafficker may have gotten him or her addicted to drugs. Then, there is the trauma bond with the trafficker and it is challenging to gain the victim’s trust, which they need to move forward with an arrest and a prosecution.

RELATED: Human trafficking victim uses her tragedy to help others

One case that did end in a conviction is Gary Cherelus, who plead guilty 2016 and is serving 20 years for sex trafficking.

“He was running basically a brothel out of his house,” Sgt. Williams said.

The case ended in a conviction, but bringing the trafficker to justice is not their only priority. The big challenge is to also meet the needs of the victims.

They work closely with non-profits organizations, like David Lawrence Center and the Shelter for Abused Women and Children in Naples, to build trust with victims as well as to help authorities to move forward with a case.

Also, working closely with non-profits gives the survivor the tools to move forward with a new life. That is something Hicks applauds.

“Today we have law enforcement here in Southwest Florida, Collier County, Central Florida, who do listen,” Hicks said. “I think girls and boys are more willing to reach out more than ever before.”

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If you or someone you know may be a victim of sex trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Author: Special Projects Reporter Teri Evans / Online Story Written by Michael Mora
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