Two local cases highlight the problem of teenage girls being sold as sex slaves in Central Florida.
Police in Orlando say a 14-year-old trafficking victim was murdered in one of them. The FBI and Orlando police arrested Avorice Jeno Holman Jr., 19, and Jose Ignacio Santiago Sotomayor, 22, accused of the teen's murder in an Orlando sex trafficking ring. Both are charged with nine counts, including first-degree murder, human trafficking of a child, procurement of a child for prostitution with death and possession of child pornography.
The other case is closer still to home for the Bay area. A Tampa man was arrested for soliciting sex from a girl on the website Backpage. Federal prosecutors say James Manning will spend the next decade in prison for trying to have sex with a 14-year-old girl who advertised online - but who was actually a sting set up by the FBI.
Police and the court system say the sentences prove they’re cracking down on these unthinkable child sex crimes.
“This was a child who lost her life because someone wanted to make money,” says Niki Cross.
Years ago, Cross survived the torture that investigators say the 14-year-old Orlando girl did not. “The drugging, the beatings,” Cross says.
Police say the men and others held the Orlando victim and her 15-year-old sister captive for eight days as part of a sex trafficking ring. The girls were drugged with over-the-counter cold medicine and Xanax and forced to have sex with men at gunpoint until, investigators say, the 14-year-old fatally overdosed.
“They gave the drugs to the girls in order for them to forget about having sex with men,” says an Orlando investigator.
“There's no excuse anymore for people to turn their head and look the other way,” Cross says.
More proof that it's happening and there's demand in the Bay area: the conviction of 25-year-old James Manning. Authorities say Manning responded to a Backpage ad in which a man supposedly was offering up his girlfriend's 14-year-old daughter for sex. In online chats, Manning describes what he wants to do to the girl, that he’s willing to pay the $200 hourly rate and bring condoms.
investigators say when Manning showed up at a Tampa RV park, he paid up and promised not do anything weird to the 14-year-old. Once inside the motor home, though, federal agents, not a girl, greeted him. The 10-year sentence, feds say, is setting a new precedent.
“We're starting to get the convictions that are saying 'we won't tolerate it,'” Cross says.
A new state law, enacted in October, sets harsher penalties for sex trafficking, which prosecutors say toughens the charges for the Orlando suspects.HB 545 prohibits people under 18 from being prosecuted for prostitution and makes clear that sexually exploiting a child in prostitution should be viewed as human trafficking.
The measure also increases the penalty for people who knowingly rent space used for prostitution.
Cross says it's a needed step, but more has to be done to help keep kids safe.
“We need more education in the schools," she says. "We need more safe houses. We need more funding for safe houses. I don't know how many more funerals I can stand going to, because we're missing something.”
She founded STAAR Ministry, an organization that helps hundreds of women yearly who have been victims of abuse, exploitation and sex trafficking.
If you suspect a child is a victim of sex trafficking, call the Florida Abuse Hotline: 1-800-962-2873 or report it online at https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us/
Tips for parents to talk with kids about human trafficking are available here:
Cross has written about her painful journey from abuse, kidnapping, and assault to healing in a book, “Like Daddy Used to Say…”