A two-year investigation in Florida concluded with nearly 180 arrests that were part of an extensive child sex trafficking network.

The Tallahassee Police Department announced Tuesday, Nov. 18, that Operation Stolen Innocence began in November 2018 when they followed the steps of the sexual exploitation of a teenage girl.

Department Chief Lawrence Revell told reporters the Special Victims Unit operation was probably the largest of its kind in the city’s history, with 106 people charged with felonies and 72 others charged with misdemeanors. Nineteen also face federal charges.

According to media reports, the sexual gatherings were organized through text messages, Facebook, and other social networks and applications, leaving a vast electronic trail of evidence that investigators took months to unravel.

“The investigation uncovered an enormous amount of electronic evidence that required months to evaluate,” the department stated in a press release.

“The electronic evidence helped investigators further develop the case and determine how many suspects were involved and to what extent,” it explained about the highly secret investigation into the commercial sex trafficking of the girl, who was approximately 13 years old when the alleged crimes began.

The girl, who had been found in an internet sex-for-pay advertisement, helped investigators in their effort to bring the defendants to justice.

Revell said the girl is “on the road to recovery,” and “doing well given the situation.”

Child trafficking involves the manipulation of a child or forcing a child to perform some type of work or commercial sex act. The basis of human trafficking is the clients, those accused of misdemeanors for soliciting prostitution.

“It is difficult to comprehend the depravity of these criminals who prey on the most innocent in our society,” said Kevin Sibley, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Tampa.

According to The Tallahassee Democrat, numerous agencies worked with police in the investigation:The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State Attorney’s Office, and the Leon County Sheriff’s Office.

Revell noted that by working together, all of these departments were able to make “an unprecedented number of human trafficking related arrests.”

“We know it’s going on in our community. We need to address this and we know it takes state and federal partners,” Revell said.

“I know it’s hard to believe that something like this happens here in our community,” veteran prosecutor and State Attorney’s Office Felony Chief Lorena Vollrath-Bueno added. “But it does.” 

She said that approximately 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year and that the human trafficking industry is worth approximately $150 billion worldwide.

Tallahassee police also noted that an estimated 199,000 incidents occur in the United States each year. Florida is among the top five states with the highest number of reported cases.

“The exact numbers … are hard to define because human trafficking, like many crimes, lives in the dark,” acknowledged Vollrath-Bueno.

“Children with low visibility in the community, unstable home lives, mental health issues, drug issues, frequent runaways, are most at risk,” she described. “I say ‘most’ because any child can be at risk,” she warned.

Police said they will not give details of individual cases or anything that could identify a victim, but urged anyone with more information to contact the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

Some of the most common ways to recognize a potential trafficking victim are: The person appears malnourished; shows signs of physical injury or abuse; avoids eye contact, social interaction, and law enforcement; has no official identification or personal possessions; and is never far from people.