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Crime & Courts

Strip clubs battle sex trafficking

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Published:   |   Updated: January 12, 2014 at 12:49 PM

The young Pinellas County woman gasped and wept as she told investigators how she had been forced into sexual slavery at a strip club that had been effectively seized by gangsters.

“The owner just let them walk in with guns and everything,” she said. “He had no control over his own club. They kind of took over because of the money I made. I made $1,800 there almost every night. If you think about what I was made to do, it was disgusting.

Her voice became more emotional.

“It disgusts me, but I knew if I didn't bring that money home, it like was after a while, it became competition. I wanted daddy to be proud of me. And it's sad, but it's true.”

If she didn't bring that money home, she said, “I'd get yelled at. I'd get shoved around. I'd get choked up ... . He would come in in the middle of the night and just force himself on me no matter how many times I said no. It didn't matter.”

The federal agent reassured her. “Take a deep breath. You're safe now. You're with us. Here's a tissue. Take a deep breath.”

For Homeland Security Investigations agent Bill Williger, the interview helps explain what human trafficking is all about.

Two years ago, Williger played the recording to a roomful of strippers and adult club owners who had gathered to talk about fighting modern-day slavery.

The interview resonated with a lot of dancers in the room and helped break the ice, Williger said. When the recording was over, “there was hardly a dry eye in the house.”

It marked the beginning locally of an unlikely alliance between federal agents and the thriving adult entertainment industry, which was looking to help save lives while also distancing itself from the public association it has with human trafficking.

After being approached by sex club owners and operators with a proposal to work with authorities, Homeland Security Investigations held the training session in Tampa two years ago and plans another one Tuesday.

Williger has taught dancers and club owners where the line is between lawful behavior and human trafficking. And dancers have taught him how their industry works and given tips about possible crimes.

Strip clubs and other adult establishments in the Tampa area have a history of tension with law enforcement.

But gone are the days of law enforcement crackdowns and the notorious six-foot rule, a legally enforced requirement that dancers keep their distance from patrons.

Now, “I'm talking to people about sex trafficking that take their clothes off for a living,” Williger said.

The alliance was the brainchild of adult entertainment industry honchos, including Angelina Spencer, a former dancer and club owner who lives in Naples and now serves as spokeswoman for the Association of Club Executives and runs the Sunshine Entertainment Association.

Industry officials had seen a lot of publicity and legislation linking human trafficking to their business. They said they wanted to educate their members, as well as allay misconceptions about what really was happening.

Spencer said some legislators sought to put onerous requirements on nightclubs, including the six-foot rule.

“What the hell?” Spencer said about the idea. “Are you kidding me? How does this help with human trafficking?”

So industry officials started asking questions. Everybody said human trafficking was a problem in strip clubs, but really, she said, sex trafficking is everywhere.

“It's a growing problem in almost every industry,” she said. “It isn't a strip club problem. It's a U.S. problem. If you're not taught what to look for, you'll never find it.”

So the officials approached federal law enforcement agencies.

“If you're saying we're the problem, show us the facts,” Spencer recalled the club owners saying. “Give me the arrest reports of all the people in the adult entertainment industry. These clubs should be shut down today if that's the case.”

The club owners formed an organization, Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking, or COAST, and proposed a partnership with law enforcement to address any problems and possibly save lives.

At first, they were greeted with skepticism.

“Nobody wants to have a kumbaya moment with this industry,” Spencer said. “We get it. Some people find it intuitively noxious.”

Homeland Security officials resisted at first because “they didn't want to be the law enforcement agency that was dealing with strip clubs,” Williger said. The FBI, he said, declined to participate.

“We were met with a lot of folded arms,” Spencer said, “and 'You want to do what? And there were moments when I thought we were going to be thrown out of offices. We weren't the most well received group.”

At the same time, Williger said, investigators recognize that they often have to work with informants who aren't exactly church deacons. Moreover, strippers and club operators are “our target audience because a lot of the victims we encountered are dancers or they worked in some way, shape or form in the entertainment industry,” he said.

Eventually, Homeland Security signed off on a training session in St. Louis, and the idea caught on and spread to other parts of the country.

When headquarters sent word to Tampa that agents were to meet with local industry officials, Williger said he, too, was skeptical. “We just didn't know what they wanted,” Williger said. This is an industry that has traditionally kept law enforcement at arm's length. And now they were asking to meet.

But he said his skepticism fell away when he met with Spencer and others, including Don Kleinhans, owner of 2001 Odyssey.

The subsequent training session was so successful that Williger asked for the follow-up that's planned for Tuesday.

Kleinhans says human trafficking is not so much a problem in strip clubs, it's more of an issue for smaller, seedier places, including some massage parlors. “We need to get the word out to let people know the real truth,” Kleinhans said.

In his 18 years owning the Odyssey, Kleinhans said he's seen only a couple of incidents that could have been sex trafficking, like a dancer showing up with a man who appears to be controlling her.

“There's just a misnomer,” he said. “When people hear the word sex trafficking, they immediately try to associate it with adult entertainment of any kind ... . We're extremely proactive. Especially since that training, we now look even harder.”

The Odyssey and other clubs now have posters on the walls of employee areas with information on warning signs of human trafficking and how to report tips to law enforcement.

Williger estimates more than 150 people showed up for the first local training, most of them dancers. He said there was even a pimp there, but when he started talking, the pimp slinked away.

Williger said he was initially afraid to give this particular presentation.

“It's like all of a sudden, the roles were reversed,” he said.

“When we first found out about it, it was like, oh cool, I get to present to a bunch of strippers. But as the days got closer, it was like, oh my God, I have to present to a bunch of strippers.”

The sessions opened lines of communications. Williger said he's gotten investigation tips and intelligence on what is happening in human trafficking.

“I think one of the biggest things that we've gathered from this is the uptick in not only prescription pill abuse, but the traffickers using prescription pills to control their victims,” Williger said.

Shortly after the training session, Kleinhans said, a “dirt ball guy” showed up at the Odyssey driving an expensive car, acting like he owned the place. “He would have a couple of girls go to clubs and just take their money.” He tried to convince the dancers that he controlled the clubs and had say over whether they would be allowed to dance.

The man was thrown out of the Odyssey, Kleinhans said. And Kleinhans called Williger.

“It worked out good for us,” Kleinhans said. “Nobody would ever have thought to look for signs of things like that.”

“It was a fantastic tip,” Williger said. “There were a lot of human trafficking indicators. A lot.”

But he wasn't able to find enough evidence to prove it in court. The man was charged with an unrelated crime in state court, and Williger had to let it go with that.

“It was one of those things where he's in custody,” Williger said. “Nobody's in danger. I have to now shift gears. I've got people who are in danger from people who aren't in custody.”

Other tips have resulted in investigations that are still ongoing. Two people were arrested in Clearwater last May after an investigation that began with tips from strippers, Williger said.

Peter Kitt, 41, and Shawn Franklin, 42 were charged with racketeering and conspiracy, accused of forcing 16 women into prostitution by sexually assaulting them, beating them and threatening to kill them, officials said. Their case is still pending.

One of Tampa's most well-known strip club owners, Joe Redner, attended the seminar and supports the efforts. But he says human trafficking is not a problem at his Mons Venus. “I don't think it's a problem in reputable adult businesses,” he said.

“We make a lot of money without any sex trafficking or anything like that, which we wouldn't want to do anyway because it's slavery,” Redner said. “But still, it doesn't make financial sense, which most people understand. It's financial sense instead of morals.”

Williger said mainstream clubs like the Odyssey and Mons Venus generally don't have issues with trafficking, although they may see freelancers come in like the man Kleinhans reported.

But some smaller, seedier clubs have been taken over by traffickers, in some instances with the consent of the owners and at other times without their knowledge, he said.

With agents working with entertainment industry officials all over the country now, Spencer said, “we've actually trained over 4,000 people in the industry in about 28 cities from 227 different clubs.

She said the alliance in Tampa stands out as “exemplary.” Williger, she said, “gives one of the best presentations that I've ever seen ... He makes people think he believes you shouldn't sugar coat human trafficking.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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