Pasco County, Fla. — Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said a 16-year-old girl faced "evil" during a two-week human trafficking ordeal in November that crossed into Hernando County and led to the arrest of a dozen suspects. 

"It's a very sad case," said Nocco. 

What You Need To Know

  • The Pasco County Sheriff's Office arrested 12 people in connection to the trafficking of a 16-year-old girl

  • The teen is now in protective custody

  • Co-founder of the nonprofit Selah Freedom, which works to help trafficking survivors, said while Florida ranks third nationwide for human trafficking, she believes progress has been made in identifying and addressing it

  • One trafficking survivor said she wants those yet to escape to know there is hope and people who are willing to help. She urges the public to report any suspected trafficking cases

According to the sheriff's office, the teen ran away from her aunt's home in New Port Richey on Nov. 21.

Nocco said she was on her way to the home of Steven Graham, 43. The sheriff's office said Graham cleaned her aunt's pool and began having sex with the teen in June. On her way to Graham's house, she was reportedly picked up by Mark Poore, 60, a registered sex offender.

"This guy shouldn't have been on our streets," Nocco said.

The sheriff said Poore bought her breakfast and paid her $40 for sex. Between then and Dec. 4, the teen encountered a series of people that forced her into human trafficking and other acts. According to the sheriff's office, the girl told investigators she did these things because she needed food and shelter. 

"These are chance encounters. This is not like these were set-ups. This is a young, 16-year-old girl, totally intoxicated, totally on drugs, totally wasted, wandering around a motel, and these individuals, instead of doing the right thing, take advantage of this young girl," Nocco said.

"I think when you look at the details of that case, it's all too common, unfortunately," said Laurie Swink, co-founder of the nonprofit Selah Freedom. "There's a lot of people out there who are traffickers, pedophiles, manipulators who are taking advantage of someone that they should be protecting."

Selah Freedom provides a range of services to trafficking survivors, as well as those aimed at ending trafficking for good. Swink said Florida ranks third in the nation for human trafficking. She said it's prevalent in Tampa Bay for a number of reasons, including the large number of people who visit from out of town and the number of strip clubs throughout the area, which she said fosters trafficking.

"But then also, we are getting better at identifying it," said Swink. "It may seem like the numbers are going up, but I think rather what's happening is it's finally being identified, and it's finally being addressed."

According to Selah Freedom, signs of possible trafficking include signs or history of emotional, sexual or physical abuse or sexually transmitted diseases, the appearance of expensive clothes or gifts that can't be explained, the presence of an older boyfriend or girlfriend, and a minor in the company of a controlling third party. 

Mia Braddock, 27, said for a long time, she didn't consider herself part of that group. 

"My view of sex trafficking looked like it had to be a kidnapping. It didn't happen here. It happened across seas," said Braddock. 

Braddock said she was first trafficked as a teen in Jacksonville.

"As far back as I can remember, I struggled with self esteem," she said. "When I was introduced into this lifestyle at the age of 17, I thought that I kind of had found my place in the world. I found something I was good at, I could mean something to somebody, and it kind of spiraled from there."

Braddock said that spiral included addiction and homelessness. She said she was 20 years old when she met her last trafficker.

"I spent two years being absolutely terrified that I would never make it out of the situation. He was very physically abusive, verbally abusive," she said.

She escaped and connected with Selah Freedom, where she works today as a prevention advocate and survivor mentor.

"When I'm talking to youth and adults, I'll tell them there was no Selah Freedom when I was growing up. There was nobody that came in and said, 'This can happen this way.' So, if I can do that for somebody, it's such a blessing, honestly. It's amazing to have a purpose for some of the things I went through. I get to be a mother today. I have a daughter who's about to turn 16 months. I'm in a healthy relationship for the first time ever. I get to be a daughter, I get to be a friend. I get to do all of these things that I didn't think were possible," Braddock said. 

Braddock encourages those who may be caught up in trafficking not to give up and wants them to know there are people out there who can help. 

Despite ranking third nationwide, Swink said she's optimistic that Florida can become a state that others look to in addressing the issue of human trafficking.

"With working with the judicial system, working with law enforcement and working with service providers, all of us coming together to make the difference for these people who are experiencing these horrific crimes," Swink said.

Everyone Spectrum Bay News 9 spoke with for this story stressed how important it is for the public to report suspected human trafficking. To do so, call the Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888 or Selah Freedom at 1-888-8-FREE-ME.

Sheriff Nocco said the investigation into the trafficking case is ongoing. PCSO said the girl involved is in protective custody. Charges for those arrested so far include human trafficking, unlawful sex with a minor and use of a child in a sexual performance.