ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - St. Petersburg police are warning families to pay attention to their children following an eight-month-long investigation into human trafficking involving two teenaged boys.
On Monday afternoon, St. Petersburg police, along with Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, announced the arrest of five men and a woman for human trafficking. Police said they charged Mark Earl Dennis and his husband Andrew Barry Dennis, Michael Ray Blasdel, JR Gauthier, Michael Wayne Schwartz and Eleanor Faye McGlamory with conspiracy to commit human trafficking and interference with custody.
Mark Dennis, Andrew Dennis, Blasdel and Gauthier are also charged with sexual battery with a child under 16.
Investigators were still looking for the seventh suspect, Curtis Lee Gruwell, who faces charges of human trafficking and interference with custody. But he turned himself in to police early Tuesday.
Police said they became aware of the case in May 2018 when Louisiana authorities reached out about a missing 17-year-old boy believed to be in St. Petersburg. Investigators said the child was lured away from his family through a gaming app called Discord, which allowed the suspects to talk directly to the child and arrange for him to be picked up from his home and brought to a mobile home on 24th Street North.
“That’s scary, isn’t it? And to think it was next door. It’s sad. It really is,” said Lois White, who lives next door to the house where the crime occurred.
When the 17-year-old boy arrived to the mobile home, police said four of the suspects were already living with and holding captive a 16-year-old boy for nearly a year. Investigators said the suspects had introduced him to sadomasochism and used him as a sex slave.
The 16-year-old had been lured from his Marion County home by an acquaintance of his family, McGlamory, who promised him a better life, police said. In May 2017, when he was 15 years old and went missing, the boy’s mother found a note from her son saying not to look for him, investigators said.
Both children were removed from the mobile home in May 2018.
“You would not think that you live in Florida, it’s an ideal place to live work and raise a family. We all know that, and yet we have the third highest incidents of human trafficking in the nation,” said Ashley Moody, the attorney general of Florida and whose office is handling the case.
Investigators and victim advocates said it’s very common for children to be lured by family, family friends, or through gaming apps and other social media apps into human trafficking.
“Traffickers and predators are using social media every single day to recruit children,” said Natasha Nascimento, the founder and executive director of Redefining Refuge, a Tampa Bay organization that helps young trafficking victims.
Nascimento said parents need to know predators don’t discriminate.
“We’ve had children in our program who are born and raised sort of in foster care unfortunately, and we’ve had kids in our program from seven-figure households where they have parents who are physicians. So, no child is exempt,” said Nascimento.
The 17-year-old boy was sent back home to Louisiana, and the 16-year-old boy is at a Florida safe house getting the help he needs.
As a result of this investigation, law enforcement and victim advocates stressed how important it is to pay attention to who your children talk to in real life and online.
Police said it’s possible there are more victims and there could be more arrests. They said the investigation is ongoing.