PALM BAY — Two dozen Orlando children younger than 18 were crammed into the back of an older model Chevrolet work van, driven to Palm Bay on Friday and dropped off to spend more than 10 hours selling cheap items door-to-door, Palm Bay police said. If they had to use the bathroom, they were told to use the bushes. If they were thirsty, to ask residents for water, police said.
Police arrested two of the men behind the operation, which authorities said provides a window into a growing trend of human trafficking: luring children and young adults with the promise of an honest wage, transporting them in often unsafe conditions and sending them off to conduct unsupervised sales in unfamiliar neighborhoods.
“They were told to sell their goods at all costs. They rounded them up and stuffed them into the back of a van, brought over from Orlando. Food, water, it was rationed. And they were told the only way they could get anything was to sell,” said Yvonne Martinez, spokeswoman for the Palm Bay Police Department.
The driver of the van and owner of an Orlando-based group called Teens Against Drugs and Alcohol, 39-year-old Johnny Carrasquillo, and 20-year-old John Saint Hilaire, 20, faced a judge on 24 counts each of human trafficking.
Brevard Judge Kathleen Clarke ordered both men, who were arrested by Palm Bay police, to be held on a $5.6 million bond each at the Brevard County Jail Complex.
Both also were charged with 24 counts of child abuse and eight counts each of employing a minor child, reports show. The case will be sent to the Brevard County state attorney’s office, where prosecutors will decide whether to press formal charges.
In the Palm Bay case, the children were picked up by 9 a.m. in Orlando and driven to Palm Bay in a van so crowded that some sat on laps and on the floor. Each row of seats was separated by makeshift plywood partitions that blocked the only exit door, Martinez said.
The teens were to be picked up, after a day of sales, about 8:30 p.m. and would not get home until close to midnight, police said.
Police said it was a potential tragedy in the making.
Late Friday, Palm Bay police received a message from a Department of Children and Families agent that underage children were roaming Palm Bay streets selling cheap goods.
Martinez said the children were picked up and brought to the Palm Bay Police Department, where officers contacted DCF agents and bought pizza. “We had pizza for them. They were really hungry. And they were hovering over the water fountain,” Martinez said.
The children were turned over to their parents.
The Orlando-based company, Teens Against Drugs and Alcohol, bills itself as a unique educational program that helps “young people from all backgrounds become more responsible citizens,” according to its website. The site featured an open letter by Carrasquillo that was dated Sept. 9. In the letter listing Carrasquillo as the executive director, he warns supporters about four former team leaders conducting unauthorized sales.
“We have notified the police of these activities and have given them the information they need to stop them, but since they are operating in hiding and they look like us, is hard for the police to intervene unless a customer calls or we run in to them,” Carrasquillo wrote.
The website also includes a parental consent form, although Palm Bay police were not sure how much parents knew about the conditions the teens worked under.
One 13-year-old dropped off in Palm Bay told officers she was frightened after someone told her a sex offender lived in the neighborhood where she was walking. “She was scared and was walking alone on her route,” Martinez said. Carrasquillo told the girl to “cross the street,” and keep selling her items, according to police.
Several other young girls told police that Carrasquillo would make them “pull their bra away from their chest and shake it to see if any money falls out,” the police report said.
Experts have warned over the years that door-to-door sales operations using underage children was an emerging trend of human trafficking nationwide.
In 2010, Florida State University, in conjunction with the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, released a report that showed Florida was a top hub for human trafficking in labor and sexual exploitation.
Labor trafficking was considered the most prevalent type in Florida, with abuse reported primarily in agriculture, tourism and hospitality industries.
“With sales crews, most of the victims are young adults, many of the victims are from low income settings looking for opportunities,” said Alden Pinkham, a case coordinator with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
In some cases, young adults answer ads left behind at bus or train stations to be part of door-to-door sales crews. Many of the participants see it as a chance to travel and even enhance their public-speaking capabilities, Pinkham said.
“We see a lot of fraud and coercion in the offers of that free ride. The victims begin to realize that there is no paycheck, no free ride back home, so they keep working despite the conditions. In my experience, I’ve never talked to any crew member who’s gotten a paycheck. It’s just a draw, maybe $15 a day split between others for food,” Pinkham said.
There have been a number of national stories involving “sales crews,” including cases of deadly traffic accidents, sexual assault and what police say was an attack on a teen by a resident in Volusia County. Friday, police also linked at least two of the juveniles to the theft of a golf cart.
When police located Carrasquillo, along with Saint Hilaire, they also found several teens in the van. Police said Carrasquillo said another van had been used, too.
Carrasquillo and Saint Hilaire remain in custody. No new court date has been set.