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Story by J. David McSwane / Photography and video by Dan Wagner

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FW:  Oct. 2, 2014

Child sex trafficking is an underground economy that thrives here, and everywhere. How can we help those who have been ignored for so lonA  HERALD-TRIBUNE SPECIAL REPORT


earing only a sports bra and boxers, bruises on her back, the girl surged through the salon’s door. Her feet were bare and bleeding from the race over asphalt, her speech a frenzied heave as she spilled the secret of where she had been, what she had been doing. 

Camille Johnson’s daughter confirmed the unthinkable.

For weeks, Johnson had searched these north Sarasota streets, knocking on doors in the early morning, shouting in the rain, asking about her missing 17-year-old daughter, Wa-Das Crowle (WAH-Dez CROU-lee). Everyone calls her Moe. 

It was beyond frightening that Moe’s whereabouts and activities had been a mystery, for in this segregated tract of Sarasota, news both good and bad spreads fast and far through blood ties and marriage and church circles that connect nearly everyone by one degree. In this neighborhood, the gossip collides at Johnson’s meager salon.

Johnson, a tall woman, now seems diminutive against the darkness she strains to remember. She points to the Japanese sword in the corner, between the plastic cupboard and the partition. She endeavors to explain why she clutched the sword, why she confronted her daughter’s abusers.

Moe at age 13. 

Two of her adult children, listening, gather the grandchildren and walk out into the night.

“One day,” Johnson says, “she called and said that she was OK, and I didn’t need to look for her. It didn’t sound like my daughter.”

At the age of 14, Moe began an agonizing descent into drugs that confounded the rest of the family. She dropped out of high school when she was 15. She would run away, then come home, then run, more than 30 times, until finally, at 17, she didn’t return. 

Friends told Johnson they had seen Moe in the pitch of early morning and were startled by her provocative clothing and overall metamorphosis. She seemed a bit too skinny, they said, a ghostly imitation of the girl who watched Saturday morning cartoons and spent much of the year pining for the Sarasota County Fair. 

Someone told Johnson her daughter was staying in Janie’s Garden, a new public housing complex next to the railroad tracks.

“Whenever I tried to go out and find out what apartment she was in,” Johnson says, “no one would answer the door.”

Then came the day when Moe returned, screaming inside the salon, the story shooting out of her like a grand finale, each detail more jarring than the last. The rumors were true.

It was 2011, in the spring. Moe had been only blocks away from Johnson’s salon, a 15-minute walk down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a blighted thoroughfare that cuts through Sarasota’s black neighborhood and intersects with the oppressive clamor of highways on each end.

She was being sold to middle-aged men who paid in cash and drugs. Her abusers had found in a vulnerable girl a renewable supply for a perverse demand that exists here, as it does everywhere.