A routine traffic stop for a missing license tag outside Tampa on Saturday ended as a human trafficking case after authorities say they found five illegal immigrants being driven to Immokalee by two Alabama women.
Kathleen Roberson, 21, and Jessica Roland, 29, both of Phenix City, Ala., were both arrested in connection with the case.
Hillsborough County sheriff’s officials said Roberson was driving a 2003 Kia Sorrento to Immokalee with five Mexican citizens who illegally entered the country. Their exact destination in Immokalee wasn’t immediately clear, Hillsborough County sheriff’s spokesman Larry McKinnon said.
“(U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) will be interviewing them further in the next few days to determine where they originated from and how they ended up with (Roberson),” McKinnon said.
The five illegal immigrants were identified as Salvador Hernandez-Mendez, 18; Flora Flores-Salinas, 18; Teresa Quintas-Osario, 27; Ramon Juarez-Martinez, 27; and Artemio Pedrez-Abarca, 35. All five are being held in Hillsborough County pending deportation.
A sheriff’s deputy pulled over the car at about 5:15 p.m. on a road near I-75, about 10 miles southeast of downtown Tampa, according to arrest reports.
Roberson didn’t have a driver license and was found carrying $6,000 cash, sheriff’s officials said. She had a Georgia identification at the time of her arrest. Roberson, who is being held without bond, faces a charge of driving without a license and federal charges of human trafficking.
Roland, a passenger, faces a cocaine possession charge after deputies said she was carrying 0.2 grams of cocaine when searched.
U.S. Border Patrol officials were brought in to help during the arrest. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will investigate the case further, McKinnon said.
“I don’t know if (Roberson and Roland) were working individually or if they were part of a larger network transporting mules for labor,” McKinnon said.
Nola Theiss, executive director of the Southwest Florida-based Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships Inc., said the case illustrates the difficulty of identifying possible human traffickers. She is not working with law enforcement on the case but was aware of some details reported Sunday.
“What’s interesting about this case is you have American women who seem to be the traffickers,” Theiss said. “I can’t say they’re traffickers until they’re prosecuted, but typically what we say when we’re doing our education and awareness is that you can’t identify a trafficker by looking at him or her. Typically, you would see men trafficking men for labor and women for sex.”
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Justice found that between 2008 and 2010, 81 percent of suspected human traffickers were male.
While Roberson faces pending charges for human trafficking, such cases often are difficult to prove, Theiss said.
“Statistically, you won’t see that very often, but trafficking can occur in these large international rings or in a network or another crime, like drug trafficking for instance,” Theiss said.
“I would bet a whole lot of money that those two girls are not the only traffickers in that ring. If the victims can be helped to a point where they testify, it could lead to a whole lot of prosecutions. In any case, it could send a message.”