SPRING HILL, Fla. - The Hernando County sheriff is urging parents to pay attention to what their children are doing online after he says a teen and a young adult were human trafficked by a man they met on an online dating app and recently rescued in Spring Hill.
On Monday, July 10, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office says is was contacted by the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office about the possible location of a runaway teen.
Sheriff Al Nienhuis says his agency receives calls like that every day and his deputies try to recover the runaway.
When deputies went to the 5000 block of Pinehurst Drive in Spring Hill and found James Peter Houllis, 56, and a young female adult the sheriff referred to as victim number one, as well as the missing teen from Charlotte County.
At the time, deputies say they did not have any indication that the females were victims of human trafficking.
Sheriff Nienhuis said the suspect told deputies that he and the young adult female were under the impression that the teen was 18 years old and was kicked out of her home. He went on to say that he paid to have an Uber driver take her from Charlotte County to Spring Hill. The teen was taken to a runaway shelter in Hernando County to wait for her father to pick her up the next day.
The next day, before her father showed up, Sheriff Nienhuis says the teen told deputies and employees of the shelter that she had met the suspect and the adult victim on an uncommon social media dating platform.
Teen victim signs contract
On the Sunday evening before the teen left home, she said she thought she was discussing sexual activity with the adult victim on the app. During the conversation, the sheriff said the pair decided that the teen would go to Hernando County to live with the suspect and the adult victim.
The teen also told authorities that she was sent a contract by email and it was referred to as a dominant and submissive agreement.
The teen, according to the sheriff, said she didn’t read the contract, but agreed to abide by it and sent it back to the suspect. HCSO says the suspect sent an Uber to get the teen and drive her to his house on July 9. She arrived around 10:30 p.m.
Sheriff Nienhuis says she was given her own bedroom and food. Then, according to HCSO, the suspect and both victims consumed marijuana and watched a movie. The three then moved to the suspect’s bedroom and engaged in sexual activity, according to HCSO.
The sheriff says the teen told officials that she never intended to engage in sexual activity with Houlis because she thought it would just be with the adult female. However, he said that the teen was told that she must adhere to her contract and perform any sexual act as demanded by the ‘dominant’ who is the suspect because she was his ‘submissive’.
The sheriff says in the agreement the ‘dominant’ would provide a beautiful home on the ocean (Sheriff Neihuis noted that the home on Pinehurst Drive is nowhere near the ocean), pay for all expenses, including food, drinks and utilities associated with the home in exchange for the ‘submissive’ to serve, please and obey the ‘dominant’.
The contract, according to the sheriff, stated that the ‘submissive’ would always respond to the sexual needs of the ‘dominant’ in any manner he saw fit, even if it was outside of her comfort zone.
The teen said the suspect forced the adult victim to perform sex acts on her. The suspect also took control of the victim’s cell phones, according to HCSO.
On Monday, July 10, the suspect and the adult victim took the teen to a department store to buy clothes.
According to HCSO, the teen was able to take photos of the suspect sitting on a couch in the nude before deputies arrived to investigate the report that she was a runaway teen out of Charlotte County.
The adult human trafficking victim
On Tuesday, July 11, the suspect was charged with unlawful sexual activity of a minor, unlawful use of a two-way communication device and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
While interviewing the suspect and the adult female, deputies learned that she was also a human trafficking victim.
Sheriff Nienhuis said the suspect admitted to the sexual activity, but said he said he believed the underage teen was over the age of 18. The sheriff says he also admitted to drafting up the contract.
James Peter Houllis mugshot courtesy of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
"He also said several times during the interview how fortunate the victim was that he provided for her, and he benefited from the sexual contact as described in the contract. He is definitely a sick individual to say the least," Sheriff Nienhuis said.
The young adult, according to HCSO, told deputies she was not a willing participant. He said she told authorities she felt obligated because she also signed a contract with the suspect. She went on to say that when she refused, he physically forced her to engage in sexual activity with the teen victim.
"I don’t think you could ever sign away your right to be raped," Sheriff Nienhuis stated. "If it is against your will, it is against your will even if you say in a contract that you are going to let a particular person do anything to you."
The young adult, according to HCSO, said the suspect strangled the teen to force her into sexual activity and because she knew how rough the suspect could be she traded places with the teen to keep her safe.
James Houllis arrested
On July 13, the suspect was charged with sexual battery on the young adult victim, which led to a no-contact order by a judge. The sheriff said he violated the no-contact order several times and ordered the adult victim to drop the charges and stop speaking with law enforcement. He was then charged with witness tampering and violation of pre-trial contact with the victim.
Since the teen was under the age of 18 she cannot consent to a sex act, so the suspect was trafficking the victim in violation of Florida statute, according to HCSO.
The sheriff said Houllis met the adult victim more than a year ago out west on an online dating site, according to HCSO.
While the young adult victim and the suspect were in Colorado, the sheriff says Houllis arranged for multiple men to have sex with her for money.
The sheriff said two other women who were romantically involved with the suspect said he was extremely controlling and filed police reports against him.
According to HCSO, Houllis has a history of domestic violence and has lived in 53 different places since 1980 including California, Colorado, Miami, Hudson and Hollywood before moving to Spring Hill and believe there may be more victims.
The sheriff says both victims are in a safe place receiving treatment.
Reality of human trafficking
Advocates say human trafficking can take many shapes, and they said the most common myth is that it always involves kidnapping. Selah Freedom, an anti-human trafficking organization, said the vast majority of cases involve some type of relationship, including close friendship, romantic or mentoring.
"Unfortunately, the reality is that for traffickers, for exploiters, there is no boundaries," Hilda Arreola, the prevention coordinator with Selah Freedom, said.
Selah Freedom said one in nine children are subject to some form of online sexual solicitation.
"It's not just a one and done conversation," Arreola said. "'I'm going to have one conversation with you. And if I get you hooked, great. If not, then I'm just going to leave it at that.' No, they form a relationship with whoever it is that they're trying to kind of reel in."
The Attorney General’s Office says since 2000, traffickers recruited 55% of sex trafficking victims online. The AG’s office says the median age of a child being contacted is 15 years old.
"Here in the United States, 90% of sex trafficking occurs, and it looks like a relationship that is formed, whether that be a friendship, a romantic relationship, a mother figure," Arreola said.
The Attorney General’s Office put out a push this summer, when most children usually have more free time. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is urging families to monitor what children are doing on and offline.
"Especially during summer time and kids being on technology so much," Arreola said. "It’s just like, little subtle changes in behavior, could indicate that maybe something is going on, that they're maybe engaging in conversations with someone that may be deterring them from whatever it is that you're trying to teach them at home."
To report trafficking, you can call Selah Freedom’s hotline at 1-888-8-FREE-ME.