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They called it the "boom boom room," an open area in the basement of a house where girls as young as 16 were forced to engage in unprotected sex with men who saw their photos posted on the Internet by their captor.
Pearline Richardson lorded over the girls by feeding them drugs, resorting to violence, and watching their every move, authorities said. And every so often, Richardson would move the girls to a new location.
At one point, when a 16-year-old girl refused to have unprotected sex with a man -- which the man had paid extra for -- Richardson told her, "Straighten up. You don't count. You don't matter. What matters is the money," said U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach.
"Right now, here in our neighborhoods, in our suburban hotels, in homes that might be down the street from people, there are children literally being sold into slavery," said Dettelbach.
The FBI, Cleveland Police and Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office formed a task force more than a year ago to combat human trafficking.
Yet the task of exposing the forced slave underground has proven difficult. So far, the U.S. Attorney's Office has charged only two suspects locally.
"You're looking at a full-blown sex industry in and around the city of Cleveland, everything from strip clubs and phone sex to high-priced escorts to prostitutes walking the street," said Cleveland Police Officer George Kwan. "It's so widespread we don't have really a handle on it."
Richardson's arrest last July came in the nick of time. The feds say Richardson, who has pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of sex trafficking, planned to take five girls down south so they could work as prostitutes near military bases in Florida and Mexico.
The task force's first conviction happened just last month. A jury convicted Eric Tutstone of trying to sell a 16-year-old girl as a sex slave to a madam during a December, 2010 meeting at the Starbucks on West 6th Street.
"Does she understand that I am a madam," the woman asked Tutstone, according to hidden camera video shot by the madam and obtained exclusively by Channel 3 News.
"Yeah, I had to explain to her what a madam was, it was so funny," replied Tutstone. "I said, 'You know what a madam is, right?' She was like, that means she was a man? I said, 'No a madam is like a female pimp.'"
Tutstone's price? $300.
"All I need right now is some pocket change," Tutstone said. "It's the first time I'm dealing with you...and if she need any counseling, any training or anything, you can always call me."
But the next time he dealt with the madam, Tutstone said, the price would be much higher because the madam "ain't got to train them or school them."
FBI agents arrested Tutstone later that day when he brought the girl to the coffee shop to finalize the deal. They also rescued the girl.
Richardson's 16-year-old victim wasn't so lucky.
"She destroyed my daughter's life," said the girl's mother. "It's like she don't even know what's real any more. She think people look at her bad now, like she's just dirty."
Richardson met the girl during a chance encounter at a gas station just blocks from the girl's home, according to a police report. The girl had run away from home and Richardson struck up a conversation.
After several meetings, Richardson wooed the girl into a sexual relationship, police said. Last March, Richardson convinced the girl to move into her Cleveland home.
That's when she turned on the girl, forcing her to engage in sex with men, the same men who saw photos of the girl that Richardson had taken of her in various states of undress and had posted on a Website advertising her services, the feds say.
To the johns, the girl was simply "Chocolate," the name Richardson gave the girl on the website.
Agents ultimately recovered a laptop computer with more than 100 photos of girls and young women who were forced into prostitution, according to court documents.
Some showed them clothed in lingerie, while others showed them naked or having sex.
"She was fed some type of drugs that she just knew she woke up the next day," the girl's mother said. "She didn't know what happened to her between that time."
Richardson also arranged special engagements outside the house, the feds said.
During the July 4 weekend last year, she rented a hotel room in Independence and invited men over for sex.
Police say the girl escaped soon after and that Richardson called the Cleveland police. She told police the girl had stolen Richardson's television.
Instead, when the cops found the girl, she turned Richardson in.
When FBI agents raided the home, they found a young woman in the home along with Richardson.
"She came out of the basement right away," the agent testified. "She started screaming and yelling that the defendant was going to come and get her."
The hold that Richardson had on these girls and young women was particularly strong, the agent said.
"She said that Ms. Richardson told her that if law enforcement ever came, she would take her out," the agent said. "And she was fearful when we went into the house, that Ms. Richardson...was going to run down and either shoot her or stab her before she could, we could talk to her."
The 16-year-old who turned Richardson in has continued to struggle in the months since, running away from home once again, her mother said.
"I worry about her every day," the mother said. "I wish she would just come back home and we can just deal with this together. ... You know, God says don't hate, but I really hate that woman. For every female, for my child that she's corrupted. I really do."
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