Advocate shares her story of sex trafficking survival

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BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - Sula Skiles is an advocate for sex trafficking survivors. She serves on the board of the The Trindi Initiative, an extension of Lavished Ministries.

"I would have to share my story so that what I went through wouldn't happen to others," Skiles said.

As a survivor herself, she is using her story as a platform to help others.

"When I was 20, this was 15 years ago, I was a young, naive model in Los Angeles, went to just an event for the modeling industry," Skiles said.

She said she was contacted for a job in another country.

"I was really excited. I thought that I had made it, this would be potentially a contract with this clothing line," Skiles said.

However, there was a major red flag: She was given a one-way ticket.

One Skiles was overseas, she said what once was a dream come try turned out to be a nightmare.

"Once I got there, I was forced to sleep with this monster along with other girls. They would come and go. Every night, there were new girls showing up," she said.

Around three weeks later, she was able to escape by convincing her captor's girlfriend to get her a plane ticket home.

Skiles said, "Many faces and many girls that I saw come and go and to this day, I don't know what happened to some of them that disappeared."

Her story is a testament to how sex trafficking can happen to anyone.

"Well, it's an issue everywhere. This is a world problem. This isn't a local problem, this thing is a world problem," Lieutenant J.R. Talamantez of the Panama City Beach Police Department said.

Local police said there are some signs you should look out for if you believe someone is a sex trafficking victim.

"Say you're sitting in a doctor's office and a male brings in a female and he's standing by her the whole time, you can tell that she's scared," Lieutenant Talamantez said.

Corporal Jordan Hoffman of the Panama City Police Department said, "They are holding all the debit cards, the IDs, they're in an airport and they're holding all the passports."

Bay County isn't immune to sex trafficking cases.

In 2014, Panama City Beach police arrested Joe Dobbs after they said he allowed men to have sex with underage women at his apartment at Laketown Wharf Condominiums.

"We rescued a minor, a human trafficking victim there," Lieutenant Talamantez said.

Dobbs claimed it was a legal escort service.

More recently, in 2017, the Panama City Police Department's Street Crimes Unit conducted a prostitution sting.

"The victim of that investigation was being forced to do those acts against her will, so they identified the signs of somebody who was being trafficked," Corporal Hoffman said.

While sex trafficking can happen anywhere, anyone can help in the fight against it.

Lieutenant Talamantez said, "All of us are trying to accomplish the same thing: Abolish human trafficking."

The Human Trafficking Coalition is a team made up of different local agencies including police, the Department of Children and Families, and non-profit groups.

"We've developed a curriculum to train the community on what to look for when it comes to human trafficking," Lieutenant Talamantez said.

The Florida Department of Health is also getting involved in raising awareness by offering a course.

"It's just to bring awareness to the kids on what human trafficking is, the different types of it, and what they should do if they feel like they're maybe getting into a situation like that," Heather Kretzer, the Public Information Officer of the Florida Department of Health in Bay County, said.

Principals can request school health nurses to teach the course to their students.

After surviving being trafficked, Skiles is now working in ministry and fighting to help other survivors.

Sex trafficking survivors aren't alone in their healing and as more people join in on the conversation, it's one step closer to ending trafficking.

On March 8 and 9, The Trindi Initiative is hosting Project Intercept: A Panama City Human-Trafficking Awareness Event at St. Andrews Assembly of God.