Fla. kids corralled to sell candy - WNCN: News, Weather

Fla. kids corralled to sell candy

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Johnny Carrasquillo Johnny Carrasquillo
LARGO, FL (WFLA) -

Johnny Carrasquillo runs an Orlando-based group called Teens against Drugs and Alcohol that he says helps poor kids earn money and influences them in a “positive and purposeful way” with activities that range from candy sales to theme park adventures.

But police have arrested Carrasquillo twice after separate investigations in Pinellas and Brevard Counties.

In Largo police say his practice of dispatching kids to peddle goods to strangers in strange cities amounts to child neglect and in Palm Bay police arrested him on charges of child abuse and human trafficking.

Carrasquillo insists police have it all wrong. “They make things up just to put us in jail,” Carrasquillo said.

“I personally feel they’re taking advantage of these kids,” said Largo Police Lt Tim Block. “If they sell a candy bar for five bucks they may get a quarter out of it.”

Largo police say they arrested Carrasquillo in August, 2012 when he and two other adults drove to Pinellas County in an overcrowded van with bald tires and 18 underprivileged kids onboard ranging from the age of 11 to 14.

Police say they were here for the express purpose of selling candy outside of gas stations, convenience stores and on street corners stretching from Largo to Clearwater Beach and had been warned by Largo officers on a previous occasion to discontinue that practice.

“Some of the kids said they were doing this for 10 or 12 hours for that entire day,” Block said.

One of the adults Carrasquillo brought along to help that day is a man named Joel Dunford, who had just been released from state prison two months earlier. Dunford had served eight years behind bars for attempted murder after shooting his grandfather in the head and was on probation.

According to police reports when officers asked Carrasquillo why he would leave kids as young as 11 on street corners without supervision in an unfamiliar town to peddle candy to strangers, he didn’t see a problem.

“Johnny stated that it was no different than young kids in the ghetto, who are left unsupervised, and sell drugs on the corner,” the report said.

Largo police arrested Carrasquillo for child neglect and kept the kids in temporary custody for their own safety until their parents arrived from Orlando to take them home.

Pinellas prosecutors say they eventually dropped the case because the children’s parents did not want to cooperate in bringing Carrasquillo to trial. Carrasquillo denies any wrongdoing.

14 months later Palm Bay police arrested Carrasquillo in Brevard County where he was once again using kids to peddle candy to strangers, this time door to door.

“The kids expect to get exploited because that’s the only way they can get ten dollars,” said Palm Bay Police spokesperson Yvonne Martinez last October after Carrasquillo’s arrest on 24 counts of child abuse and 24 counts of human trafficking.

Police say Carrasquillo had crammed kids from 12-17 years of age into an overcrowded van with limited exits and a shortage of seatbelts.

“It was horrible conditions,”’ said officer Chris Jones. “There were no seatbelts. The cushioned seat which would be the safest one, the seatbelts were actually strapped to the wooden wall.”

In that occasion Palm Bay police arrested Carrasquillo and another adult John Saint Hilaire after concluding they had transported kids into neighborhoods to sell goods door to door for as long as 15 hours a day—once again, without supervision. Two of those children were also arrested for stealing a golf cart.

“These defendants have clearly forced labor upon these children by not letting them take water with them, not picking them up for food or restroom breaks, and not picking them up when they are in fear or tired,” the report said.

Police say one girl called Carrasquillo to say she was scared because a resident told her a sex offender lived in the area. “He told her to just keep selling and cross the street,” the report said.

Four months have passed since Palm Bay police arrested Carrasquillo and Saint Hilaire, but state prosecutors in Brevard County still haven’t filed formal charges.

Carrasquillo told Eight On Your Side he expects prosecutors in Brevard to drop the case, just like Pinellas prosecutors did a year earlier. Carrasquillo once again blames his legal problems on overzealous police.

“It’s not like I’m smuggling Mexicans across the border,” Carrasquillo said. “We are the only program in the state that gives kids a chance to earn money.”

Palm Bay police say girls told them if they didn’t earn enough money, Carrasquillo would search them to make sure they weren’t hiding any proceeds from their sales.

“He would literally have her take her bra and hold it away from her body and shake it to show she doesn’t have any money in it,” Jones said.

Carrasquillo says he has halted his volunteer activities with Teens against Drugs and Alcohol until his legal troubles are resolved, but sees nothing wrong with his program.

“I’ve been helping teenagers for about 20 years,” Carrasquillo said. “They earn money, we do activities.”

Copyright 2014 WFLA. All rights reserved.
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