Education

The movie ‘Taken’ inspired a $2.5 million donation to fight human trafficking

St. Thomas University President Msgr. Franklyn Casale, Miami State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and John Brunetti discuss Brunetti’s $2.5 million dollar gift to the university’s Human Trafficking Academy.
St. Thomas University President Msgr. Franklyn Casale, Miami State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and John Brunetti discuss Brunetti’s $2.5 million dollar gift to the university’s Human Trafficking Academy. aharris@miamiherald.com

The oversized check John Brunetti held during the ceremony at St. Thomas University was inspired, in part, by the movie ‘‘Taken.”

Brunetti, who owns the Hialeah Park race track, first heard about human trafficking, the term for when people are forced into labor or sexual exploitation, years ago during a speech by Miami State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

Rundle said by the time she returned to her seat next to Brunetti, “his jaw was down, he had these really sad eyes and he said ‘that’s terrible.’”

But Brunetti said the horrors of a practice he called “so vile and so devastating” became especially clear for him when he watched the 2008 thriller “Taken,” a film about a former government operative with a “particular set of skills” vowing to get his daughter and her friend back after they were abducted and forced into prostitution. The character, played by Liam Neeson, promises the kidnappers he will hunt them down and kill them unless they return his daughter. They don’t and he does.

“All of a sudden it rang a bell,” Brunetti said on Tuesday. “I want to be remembered, if I am remembered, for helping people.”

The result: a $2.5 million dollar donation to one of South Florida’s leading organizations fighting human trafficking, St. Thomas University’s Human Trafficking Academy.

Miami is a hub for human trafficking. The region is consistently topping state lists for number of victims, and Florida itself ranks as one of the worst states in the country in terms of human trafficking victims.

This money will allow the academy, which offers educational training, victim counseling and research on the topic, to hire more employees and begin offering training for free.

“I’m delighted we’re broadening our scope here,” Rundle said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Ali, a young woman who fell into a life of drug addiction and prostitution in Philadelphia, describes the hold sex traffickers have on their victims and how she was ultimately able to escape the life with the help of a deputy sheriff on an FBI tas

The academy holds several seminars a year and runs dozens of training sessions for groups in law enforcement, education and even agriculture.

Since St. Thomas University President Msgr. Franklyn Casale, along with Academy head Roza Pati, started giving international talks on the topic more than a decade ago, he said awareness has increased tremendously. It’s become something of a pet cause for Casale. He even testified to congress on the topic in 2008 to encourage lawmakers to reauthorize the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

“As a Catholic institution, this touches our heart,” Casale said. “We’re all about the dignity of the human person.”

He said this donation, five times the original $500,000 Department of Justice grant that jump-started the academy in 2010, is the largest the program has seen.

Pati, who first got involved in human trafficking activism in the ‘90s as an Albanian elected official, said the new funding will help the small organization get the word out better and educate more people on the signs of human trafficking.

“The major focus of these traffickers is to strip these human beings of their humanity,” she said. “We should send the practice where it belongs — the dustbin of history.”

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