Virginia survey shows human trafficking a growing concern among law enforcement
Posted: Sunday, June 8, 2014 2:00 am
For many, human trafficking conjures images of frightened women snatched away in the night to be sold in some distant country.
But human trafficking exists in Virginia, even in Lynchburg, authorities have said.
“Behind drugs and guns, it’s the third most profitable criminal enterprise,” said Kim McCabe, professor of sociology and criminology at Lynchburg College.
Finding statistics on human trafficking proves challenging for law enforcement agencies and researchers. The industry heavily depends on staying in the shadows and terrorizing its victims into silence.
“It’s not like they’re reporting it to the IRS,” McCabe said. “There’s really no count.”
In September 2012, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services conducted a survey on the challenges of addressing the needs of human-trafficking victims. More than 100 agencies responded. Nearly half reported seeing an increase in human-trafficking victims. The other half claimed human-trafficking cases remained level, with one agency reporting a decrease. Traffickers buy and sell men and women for different purposes, such as labor and organs, but sex trafficking reigns as the most popular form.
“It’s a strange crime. It’s prostitution, but it’s prostitution-plus,” McCabe said.
With an eye toward the sex trade, traffickers most often prey upon young women.
The criminal justice services department claimed most known victims of sex trafficking in Virginia are women between the ages of 20 and 39. Nearly half come from Latin American countries and half are U.S. residents, the department reported.
McCabe described these human trafficking rings as agencies often run by one to five people who move their victims from city to city.
“Traffickers usually move people fairly often,” she said.
As commerce shifts toward an online marketplace, sex trafficking rings have discovered a new, shrouded outlet to peddle their victims. Rather than forcing them to walk a lamp-lighted street corner, trafficking groups advertise and sell women online.
“Back in the day, there was a place to go, but it’s not like that,” McCabe said. “The Internet has been wonderful, and it’s been horrible in many ways for law enforcement.”
Eight years ago, when Det. Brian Smith first began his work with the Lynchburg Police Department, making prostitution arrests required going to an ill-reputed street corner late at night.
Now, when patrolling for prostitutes or solicitors, Smith surfs the Internet.
“Almost all of our enforcement activities are directed toward online,” he said. “It is more difficult. Logistically it takes more. There are a lot more layers that we have to deal with.”
In order to make an arrest, police have to establish a clear agreement to exchange money for sex. Anything less will not warrant an arrest.
“They look at that as just a lewd conversation,” Smith said, speaking of the courts.
Police create fake advertisements to try to snare potential solicitors in Lynchburg.
“It’s amazing. People are beating the door down,” Smith said. “Lynchburg is not as bad as other places, but there definitely is a market for it here.”
Smith said he patrols numerous websites, including Backpage.com, a classified advertising website offers goods and services by city.
In an article published April 1, 2013, the AIM Group, a global team of experts in interactive media and classified advertising, claimed Backpage earned about $4.2 million in one month just from “escort and body-rub advertising.” Backpage operates about 400 localized sites for cities across the U.S., including Lynchburg.
Village Voice, the parent company of Backpage, has reported it collects credit card numbers from all advertisers and responds quickly to subpoenas from law enforcement agencies. The company also has said it uses moderators to combat underage prostitution on the website.
Smith added one website cannot be blamed for the widespread influx of online business for prostitution and trafficking rings. He said he inspects about 10 websites daily.
“We monitor a lot of different websites. The only way you can stop it is to shut the Internet down.”
Between 2003 and 2013, Lynchburg police made 144 arrests on prostitution charges, with an average of just over 14 arrests per year, according to police department data. The highest number of arrests came in 2004 with 29, compared to 11 in 2013.
“We know about a fair amount, but we can’t possibly know about it all,” Smith said. “There is such a huge market for it.”
The News & Advance reached out to several women advertising on Backpage.comunder the escorts subsection. They either declined to be interviewed or did not return phone calls.
Adding to the elusive nature of prostitution and trafficking, Smith and McCabe both commented that trafficking and prostitution rings work as mobile units, moving women back and forth to avoid law enforcement.
“They’ll finance them to come into town and pay for the hotel room. Then they’ll move them to the next spot,” Smith said. “It’s difficult when you’re making an arrest in Lynchburg, but the other half of that crime is in Delaware. To get those cases where you’re actually getting the source, it’s a lot of work.”
To make an arrest, Lynchburg investigators often will respond to online advertisements as a potential client, or “John.” Smith estimated the majority of prostitutes arrested in Lynchburg are controlled by a prostitution or trafficking ring. Of the entire arrest process, getting women to give away her oppressing ring may prove the hardest challenge.
“It takes some extremely brave women to say this is what’s happening,” McCabe said.
Smith said the vice unit interrogates every prostitute they arrest. If investigators feel she may have connections to a larger prostitution or trafficking ring, they might offer to remove one of her charges in exchange for information.
“We’re able to give them the opportunity to help themselves,” Smith said. “There are a lot of gray areas in prostitution. It’s difficult for us to enforce. You have a criminal and a victim at the same time.”
That blurred distinction between prostitutes as criminals or victims proves challenging for law enforcement and supportive agencies looking to help these women.
The agencies surveyed by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services identified inadequate resources and difficulty identifying trafficking victims as their main challenges. Half of the agencies estimated trafficking victims required about three or more months of care, including counseling and therapy “to address extreme trauma and indoctrination,” according to the department’s report.
In its effort to distinguish between prostitution and trafficking, law enforcement has discovered a very similar criterion for how victims are targeted. The scenarios of abduction happen, but much less often than prostitution and trafficking rings identifying and preying upon vulnerable women.
Twice during the trial of Randy Taylor — convicted of abducting and murdering 17-year-old Alexis Murphy — Taylor’s attorney, Michael Hallahan, brought up human trafficking. “There is no evidence of murder,” Hallahan said in his opening statement in court. Hallahan broached human trafficking as an alternative to Murphy’s death, highlighting the numerous unanswered questions and possibilities since investigators have not recovered Murphy’s body.
“This is not human trafficking,” NelsonCountyCommonwealth’s Attorney Anthony Martin told jurors in his closing argument.
Most often, victims of prostitution and trafficking come from a tumultuous home, Smith said. Feeling unloved, these women latch on to someone who appears to care for them, showering them with gifts and false kindness.
“It’s a grooming process. They give them gifts and attention,” Smith said. “They’ll pull them into the fold that way.”
Prostitution and trafficking rings also use drugs as a leash, getting women addicted, so they come back.
“In a sense, they’re kind of trapped. They know there’s a source for that drug there,” Smith said. “It’s sort of a revolving door that they get trapped in. It’s sad.”
With the fluid, mobile natures of these criminal rings, law enforcement agencies and governments are banding across the country to combat the issue.
“It’s more communication,” Smith said. “We have relationships with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.”
In January, former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli designated $6 million to help victims of sex trafficking. Cuccinelli has said those funds will help provide shelter and counseling for women once victimized by trafficking rings.
Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring has said he will focus on reducing trafficking in Virginia.
“Human trafficking is an emerging public safety threat across our nation, including here in Virginia,” Herring said in a statement on his website. “Trafficked victims don’t come from any one place. They come from large cities, small towns, different socioeconomic situations and diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.”
Even with increased resources and awareness, law enforcement agencies are doubtful human trafficking and forced prostitution will ever disappear.
“It’s the oldest business for a reason,” Smith said. “I don’t think there will ever be a way to stop it.”