Vermont not immune to sex trafficking~ RH May 31, 2015
Staff Writer | May 31, 2015
Sex trafficking in the U.S. is a $32 billion business, according to the Department of Justice.
With high profits and low risk, the buying and selling of children and enslaved adults for sex has become as easy as buying a used book or a pair of shoes online.
Most think these illicit businesses operate out of New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and other large urban areas.
But sex bondage is not an isolated urban problem. With traffickers moving into smaller rural communities, along with the surge of online sites like Craigslist and backpage, the selling of sex can happen anywhere — including Vermont.
“The online piece, backpage, is a big part of this industry,” said Heather Ross, assistant U.S. attorney in Vermont. “When we look at these cases and come across a victim, inevitably if we go to backpage; it will be confirmed on backpage that photos were taken and posted.”
According to an Urban Institute 2014 report, women, children, and men are being sold for sex against their will in cities and towns in all 50 states.
“It is difficult to track,” Ross said. “We have to talk to the victims and often they are missing or unwilling to talk.”
Just because the clandestine movements of traffickers are rarely seen on Vermont street corners, it does not mean the state is immune. Even pristine rural landscapes that make Vermont life seem breathtakingly more serene are marred by the business of selling slaves for sex.
“The reality is, if there is prostitution, there is a high probability it’s trafficking,” said Rutland City Police Sgt. Matthew Prouty. “I’m convinced of it. We need to make it a priority.”
One factor driving the practice is that the profit-to-risk ratio is attractive to traffickers, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
“While investigations, prosecutions and penalties have increased throughout recent years,” it says, “many traffickers still believe the high profit margin to be worth the risk of detection.”
In 2013, Vermont State Police arrested two Connecticut firefighters in Ludlow on charges of aggravated sexual assault and slave trafficking for paid sex acts that took place in Ludlow over the course of 12 years. According to police, Brett Bartoletta of Cavendish and Frank Meyer of West Haven, Conn., bought and sold sex from a boy, starting from the time the boy was 12. Meyer killed himself a week after his arrest.
Or consider the 2012 federal arrest in Vermont of four men for selling sex at several Vermont farms. According to court records, the men were transporting five or more young Mexican women from New York to Vermont to have sex with farm workers for money. Some of the farms were located near Shelburne, Hyde Park and Highgate Center.
When one of the men was arrested near a Vermont farm, federal agents found a ledger with the names, addresses and contact information of various farms, names of women and the amount of money collected; most farm workers paid $60 for each act, according to court documents.
One of the men, Alejandro Enrique Young-Hernandez, who was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, was a Vermont state employee who facilitated the movements of the traffickers from farm to farm, the affidavit said.
Young-Hernandez would text the traffickers with the addresses of farms and times for the women to arrive. Investigators obtained cellphones with the text messages containing specific addresses and times.
Another of the men charged, Jose Tomas Flores-Rocha, 53, an illegal alien born in Mexico, pleaded guilty to transporting a person from New York to Vermont. He told the court that he drove more than five women to Vermont farms for sex.
This was one of Ross’ first cases of sex trafficking in Vermont.
“The problem with trafficking on farms is finding victims,” she said. “The challenge with the farms continue to be the women trafficked at farms come from out of state and they are often people without lawful status. They believe that law enforcement is not your friend.”
At the time, Ross said the men were arrested under the Mann Act, is commonly called the White Slave Traffic Act, enacted in 1910 to protect against transporting a person for commercial sex.
In another case, Ross said, the Harmony Spa in Williston was using Asian women held against their will for the sex trade. The Chittenden County state’s attorney’s office was looking at the situation at the same time, she said, and a letter from the state caused the workers to flee.
But Ross said federal prosecutors still wanted to take action and arrested the owner of the building, Thomas Booska. Ross said he often transported the girls and knew about the illegal activities.
“We brought a forfeiture action against him,” she said. “We thought he should bear some of the responsibility.”
Booska ended up paying $100,000 cash in lieu of forfeiture, she said.
Darrell B. Graham, aka Diamond, 52, pleaded guilty in 2014 to the 2011 transportation of a 19-year-old woman from Massachusetts to New Jersey, Vermont and Pennsylvania for commercial sex. Graham was sentenced in federal court to serve 150 months in prison, five years of supervised release, and fined $58,403.
Court records state that Graham, like most traffickers, promised a woman money and then took their identification, posted her picture on the Internet, forced her to cut ties with her family and friends, and for two months prostituted her in hotel rooms in several states.
Selling slaves online
Jasmine Grace Marino, who now lives near Boston, was manipulated by a boyfriend into selling sex when she was 18.
Marino was in Rutland last week to share her story at an educational forum hosted by the Rutland City Police Department.
While her boyfriend groomed her for the trade, she thought she loved him and did what he asked. When she told him she wanted to stop, she said, he beat her.
While enslaved in the sex trade, Marino said she kept a journal every day, giving her a sort of lifeline. In her journal, she recorded how much money she made.
“In 24 days, I made $20,000,” she said. All the money went to her pimp.
Marino did work in massage parlors, but she was also forced to post her body for sale on Craigslist, she said.
A notorious sex trafficking site, known to those in the business, is backpage, owned by Village Voice Media and New Times Media. An October 2014 federal civil suit against backpage claimed that the online site’s profits from $12 ads for sex are in excess of $22 million.
Also, backpage accepts prepaid credit cards and bitcoin payments because they are untraceable. Backpage offers a 10 percent discount for bitcoin payments.
When a sex buyer calls the girl, the call is put on a speaker phone, Ross said.
“The trafficker decides where they will meet and he goes with the girl,” the prosecutor said.
The lawsuit, brought on behalf of two minor girls sold repeatedly by traffickers on backpage for sex, alleges the site promotes selling young girls — backpage denies such claims.
According to court documents, pimps and sex buyers use a different language to avoid detection and words such as roses, fresh, tiny and party indicate that an underage girl was being sold for sex. And misspelling red-flag terms — brly legal or high schl — can allow the ad to be posted.
Jane Doe No. 1 was 15 and 16 when she was sold for sex in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and, according to the affidavit, she said she estimates being raped over 1,000 times since she was first trafficked in February 2012. She said her pimp told her that posting on backpage avoided detection. Calls for sex came in about five to 10 minutes after her ad was posted and on some days she was raped as many as 15 times; her pimp moved her from city to city about every two days, court records said.
Jane Doe No. 2 was between 15 and 17, according to court records and she said that she was raped about 900 times during her enslavement.
Vermont takes action
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, factors that add to low risk include: lack of government and law enforcement training, low community awareness, ineffective or unused laws, lack of law enforcement investigation, scarce resources for victim recovery services, and social blaming of victims.
For these reasons, the Vermont Human Trafficking Task Force was formed in 2010.
The current goal of the task force is to investigate the links between heroin and sex trafficking, according to Ross.
Vermont is currently ranked as a Tier 1 state by the Polaris Project, a global organization fighting against human trafficking and modern-day slavery, because it meets most of the criteria for improving the sex trafficking situation. These criteria include new laws and law enforcement training.
The organization Give Way to Freedom, a private nonprofit group dedicated to helping with issues of human trafficking, was asked to serve on the task force to help with the training of law enforcement and other agencies. And the organization’s Rapid Response System is helping provide immediate basic services to trafficked individuals, director Edith Klimosky said. Law enforcement, an emergency room nurse or other first responder can call 211 and if trafficking is suspected, a staff member from the team will go to help.
“We offer them a place to stay, food, we ask what they need,” she said. “We give her a few days to settle in and then we talk about options. We do not ask for their story. We meet them where they are. They might even need a bus ticket.”
The way Klimosky explains it, the Rapid Response Team was developed because the victims often had nowhere to go and the first responders did not know where to send them.
“They often were faced with, it’s 9 on Friday night and what do I do?” she said.
Many times they put the victims, mostly women, in hotel rooms. But they have to make certain the hotels are safe hotels. So they rely on crime data maps to determine how many police calls go to the hotel.
“The ones with no calls are the hotels we choose,” she said.
Law enforcement is also learning that asking the story when victims are found is not the best approach. Often those trafficked for sex do not even understand that they are victims. And the shame is so great that they cannot tell their story.
“Sometimes they will be more willing to tell what is happening to someone else,” Prouty said. “You have to gain their trust and let them know you are not trying to build a prostitution case against them. Pimps are master manipulators and they tell the girls ‘look at what you’ve done.’ They are fighting trauma and shame. We are sincere when we say we want to help you.”
A newly released computer application, developed by Champlain College assistant professor Duane Dunston, will help law enforcement bridge language barriers. The computer program has basic interview questions often asked of sex trafficking victims in several languages. The officer can pull up the program, request a language such as French or Spanish and the victim can read and answer the questions in their native language online.
“This will bridge the gap for law enforcement, medical care providers and (nongovernmental organizations),” Dunston said. “There are language barriers, they are shamed, they are scared and often afraid of being deported. This gets the victim what they need right away.”
Smuggling humans is part of sex trafficking. Here, federal authorities find a person crammed into a cavity behind the dashboard of a vehicle stopped at a border crossing.