COLUMBIA, SC — The advertisement for escort services said the girl was 20 years old and 100 percent independent.
But when FBI agents and local cops raided a Two Notch Road motel over the weekend, they found a 16-year-old runaway who was one of three women working for a pimp, who was out on bond on a murder charge.
Experts said Tuesday the sting in Columbia is a typical scenario for teens caught in the sex trade. But it can be difficult for local police, health care workers and sexual trauma advocates to recognize them.
“Is the cop arresting a 15-year-old for prostitution or is there more to it?” said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council. “They have to do more than look beyond the obvious.”
Child-sex trafficking made headlines across the nation Monday after the FBI announced that nationally it had rescued 105 teenagers, ages 13 to 17, from prostitution, and had rounded up 150 alleged pimps. In Columbia, 21-year-old William J. Gibson and 20-year-old Andrea Bostic were charged with sex trafficking of children by force or coercion for their alleged roles in the 16-year-old’s prostitution work.
Those who work in law enforcement and as victims advocates said they do not know how many other underage people are being forced to work as prostitutes in South Carolina.
But they hope a human trafficking law passed during S.C.’s last legislative session helps combat the problem.
That law created an attorney general’s task force that is directed to develop law enforcement training, set up a statewide hot line and help define the scope of human trafficking in the state. The law also increased penalties for human trafficking and gave the attorney general the authority to present cases to a state grand jury, Hudson said.
The law covers those forced into prostitution as well as indentured labor, she said.
Ginny Waller, executive director of Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, said cases come through the system but police, hospital workers and others who come in contact with victims don’t alway recognize the situation.
“They’re not being vetted properly,” she said. “We are so far behind where we need to be in how this works.”
Investigators need to look for certain indicators of child-sex trafficking when making prostitution arrests, Waller said. Those include age, whether the prostitute was arrested at a hotel and drug and alcohol use, she said.
The most recent national sting was coordinated by the FBI, but agents worked with Columbia police investigators and Richland County sheriff’s deputies to make the arrests.
Police found the 16-year-old working as a prostitute through the website Backpage.com, the affidavit said. An undercover sheriff’s deputy called a number listed on a webpage for a woman who went by “Tasha.” She told the investigator she charged $80 for 30 minutes, and he made the appointment.
He was told to go to one Two Notch Road hotel and then was directed to a second hotel. As other officers closed in, Gibson, who was waiting outside in a car, peeled out of a parking space, the affidavit said.
Five officers surrounded his car and drew their guns. Gibson surrendered, and police found a loaded 9mm Glock, .38-caliber ammunition, $1,200 in cash and plastic handcuffs in the car, the affidavit said.
Inside the motel, the 16-year-old ran to another room, where police found Bostic. They found the 19-year-old in a third room. Neither of those teens was charged.
The 19-year-old’s mother picked up her daughter at the motel and told investigators that the teen had bipolar disorder and had not been taking her medication, the affidavit said.
Both teens should be considered victims of sex-trafficking, Waller said. A 16-year-old is too young to consent and someone with a mental disorder is not able to, she said.
“Right there, you’ve got to take it out of the prostitution category because they can’t consent to anything,” Waller said.
Police ran the 16-year-old’s name through a national crime database and discovered that she had been reported as missing. She told officers that she was not getting fed at her grandmother’s house and had been introduced to Gibson by another man, the affidavit said.
Gibson told the girl he would provide food, clothes and a place to stay if she would work for him, the affidavit said. The 16-year-old told police she had prostituted for two or three days.
Bostic took the 16-year-old’s pictures and posted the ad on the website, the affidavit said. The teen allegedly was told to give half of her earnings to Gibson. She had one customer earlier in the day and showed police the $40 she had been allowed to keep.
The 19-year-old told police she was not allowed to keep any of her earnings because Gibson claimed that she owed him $1,000, the affidavit said.
She was not allowed to make phone calls and had been held at gunpoint, handcuffed to a bed and beaten, the affidavit said.
Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, a California-based agency that rescues children from the sex trade, said the narrative of the Columbia sting is typical for child-sex cases in the United States.
A typical pimp has two or three girls of varying ages. It’s common to find runaways and the mentally ill involved, she said.
“You don’t have one guy running a bunch of 12-year-olds,” she said. “There’s not anyone specializing in children.”
Lee’s group advertises its services in the Backpage.com escorts category where personal ads can be found. Its headline reads, “Want out? Free national help.” Teens can call a toll-free hot line and be connected to advocates who help them escape.
Children of the Night accepts teens from across the country. They are flown to Los Angeles, where they receive medical attention, counseling and career training. Its most recent client from South Carolina was a 17-year-old who called for help in 2009, she said. That girl earned a GED through the program.
Many sex ads migrated to Backpage.com after craigslist.org began discouraging them.
But Backpage.com isn’t the issue, Lee said. Pimps and societal problems, such as drugs, are.
Backpage.com is the most common website for law enforcement to find prostitutes, but investigators also find them on other social media outlets. Only on rare occasions do they still find a traditional street walker, said Columbia interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago.
By 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, the Columbia page on Backpage.com had 61 listings for escorts available for the night.
One problem, Waller and Santiago said, is there is no way to tell how old a prostitute is from a the listing.
In the case on Monday, the ad said the girl was 20, and pictures did not show her face. Those who create the ads are clever, Santiago said.
“They don’t talk about money or specific acts,” he said.
Pimps troll for runaways, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.
“They’re not going out to schools and churches and snatching kids up,” he said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.