Crime & Courts

Brainwashed and manipulated. Why SC police have trouble arresting sex traffickers

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Human Trafficking in South Carolina

It’s happening in more ways and more places than most realize.

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The 22-year-old woman carried a diary with a list of rules scribbled on the pages inside, according to a Greenville County investigator.

  • “Keep my eyes on my shoes when I walk.”
  • “Whatever Daddy sets the quota at, meet or exceed that quota.”
  • “When Daddy walks into the room, give him the money immediately.”
  • “Be strong for Daddy.”

She had the diary with her both times she was arrested in a prostitution sting, in two different jurisdictions in Greenville County. Both times, investigators believed she was a victim of sex trafficking, said Jonathan Bastoni, a human trafficking investigator with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.

But she didn’t think so. She told them she was in love. And as a result, she was charged with prostitution.

“There was so much psychological trauma and brainwashing that went on with her,” Bastoni said. “We can’t force someone to be a victim.”

Despite the passage of a law that criminalized human trafficking in 2012, police continue to struggling to arrest the perpetrators and prosecutors often fail to get convictions.

In 2017, half of the human trafficking cases in state courts were dismissed, according to an annual report from the S.C. Attorney General’s Office. Last year, one in five cases was dismissed.

“I think our law is one of the better ones in the country,” said Heather Weiss, a supervising prosecutor in the S.C. Attorney General’s Office. “The problem is you have to have victim cooperation at some level, at some point, in order to move forward. Someone has to cooperate.”

Sex trafficking is often misidentified as prostitution. Children can’t consent to prostitution, according to state law, and anyone who benefits from a child having sex with someone could be arrested for sex trafficking. These cases are easier to establish, because police and prosecutors don’t need a child’s cooperation.

For adults, the problem is much less clear. The difference comes down to choice — when a person uses force, fraud or coercion against another to engage in prostitution, it becomes sex trafficking.

Manipulation and brainwashing play a big role in these cases, law enforcement say, which also explains why cooperation can sometimes be so difficult.

“Most often the victim thinks they’re making that choice. They just think it’s something they’re choosing to do, even though someone is manipulating them,” Bastoni said. “They think if they contact law enforcement and ask for help, they’re probably going to get arrested themselves.”

But sometimes it takes time for people to realize they were victimized. That’s what happened in the case of the 22-year-old Greenville woman.

“It wasn’t until after the third time (she was arrested), where we actually laid it out and said, ‘You are a victim of human trafficking. Here’s how we know,’” Bastoni said. “And even after that, it took her a day or two, and she came back and said, ‘I think you’re right. I think I need help.’”

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Getty Images | Royalty Free Getty Images/iStockphoto

Give the poison. Sell the cure

Traffickers rarely prey on people with a stable home life, high self-esteem and strong support system. It’s most often the people who are looking for something and don’t know how to find it.

To help jurors understand, Assistant Attorney General Kinli Abee said she reads a passage from The Pimp Game: An Instructional Guide, written by Mickey Royal in 1998. A chapter of the book is dedicated to the grooming process:

“You take away everything she has then give her what she needs. You, the pimp, are the cause as well as the solution to all of her problems. You give her the poison, then sell her the cure. Once she has chosen you to deliver her dreams, you are in control.”

A person could be looking for love and security. Or it could be that a woman has always dreamed of becoming a model, said Capt. Heidi Jackson, an investigator with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

A trafficker could use that dream and manipulate her to believe he is the key to that industry. And that’s how the grooming process begins. It’s a series of small steps down a path toward sexual exploitation. It could start with taking photos of the woman and, unbeknownst to her, posting them on a website advertising sex.

A man is on his way, he tells her, and he’s a well-respected agent in the industry. Be sure to take care of him.

“We all have vulnerabilities. Traffickers look for someone with low self-esteem,” Jackson said. “But it could happen to anyone. That’s the really scary part.”

After a person has been convinced to go through with a sex act once, it’s easier to do it again. And later in the grooming process, heroin and crack cocaine are sometimes presented as medicine to take the edge off or to escape uncomfortable situations. But for traffickers, they are tools for compliance. The addiction is so strong that users will do things they normally wouldn’t to get more, and they keep coming back.

In most cases, victims have a lot to lose, said Philip Moniz, a detective with Homeland Security Investigations Task Force in the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. Safety, living arrangements and basic life necessities could all be in jeopardy if they cooperate with law enforcement or try to leave.

“A lot is held over their head, which is how it turns into trafficking,” Moniz said.

It’s a process of breaking a person down over time to a point where the victim feels isolated, Bastoni said.

“She feels like this is her only hope. And a lot of our victims come from broken homes or homes where they don’t really have anyone they can call,” Bastoni said.

By the time police get involved, some may not realize they are a victim. Others may be too scared to talk.

U.S. courthouse in Columbia
U.S. courthouse in Columbia John Monk

Low Conviction Rates

Earlier this year, Richland County deputies spotted a 20-year-old woman sprinting from a car in a motel parking lot. They caught up with her and found her covered in bruises, Jackson said.

She had been sold from one person to another, she told the deputies. She was sitting in a car with a man who had already forced her to have sex with someone for money, and he wanted her to do it again. She couldn’t take anymore, so she ran.

But she refused to say who that man was, Jackson said. She didn’t trust the police.

“She probably felt the safest thing for her was to not talk to us,” Jackson said. “But I wish she had talked to us because we could have offered her a lot of help.”

An arrest was never made in this case, highlighting the importance of victim cooperation. Officers may know exactly what happened, but without a victim, they don’t have a case.

It’s different for children. Law enforcement doesn’t need a child’s cooperation, and they’re usually placed in the custody of a state agency, making them easier to locate for trial.

Even then, it’s tough to get a conviction. Between July 2017 and June 2018, 18 cases of trafficking a minor were resolved in S.C. circuit courts. Three resulted in a guilty plea and the rest were dismissed, according to data from the S.C. Judicial Department.

All 21 cases of trafficking an adult were dismissed.

“The dismissal rate doesn’t mean nothing is happening with the cases. It means nothing happened on that individual charge,” said Abee, the assistant attorney general.

Prosecutors may agree to drop the trafficking charge — which carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison, with an additional 15 years if the victim was a minor — in exchange for a guilty plea for a lesser offense, she said.

“Sometimes you see pleas worked out because getting a conviction is more important than the length of the sentence,” Weiss said. “The sentence may not be as long as you would want it, but it keeps the victims from having to testify and go through it.”

Victims’ services are made available to people whether an arrest is made or not. But for those who do cooperate and identify the trafficker, it’s a long road to prosecution.

Law enforcement and victims’ advocates work to get survivors into long-term treatment facilities so they can receive the help they need while the case is working its way through the justice system. It also helps them keep tabs on the victim when it comes time to go to trial. But sometimes it doesn’t always go according to plan.

“We’ve had cases where we’re working to get the case ready and the victim is missing,” Weiss said.

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A man and a woman were arrested Thursday after they decided to flag down a South Carolina state trooper to settle a dispute over money allegedly used for prostitution. Observer File Art

‘It’s an ongoing process’

The S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force was established when the law that criminalized human trafficking passed in 2012. Comprised of more than 300 members of law enforcement, state agencies and advocates, the task force has embarked on a statewide education campaign.

The goal is for people — whether those in positions of authority, or everyday citizens — to recognize a victim when they see one and connect them with the help they need.

Through that campaign, as well as the state’s efforts to begin tracking the crime, law enforcement is recognizing the problem and changing the way they approach victims. Nonprofit organizations are stepping in to provide services and helping them on the road to recovery.

The state has three long-term programs for trafficking victims — Jasmine Road in Greenville, Doors to Freedom in Charleston and soon Lighthouse for Life in Columbia — and efforts are underway to open a second emergency intake center for people recovered from the streets.

As awareness, service providers and the number of facilities grow, the state’s ability to identify and protect victims will improve, potentially giving victims the time they need to process what happened and cooperate with an investigation, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said.

“It is an ongoing process. We could always do more,” Wilson said. “But I don’t compare us, or anyone for that matter, to the perfect standard. I compare us to where we were several years ago. I think we, as a state, as a community, have grown leaps and bounds.”