Crime & Courts

As college basketball fans pack Columbia, sex traffickers see financial opportunity

Beneath the crowds of rowdy fans roaming Columbia in their school colors, the packed hotels and the fun and fanfare associated with March Madness, lurks a darker — and mostly unseen — side to large sporting events like NCAA tournaments.

Instances of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking and its associated acts like prostitution, typically increase around large sporting events like the Super Bowl, the World Series and NCAA playoff events and tournaments, according to law enforcement and human rights agencies.

“It’s common with all big events,” said Capt. Heidi Jackson of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s victim services unit. “We have tourists, we have people who normally wouldn’t be here, (they’re) maybe not with their families. It’s a market. Where there’s gonna be the money, there’s gonna be the problem.”

Columbia is hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this week, and the Capital City stands ready to welcome some 25,000 people to the area. For sex traffickers who sell women and girls as “product,” wherever they go depends on where the opportunity lies to carry out their criminal enterprise, according to Kathryn Moorehead, coordinator of the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force.

“They tend to follow those events where it may be a more predominantly male population,” Moorehead said. “And they will use the Internet to advertise and exploit victims. You have a larger pool of people to sell your product to. That’s essentially how they view these people they’re exploiting, as their product.”

Human trafficking was a problem in South Carolina and in the Midlands long before Columbia was selected in 2017 to host this year’s first- and second-round tournaments. In February 2016, a sting operation at a Two Notch Road motel led to the arrest of a man and his mother on trafficking and child pornography charges connected with selling teenage girls to strangers.

Richland County leads the state in reported cases of human trafficking, and last year had 15 percent of all new cases in state court while holding more than 50 percent of the state’s pending cases, according to the most recent S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force report.

Columbia’s proximity to cities like Charleston, Charlotte, Myrtle Beach and Atlanta, along with access to Interstates 20, 26 and 77, makes it fertile ground for a variety of businesses — including the illicit ones, Jackson said. And it doesn’t take huge national events like the Super Bowl or an NCAA tournament for traffickers to show up.

“Even at Fort Jackson graduations, on the night before their graduation, we’ll see more people in the hotels around the base,” Jackson said. “They get to know the patterns of, ‘Oh, they’re having this here. Let’s go to Columbia.’ Or, ‘They’re having this in Charlotte; I’ll take the girls to Charlotte.’”

What looks like a single case of prostitution on its surface may turn out to be part of a larger operation, according to Jackson.

“If we arrest someone for human trafficking, it’s not usually right on the spot,” she said. “It’s after we do some interviews, we take statements, we process evidence and then we make the case and get a warrant.”

Law enforcement has been preparing for the influx of people to the Columbia area for this week’s tournament, including sex traffickers, Jackson said, although she declined to say what specifically they have planned.

“We knew it was happening and we’ve got things planned,” she said. “It’s not that we’re more concerned about this event than any event, because (human trafficking) is here. It’s just we have a few other things we might be doing or looking out for in that time period.”

In addition to keeping an eye on online channels where traffickers conduct their business, law enforcement will have officers out and about while the tournament and its festivities are going on.

“As with any large-scale special event, we will have plainclothes and uniformed officers working to include the perimeter of the Colonial Life Arena and hotels in entertainment districts in the city,” Columbia police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said.

Posters about how to spot and report human trafficking have been put up ahead of the tournament at Colonial Life Arena and at certain locations around Columbia, including the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, Moorehead said.

Although law enforcement officers are trained in where and how to spot signs of trafficking, Moorehead said anyone can spot suspicious people or activities and report them.

“A lot of times, people’s gut will tell them if something is wrong,” she said. “Typically if you see somebody who appears to be controlled by another person, someone taking money from them, if an individual is looking to someone else before they engage with other people — those sort of power dynamics can appear quite odd.”

Anyone who wants to report a tip can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or Crimestoppers at 888-274-6372.

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Teddy Kulmala covers breaking news for The State and covered crime and courts for seven years in Columbia, Rock Hill, Aiken and Lumberton, N.C. He graduated from Clemson University and grew up in Barnwell County.