Crime & Courts

A sting began SC sex trafficker’s road to prison. The case shows the crime’s realities

Responding to an online ad for sex, a man pulled up to a motel off Interstate 75 in Valdosta, Georgia.

He paid a man in the parking lot and was told to go into a room where a woman was waiting for him. Inside the room, the man saw a woman who was battered, bruises surrounding her eyes and on her neck and arms. But the “customer” wasn’t there to hurt her more.

He was an undercover deputy working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The woman’s marks and lacerations were enough evidence for the deputy to arrest the man in the motel parking lot.

The 2017 arrest by a deputy with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office of Georgia started a human trafficking case against Kenneth Hutto, a 46-year-old Summerville man with an extensive criminal record, according to authorities. The case illuminates how drugs, money and even a victim’s child can be used against them by their traffickers.

“Even though the things the traffickers are doing to them are bad, it’s not the worst they might have gone through in the past,” said Beth Messick, director of Jasmine Road, an organization that helps women living with trafficking and addiction. “They come from very traumatic backgrounds, and traffickers are skilled at preying on people who are vulnerable.”

Friday, U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson sentenced Hutto to the maximum 10 years in prison on two counts of transporting a person for illegal sexual activity, a crime commonly called pimping.

‘Listed’

Hutto was familiar with court proceedings years before 2017, court records show.

In 1995, a judge in Dorchester County found Hutto guilty of domestic violence, and he served 30 days in the county jail, according to records. Later the same year, police charged him with felony drug distribution, forgery and other offenses to which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in South Carolina prisons.

When he was released, the law barred him from owning any guns. But in 2005, Dorchester police found him in possession of a pistol. He pleaded to a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a gun and began a 10-year sentence in a federal prison in Massachusetts, court documents show.

While in federal prison, Hutto met the victim of his human trafficking scheme, identified as E.B., and they developed a relationship, according to court records. It’s unclear how they met.

E.B. had fled an abusive husband, one who beat her so severely the injuries caused lasting spinal pain, prosecutors said. She had no means of earning money for food, a house and to take care of her son, she’d later tell police.

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Bruising on E.B.’s arm presented as evidence with a statement she wrote to police in the background. Court documents

E.B. and Hutto met in person in March 2017.

When the undercover Lowndes deputy arrested Hutto, authorities began gathering more evidence for a human trafficking case.

Another person told a grand jury he bought sex from E.B. and paid Hutto in Bluffton.

Hutto’s phone was confiscated, and with evidence gathered from it, they arrested a woman who had sold him methamphetamine, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation documents. The drug dealer told the Lowndes County deputy and a grand jury that she had been around Hutto at times when he sold E.B. for sex at motels.

“He was proud to say he listed her” online for sex, the witness said.

‘Trauma bonding’

The dealer told the grand jury Hutto had explained how much people paid and how much time they had when he sold E.B. for sex. He threatened E.B. if she came back from what Hutto called “a date” with too little money.

E.B. had no control of any of the money, the dealer said. She couldn’t buy her own clothes or food or have any money to take care of her son. The teenager was in a room next door when an exchange happened at a certain motel, the dealer said. Hutto was “very open” with the son about “what he did with E.B.”

In a text exchange, Hutto tells E.B., “I can snatch your kid up and haul ass across the state.”

Hutto withheld pain and other prescription medication from E.B., the dealer said. If she felt lingering pain from her former husband’s abuse, she had to ask Hutto for medicine. He provided E.B. with meth as well.

He wouldn’t let her be alone, even forbidding E.B. from closing the bathroom door and sometimes going into the bathroom with her, the dealer told the grand jury. He completely isolated E.B. from anyone outside his control.

The dealer recalled one incident after she said Hutto had pimped out E.B. When she returned to the car from the motel room, she gave Hutto $60 of the $75 he asked for. He became angry and threatened to confront the person who’d paid. E.B. gave him the other $15 then.

E.B. wanted “to make sure that she had money to take her son ... to do something while he was with her,” the dealer told the grand jury.

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Beth Messick teaches a class on sex trafficking and her work behind Jasmine Road. Messick has been working with victims of the commercial sex industry for years but opened Jasmine Road in 2018. It is a residential community for victims of sex trafficking and enables women to undergo therapy, drug treatment and offers them help to go to school. Gavin McIntyre gmcintyre@thestate.com

With human traffickers, “there’s lot of financial manipulation as well as drug manipulation,” Messick said. “Sometimes traffickers get victims hooked on drugs, heroin and opiates, and withhold those drugs from them.”

And, in cases of a victim having a child, the traffickers often threaten to take the son or daughter away or report the victim to authorities, who would separate the parent and child.

Abuse and manipulation during trafficking like E.B. went through often results in “trauma bonding,” or a feeling of connection that’s brought about by coercion rather than mutual care, Messick said. Trauma bonding can be difficult to recognize and overcome for survivors. But E.B. came to understand her abuse and sought to separate herself from it, court records show.

‘Survival skills’

While the time frame isn’t exactly clear, days before the undercover sting, Hutto punched E.B. in a motel room for not doing what he wanted, according to recorded conversations and testimony. Her son was in the room.

“Her eye was bloodshot,” a witness who saw her later said. “Around her eye her eyelid looked like it was going to fall off it was so black and purple.”

The witness also told police Hutto had said he “was tired of (E.B.).“

When the undercover deputy arrested Hutto, he took E.B. for questioning as well. In a letter she wrote later, E.B. said she was told by a deputy that police found evidence on Hutto’s phone that he was going to give her to “another guy.” With that knowledge, she wrote a statement describing Hutto’s abuse and trafficking.

“Over the past couple of months of doing these acts I felt I wanted to stop but I had no other means of supporting myself,” she wrote.

But in later recorded conversations and letters, she talked about her sympathy and love for Hutto.

She spoke with Hutto over a jail phone on the same day she wrote the statement. He expressed disbelief that he was being presented as the bad guy in the situation.

“ ‘Cause I let you sell (yourself). ... That doesn’t bother me. ... I grew up around that so maybe, maybe I am twisted in the head,” he said at one point in the conversation.

In January, Hutto pleaded guilty to the two human trafficking charges.

After Hutto’s arrest, E.B. lived in a women’s shelter, but court documents don’t show if she left or where she ended up. But Messick said she’s seen women in E.B.’s same position come to her home.

They can take their “survival skills and use them in a positive way,” Messick said. “What’s amazing to see is when women come out of that situation and they find mentors and people who genuinely care about them they start to heal and recover.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.
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