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Documents reveal web sex trafficking in Charlotte

Charlotte investigation in University area is part of national effort

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • Victim assistance

    People who are victims of human trafficking can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. You can also text “Help” or “Info” to 233733



The image shows a woman draped against the wall of a hotel room, face obscured but her body in a seductive pose.

“Hi Guys!!! Looking to get into somthin??? Look no further,” the ad on a Charlotte-area site of Backpage.com reads. “Im available right now …so what are you waiting for??? Call me”

The July 26 advertisement included an Atlanta-area phone number. The woman’s name was Blackberry.

Around 11 p.m. on the same day, court documents obtained by the Observer say, a prostitute named Blackberry walked into a room at the University Executive Drive Holiday Inn – in a bustling business park near a hospital, a shopping center and a police station.

But instead of a client, she found an undercover officer, according to the criminal complaint. The encounter was part of a national campaign to crack down on sex trafficking.

Court documents provide a window into the growing crimes of Internet-based prostitution and human trafficking in Charlotte. Advocates estimate Internet solicitation accounts for 80 percent of prostitution in America.

Federal agents and local police announced they had arrested more than 150 alleged pimps as part of the campaign, although they concede it’s a small dent in a big problem.

In Charlotte, investigators say, they contacted people advertising as escorts on Backpage.com and made contact with a prostitute who went by the name of Blackberry. The court documents don’t cite the specific ad, but details between the ad and the hotel encounter match.

In total, three people the FBI described as pimps were arrested in Charlotte, according to a statement.

Charlotte-area law enforcement also say they rescued one underage girl in Charlotte, although all court documents related to the arrests have not been unsealed.

FBI agents charged Keshaun Obrien Rhodes, 30, with transporting Blackberry and another woman from Georgia to North Carolina to engage in prostitution, a federal crime. Rhodes, whose first name is also listed in some records as Keshawn, was in Mecklenburg jail late Sunday.

A prostitution hub

Estimates vary, but advocates say Charlotte has more human trafficking than any other place in North Carolina.

Atlanta is another hub – one that some groups have ranked No. 1 in the country. Its location, just a few hours from Charlotte, makes it easy for traveling groups of traffickers to come into the Queen City for a night or a weekend, ply their trade, then disappear.

For traffickers, selling sex can be less risky than dealing drugs – and more lucrative, says Aimee Johnson, founder of Rise Up ministries, an organization that works with victims of human trafficking.

“A girl they can sell 10 to 40 times a day for several years of her life,” Johnson said. Prostitutes can bring in $1,000 to $2,000 a day.

Girls as young as 12 or 13 are approached by pimps and gangs – at the mall, in enclaves of runaways, and increasingly on social networking websites.

After ensnaring a girl, pimps invest heavily in what they call the grooming process, which can take as many as two years. Physical and emotional abuse are often coupled with support and appealing to a girl’s needs.

“Does she need food? Does she need shelter? Does she need affirmation? A lot of times the girls, they say that their pimp is their boyfriend,” Johnson said. “If you have a boyfriend for two years and he asks you to sell your body, you don’t think of it as prostitution.

“It’s heartbreaking to see what it does to the young women. They’re not allowed to keep their own money. They can’t eat until he says they can eat. They can’t sleep until he says they can sleep.”

A drive from Georgia

Confronted by investigators on July 26, Blackberry cooperated, according to court documents. She told investigators she lived in Georgia and was in Charlotte for the weekend to trade sex for money.

According to court documents, she said Rhodes had posted the ad on Backpage.com and dropped her off at the Holiday Inn just a few moments before she walked into the hotel room. Another woman, also a prostitute, made the drive with her from Georgia and was in the car with Rhodes.

On Rhodes’ cell phone, investigators say, were “text messages and internet activity … consistent with an individual involved in prostitution.” The complaint doesn’t detail what investigators saw.

It’s unclear what happened to the women mentioned in the affidavit. The Observer does not typically list the names of victims of sex crimes, but a search of N.C. criminal records showed neither had been arrested. Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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