Police in NC push back against human traffickers

Six people arrested and another who pleaded guilty in Fayetteville this month are part of a dark human trafficking industry that flourishes across North Carolina, police and victims’ advocates say.

Whether it’s because the industry is growing, or because more law enforcement efforts are being made to try to stop it, “The number of cases has climbed every year,” said Vincent Picard, spokesman for the southern region of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which includes North Carolina. “We know it’s happening, and it’s happening in every community in every state in the country.”

Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to get another person to provide labor or sexual service. In North Carolina, investigators say they see more cases of sex trafficking than labor trafficking, and that victims most often are young women. But they also find cases involving children – male and female victims. Some victims are immigrants who have traveled or been smuggled across borders, while others were born and raised here.

The difference between sex trafficking and prostitution is that prostitutes are older than 18, are in the sex trade willfully and earn money or other payment from the enterprise.

Many trafficking victims get none of the money paid for their services, and they may be physically restrained or held captive in other ways, such as by threats or the withholding of immigration documents. Others – children, especially, who may have run away from families or foster care – may stay because they crave the attention that the traffickers give them to lure them in the first place. They may have nowhere to go and don’t know how – or whom – to ask for help.

In 2013, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Safe Harbor Law, increasing the penalties for human sex traffickers and their customers, and protecting the victims from being prosecuted as prostitutes.

Last year, ICE got a conviction in the case of Shahid Hassan Muslim, who agents said operated a sex trafficking enterprise in Charlotte and other cities for at least three years. He recruited girls as young as 16 by promising them a loving family if they had none. He then advertised the girls on the Internet, and brutally beat and threatened them to control them.

Kevin Roughton, a special agent with State Bureau of Investigation’s computer crimes unit in Raleigh, said that when the SBI or other agencies develop cases, they often ask the U.S. attorney in their district to prosecute because federal court has mandatory sentencing. Cases prosecuted in state court, Roughton said, are treated inconsistently across jurisdictions.

“Many times, we’ll see the exact same statutes violated, sometimes identical circumstances, where you have a charge and a conviction of second- or third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor – typically child pornography – and in one jurisdiction you end up with probation and no active jail time,” Roughton said. “In another jurisdiction you end up with an eight- to 10-year sentence.”

Sgt. James Jones of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office said his department began pursuing human trafficking cases several years ago, first as an outgrowth of the illegal drug trade.

“Some of the guys who were into selling narcotics sort of expanded into this,” Jones said. “There was a lot of heat on drug dealing and they found they could do this and maybe not get caught, and make a lot of money.”

He said his team has worked dozens of human trafficking cases in the past year, from all corners of the county. Jones and others can’t say whether Cumberland County, home to Fort Bragg and traversed by Interstate 95, has a higher incidence of human trafficking compared with other North Carolina counties or just sees more cases because it has officers dedicated to finding them.

Jones said traffickers often target women and girls who are vulnerable, including those who are homeless or runaways. They may befriend them, provide them shelter and other necessities, drugs if they’re addicted, even shower them with gifts and affection to gain their trust. Gradually, they ask or demand that they work in the sex trade.

One way to reduce sex trafficking is to go after customers, as the Sheriff’s Office did in the six arrests last week. Using websites traffickers are known to frequent, investigators placed an ad for sexual services for sale. When the men responded to it, the investigators posed as a 15-year-old girl.

The men made arrangements to meet for what they thought would be a sexual encounter with the girl at a hotel, and when they texted for her to appear, agents arrested them.

Two of those arrested are soldiers based at Fort Bragg.

Each of the men was charged with soliciting a minor for the purpose of prostitution. They are: Alexis Santos, 18, Randall Jerome Knapp, 41, James Daniel Bradford, 26, and Reginald Bateau, 32, all of Fayetteville; Charles Ray Moore, 50, of West End; and Roberto Carlo Morales-Rivera, 30, of Lumberton.

Also this month, Derek Wayne McKoy of Fayetteville was sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison after pleading guilty to prostituting a minor. McKoy, 25, was arrested last year after investigators found he was advertising and selling the sexual services of a 17-year-old Fayetteville girl. The victim told police McKoy would take her to motel rooms in North and South Carolina to meet with customers.

Kelly Twedell, director of the Fayetteville Dream Center, which helps the victims of human trafficking get shelter, counseling and other services, said she sees about one new victim per month.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

Get help

Victims can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 888-373-7888, or text BeFree (233733).