Prosecutors shift approach on underage sex trafficking

abylthe@newsobserver.comOctober 5, 2013 

  • Children as young as 12 targeted

    The U.S. Department of Education says that trafficking can involve school-age children – particularly those not living with their parents. Sex traffickers target children because of their vulnerability and gullibility, as well as the market demand for young victims. Those who recruit minors into prostitution violate federal anti-trafficking laws, even if there is no coercion or movement across state lines. The children at risk are not just high school students – studies demonstrate that pimps prey on victims as young as 12. Traffickers have been reported targeting their minor victims through telephone chat lines, at clubs, on the street, through friends and at malls, as well as using girls to recruit other girls at schools and after-school programs.

The teenage girl went to the school nurse. She complained of symptoms that once might have been dismissed but instead revealed a sordid, violent world at the root of her pain – a sex-trafficking industry that criminal justice professionals are looking at with new perspective.

The girl was 14, from North Carolina and had just escaped from an ordeal in which, according to federal prosecutors, she had been coerced into prostitution by a man who had threatened harm to her and her family with numbing regularity.

She said a 15-year-old girl was still with the man. Federal prosecutors say Christopher Jason Williams had sexual relations with the girls and forced them to pose for photographs and videos posted to escort service websites.

In the past, children and adults in such circumstances might have been charged with crimes related to prostitution. Prosecutors across North Carolina are adopting a different stance now, one that is the result of a new understanding about the harsh dynamics of sex trafficking. New laws are treating the children as abused victims, which criminal justice officials say vast numbers are.

Prosecutors also are trying better to coordinate their new efforts, calling on teachers, human services providers, families and law enforcement officers to look into the faces of the young girls and boys in the streets and on websites – and to think differently. States across the country are setting up special courts for prostitution cases, intending to pull sex- and human-trafficking victims out of the cycle of abuse.

“Human trafficking is a national epidemic and it is also happening here, in our communities, with many of the victims and perpetrators hiding in plain sight,” said Anne Tompkins, the top federal prosecutor in North Carolina’s Western District, a 32-county region that includes Charlotte, Asheville, Statesville and Bryson City.

A secret, captive life

The case of Christopher Jason Williams, the 33-year-old man arrested by Fayetteville city police and federal authorities, is one of the first in North Carolina to develop from a more concentrated effort at identifying and supporting victims.

Williams, prosecutors said, looked by most outward appearances to be a typical guy going about day-to-day routines.

But inside a two-bedroom apartment in the Summerhill Townhouse community in Fayetteville, federal prosecutors contend the man was engaging in what many have described as modern-day slavery.

Fayetteville police charged him in January with 53 counts each of statutory rape, statutory sex offense and indecent liberties with a child.

While he was being held in the Cumberland County jail under a $1.325 million bond, federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of North Carolina, a 44-county region that stretches from Raleigh to the coast, charged him with two counts of sex trafficking of children, charges he pleaded guilty to this summer in a deal that dropped multiple child pornography charges. He awaits sentencing from a federal judge and faces at least 10 years in prison on each count.

The 14-year-old girl, whose name was not revealed in federal or city court documents, had been left on her own in the streets by her captor after he thought she was pregnant, prosecutors say. Though that was not the case, a pregnant girl would have lesser value to him, and she was sent away.

Like many of the adolescents lured into the sex trade, the teen came from a difficult home life and did not immediately return to her family.

She sought refuge initially with a boy she had befriended in a neighborhood near her captor, but his family soon insisted that she return to her home. Once home, though, the girl did not immediately reveal what she had been through.

It was not until she returned to school in early January that she provided a full account to an adult.

Efforts to reach Gerald Beaver, a Fayetteville lawyer representing Williams, were unsuccessful.

Slowly building a case

The prosecution of Williams in federal court shows the difficult path the cases can take.

Leslie Cooley, a federal prosecutor from the Eastern District of North Carolina, said at a recent conference on trafficking in Raleigh that the case not only illustrates what human trafficking can look like in North Carolina, but also highlights weaknesses in strategies for responding to possible exploitation of minors that authorities are trying to overcome.

Initially, the school nurse was skeptical of the story from a runaway girl. Credibility concerns can often follow runaways and victims of abuse, Cooley said. The nurse did not immediately contact law enforcement officers, but passed along the account to a school counselor. The counselor ultimately alerted investigators, Cooley said.

An officer at the first law enforcement agency listened to the details, according to prosecutors, but because the actions took place in a different jurisdiction, the girl was encouraged to file a report with the agency where the alleged crimes occurred. That could have been the end.

The case landed in the Fayetteville police department on Jan. 5, but detectives with the Youth Services Division there took action.

Investigators there sought descriptive details about the apartment from the 14-year-old. That would help detectives better corroborate the girl’s account while searching the premises.

They wanted to know what the apartment looked like and who might be there.

A detective went to the man’s apartment twice before an arrest was made.

One man, two plates

On the first visit, Williams was slow to answer the door, according to prosecutors, but agreed to let the investigator have a look inside with a caution about his place being messy.

Williams had told police he was home alone, but the detective noticed some things that looked suspicious. There were two plates of food on the table, though Williams had claimed no one else was in the apartment.

Williams had said a friend was coming over to eat with him, but the detective wondered why the food was already on the plate.

The detective’s suspicions were heightened, but there was not enough information to file charges at that time.

The police searched their computers for any outstanding warrants and served two that accused Williams of failure to appear in court on a low-level outstanding charge unrelated to sex trafficking. His detention was not long. He posted bond quickly.

Still, the detective was not deterred.

A hideaway reluctant to leave

Several days later, on Jan. 8, the Fayetteville officer went back to the apartment. A moving van was outside. Williams’ brother was there. This time the detective had a photo of the girl’s 15-year-old friend. The 15-year-old had tattoos in four places – a common sex-trade-style branding that can signify “ownership” by exploiters.

The brother recognized the 15-year-old and told the detective: “That’s the girl inside.”

Williams, according to prosecutors, responded that he had a girl with him overnight but was reluctant to let police inside.

Again, the detective noted several details that were curious. When the defendant had come to the door, he had what looked like building insulation in his hair.

A search of the apartment did not immediately turn up the girl but, then, a search of the attic crawl space exposed the hidden child.

The girl would not immediately come down from her hiding place. Law enforcement officers said they could detain her as a runaway. Court documents do not name her.

After an initial reluctance to recount her experience, the 15-year-old corroborated the account of the 14-year-old, confirming she had been lured into the ordeal after connecting on a social networking site.

Girl, 14, lured into sex work

The 15-year-old had been with her captor for almost eight months.

In that time, she had started corresponding with the 14-year-old, messaging each other on a website.

Both girls had been on a hunt for love and support to numb troubled pasts. Their first meeting was at a Burger King.

On Dec. 14, according to prosecutors, the 14-year-old went to Williams’ apartment with her new friend from the Burger King. But the friendliness she had encountered outside the apartment soon took a turn toward captivity.

Her new friend and the 33-year-old man she had been living with took her cellphone, broke it and prohibited her from leaving by threatening to kill her family, prosecutors alleged.

Soon the girl was being forced to pose nude for photos and videos that would be posted to Web pages to lure paying customers.

Photos of the girls holding up boards hiding their faces but displaying phone numbers were posted to sites.

On at least one of the sites, prosecutors contended, Williams paid an extra $7 to have photos at the top of a list, arrangements made from a mobile phone that provided evidence for law enforcement officers.

When johns were with the girls, prosecutors contend, the defendant was in his other bedroom monitoring the activity. The girls had been instructed to leave any money on the bed, threatened with beatings and forced sexual activity if they strayed.

Scant information was available about what has happened to the girls since the arrest of Williams. Because they are underage, any programs or help they might have received have been shielded from the public.

Prosecutors target sex traffic

In North Carolina, there has been a new push to educate law enforcement on how to identify and then investigate such sex trafficking cases.

The state’s three U.S. attorneys recently conducted a two-day symposium to outline ways law enforcement officers and human service providers can work together to bust the myth that sex trafficking only happens overseas to young girls.

Though it is difficult to know the breadth of the problem in North Carolina, many believe it to be more prevalent than court records and cases show.

Some states and cities have begun to set up specialized criminal courts designed to better assist removing victims of sex trafficking from the exploitation and provide them with services to escape further abuse and arrest.

Special courts already exist in the cities of Baltimore, Md.; Columbus, Ohio; Phoenix; and West Palm Beach, Fla. The state of New York announced last week that it would go a step further and create a statewide system.

The revised approach comes amid a sharper focus on the sex trafficking of minors in the United States.

The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences set up in 1970 to provide “unbiased and authoritative advice to decision-makers and the public,” released a report last week offering recommendations for responding with a comprehensive approach.

“Many professionals and individuals who interact with youth – such as teachers, health care providers, child welfare professionals and law enforcement – are unaware that these crimes occur and often are ill-equipped with how to respond to victims, survivors and those at risk,” the report summary states.

The report came from a committee that investigated the issue and recommended more training among professionals, supplementing a public-awareness campaign with details of how to recognize problems.

North Carolina was one of 39 states this year to pass legislation aimed at combating human trafficking, according to the Polaris Project, a national organization that tracks such efforts.

The General Assembly adopted a bill this summer that increases penalties for sex traffickers and johns and ensures that minors being trafficked are treated as victims who are eligible for state services and support.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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