Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

kelly twedell2

For days, a 14-year-old girl walked around a Fayetteville motel on Skibo Road wearing nothing but a tight shirt and shorts that barely covered her bottom.
She didn't have shoes or any personal belongings. She didn't talk to anyone.

But she hoped a hotel employee or patron - anyone - would speak to her.

She walked around the hallways, up and down stairs and into common areas.

Her quiet pleas for help went unanswered.

When the person who had brought her there returned, she was in one of the motel's rooms, forced to have sex with dozens of men, some soldiers, for money she never kept.

After Fayetteville police rescued her, Kelly Twedell, director of the Fayetteville Dream Center, asked the girl why she didn't tell motel employees, or anyone else, she needed help.

"Because no one would have believed me," she said.

She didn't run because she didn't have shoes or proper clothes.

kelly twedell1Her story isn't unique.

She was a victim of human sex trafficking, a $9.5 billion industry in the U.S. that awareness groups say is happening in more places than people realize - including Fayetteville.

Victims struggle to get out while law enforcement struggles to get in.

Awareness, law enforcement training and more effective legislation are increasing.

But while society struggles to keep up, this cottage industry churns on, with lives damaged, profits made and no sure decline in sight.

Demand fuels the cycle

In the destructive cycle of human trafficking, removing "normal" is the first step to understanding. Victims' backgrounds and subsequent police investigations do not follow conventional routes.

Traffickers groom their victims, advocates say. They buy them expensive gifts, take them on trips and tell them they're beautiful. Slowly, their victims find themselves in hotel rooms having sex with upward of as many as 50 men a weekend on "dates," say those who have helped victims following their escape.

Sex with strangers at the hands of a pimp becomes a way of survival, a way to keep their secret private and a way to keep themselves and their family safe, Twedell said.

Self-identification is lost. Most don't understand they're victims. It's an enslavement of the body and mind.

Sex trafficking is a revolving door where justice and freedom struggle to enter. The door has three parts keeping it moving: victims who are groomed, police training that hasn't caught up with the growing problem, and the overwhelming demand for people to provide sex in exchange for money.

"If you don't have a demand, then the whole process will decrease," said Dr. Sharon Cooper, a developmental and forensic pediatrician based in Fayetteville. She's considered an expert on human trafficking.

It's a dark topic that many avoid, but local advocates say it's important to understand human trafficking is happening in Fayetteville and the Cape Fear region. Many of the victims Twedell has worked with attended Fayetteville high schools.

"(Victims) are from your neighborhood, right next to you," said Fayetteville police Sgt. Carl Wile, supervisor of the department's human trafficking unit.

Advocates say it's also important to talk to young girls about the topic.

"This should be common dinner table talk," Twedell said. "By age 14, if we're not reaching out to girls and educating them, we're too late. Eighth grade is too late to talk to girls about human trafficking."

The Dream Center worked with 23 victims of sex trafficking in the last year. All were girls who grew up in Fayetteville, and they hit all socioeconomic levels: upper, middle and lower class homes.

It's also important to understand there's a difference between prostitution and trafficking, Cooper said.

"Prostitution is when you have the exchange of sex for money or drugs or something else involving two people: the person exchanging sex and the person who is buying it," she said. "Trafficking is when you have a third party involved."

In 2013 and 2014, the Fayetteville Police Department handled 37 cases of sex trafficking involving 39 victims and 49 suspects. This year, the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office has already made nine human trafficking arrests, leading to 27 charges.

The number of victims still left in Fayetteville is unknown, and the number of cases could rise as area law enforcement agencies become more qualified to handle trafficking cases.

An estimated 300,000 children nationwide are at risk of being prostituted, according to the Polaris Project, an organization that runs the call centers for the National Human Trafficking hotline.

It's unknown exactly how many of those victims are in North Carolina, but the project estimates North Carolina to be the fifth-worst state for trafficking based on the number of calls it's received to the hotline originating in the state. In 2014, there were 563 calls, 21 emails and 19 online tips made to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center from North Carolina.

Reusable product

Investigators say sex trafficking is an easier business to run than drug dealing because its product can be sold over and over. Pimps even tag their victims like an item on a store shelf, often by tattooing a barcode on the body.

Victims are normally targeted between ages 12 and 16, according to a February study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics authored by Dr. Jordan Greenbaum and Dr. James E. Crawford-Jakubiak. The study says it is unknown exactly what percentage are girls, but higher proportions of females have been identified as victims.

"The average girl is 13 to 14 years old when she becomes a victim," Wile said.

In 2014, one in six endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children was believed to be a sex trafficking victim.

"If you have runaways in your community, you have trafficking," Wile said. "I would say (one out of six) may even be too low."

Advocates say becoming a victim of sex trafficking is easy.

"(Traffickers) watch bus stops," Wile said. "They want to see who doesn't look like they want to go home. They're looking for the kid that stands alone. All it takes is for parents to not care or to not pay enough attention. Traffickers want to fulfill those needs the kids don't have. They give them a belonging. They pull them in nicely and give them a hook."

Most are fooled into thinking they're taking legitimate jobs.

In March, Robin Applewhite, 38, of Spring Lake was charged with human trafficking after a woman he held against her will in his basement managed to escape and run for help, according to court documents.

Spring Lake police Capt. Billy Tharpe said Applewhite and the woman met in Fayetteville but did not know each other. Tharpe wasn't sure how they arranged the meeting.

Tharpe said the woman willingly got into Applewhite's vehicle and went to his home. Applewhite told the woman he wanted her to work for him. At the house, an affidavit says, the woman was introduced to two other women who Applewhite said worked for him as prostitutes. The women's ages were not released.

Many of the young girls Twedell has helped met their future pimps at parties or at the mall with no supervision from adults and consider the man who's trafficking them their "boyfriend." For most, it's the first time someone with power has given them attention, she said.

"These are guys in their 20s or older who are with girls as young as 14," she said. "They buy young girls food and clothes and get their nails done. They build this boyfriend, girlfriend relationship."

Cooper said there are two types of traffickers: finesse pimps and guerilla pimps. Finesse pimps act like boyfriends and spend a lot of money on the victim initially.

"Then they finally say, 'I've run out of money and this is what I need you to do, and it won't make me love you any less,'" Cooper said. "They make a princess a worker, but the only person who gets the money is the offender."

A guerilla pimp, Cooper said, uses brute force to gain control. He may sexually assault his victim, then steal her wallet and cellphone and threaten her family's life if the victim doesn't cooperate.

"The whole point is that both of these types of offenders have power and control through physical violence," Cooper said. "They manage to keep people afraid. This is an entire subculture and many normal people don't understand this."

The grooming of victims makes it difficult for police to bring charges against pimps, because victims are unwilling to talk to investigators either out of fear of their guerilla pimp or the feeling of love for their finesse pimp.

Glimmer of kindness

Pam Strickland of Eastern North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking, an organization that provides training to spot trafficking victims, including to hotel employees, said awareness and understanding by the public is key in ending sex trafficking.

"It's really going to take a change of attitude with the public in general," she said. "Some law enforcement jurisdictions have pretty much stopped arresting women for the crime of prostitution, understanding that regardless of what they say, at some point they were probably manipulated into it."

But it's hard to help someone who doesn't always want to be helped, Strickland said.

"It's a lot like domestic violence in that the perpetrator is abusive and treats them horribly, but every once in a while shows them a glimmer of kindness and love," Strickland said. "Then the victim goes, 'Oh he really does love me.' So she stays there."

One girl Twedell helped talked happily about a time her trafficker took her to a hotel near the beach. The girl, Twedell said, was excited she got to spend a weekend on the coast for the first time in her life, even though at night, she was sold for sex.

Some pimps will sexually assault victims to blackmail them into staying.

"They take pictures of the assault and use that as blackmail," Cooper said. "Then (the victim) agrees to exchange sex."

On May 14, two teenagers were charged with trafficking a student from a Hoke County high school. Deandre Spivey-McLean threatened to post sexually explicit pictures of a girl on social media if she didn't perform sexual acts on him and several others, the Hoke County Sheriff's Office said. JeSean McPhaul provided transportation for the girl between the school and the locations where the acts took place, the Sheriff's Office said.

"Traffickers will look for the girl's weaknesses and use that against them," Wile said.

Other victims begin using drugs to get through the long nights and become addicted, staying for their next fix, Twedell said.

For nearly three weeks in 2014, a 20-year-old trafficking victim had been threatened, forced to take cocaine and an ecstasy-like drug called "Molly," which causes psychedelic effects. The woman told The Fayetteville Observer in 2014 that she began taking the drugs "just to take my mind off stuff."

A 2014 study done by the Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy said out of 102 trafficking survivors who were surveyed, 84 percent of them developed some form of substance abuse.

Of those victims, 95 percent of them received some form of physical abuse from their pimp.

"(Victims) are typically told how much money they have to make a night and if they don't come back with that much money, they'll be beaten," Cooper said. "It's a life of oppression."

Another tactic used by traffickers to keep girls is to create a need for themselves.

"We've seen cases where (the trafficker) will get her robbed or beat up," Wile said. "They show the girls they need (their pimp) for protection."

'Something's not right'

Those planned robberies can sometimes lead investigators to the trafficking ring.

"We've had (trafficking) cases that start as shootings or robberies," Wile said. "But then you look at them closer and you see something's not right."

It could be how a girl is dressed, her health or how she responds to police.

"Some investigators will see those human trafficking clues and a case begins to develop," Wile said. "Then we need to break down the idea to (victims) that they need (the pimp)."

An understanding of sex trafficking is relatively new and has developed over the last few years, Twedell said, which is why many law enforcement agencies aren't properly trained to handle cases.

"It was easier to look at the surface of a case and call it drug possession and prostitution," Twedell said. "But what (investigators) realize now, is that if they dig deeper, it's trafficking."

In 2000, the first federal law regarding trafficking passed in the U.S., which provided funding for trafficking victims, Cooper said.

"Another big change is that we, as a country, decided it was wrong to arrest juveniles for what we would call prostitution," Cooper said. "... We didn't recognize that juveniles weren't selling themselves."

For two years, Cooper said Dr. Richard Estes, a sex trafficking expert, traveled across the country to interview minors who had been charged with prostitution.

"The overwhelming majority were sold by someone else," Cooper said.

The difference between prosecuting cases of adult victims is that investigators have to prove that either force, fraud or coercion took place.

Much of that falls upon what the victim says and the investigator's training.

"Cops don't know how to spot a trafficking victim," Wile said. "And if they do, they don't know how to interview them. Typical interview procedures won't work in these cases. These girls are brainwashed to protect their pimps. You have to show them their victimization.

"Cops don't know how to dig it out of people. They don't know how to spot (a victim). There needs to be more training for officers."

Police aren't alone. Most research indicates doctors, teachers, youth leaders and coaches also do not recognize signs of possible trafficking.

Making strides

In 2012, North Carolina made strides to help law enforcement better handle trafficking cases.

"Human trafficking finally became a piece of the basic law enforcement training," Strickland said. "It's a two-hour block of training . it's not enough, but it's better than nothing."

The BLET course is divided into 36 blocks totaling 620 hours. It takes 16 weeks to complete.

Officers trained before 2012 who haven't taken trafficking classes have the option to take them during their yearly continuing education hours.

"The problem is that if you have the chief or the sheriff of these communities who themselves don't really know what human trafficking is, then they're not having their staff go to that training," Strickland said. "That's been an issue across the state."

The Fayetteville Police Department has a dedicated team to work trafficking cases, which includes two detectives, a sergeant and one analyst. The department started training officers on human trafficking about a year ago, Wile said.

He and Twedell also applied recently for a grant that would create a human trafficking task force using multiple jurisdictions in North Carolina, including Cumberland County, Raleigh and Wilmington. The task force would help jurisdictions work together to catch traffickers who sell in multiple areas of the state.

Cumberland County Sheriff Moose Butler implemented an undercover operation called Operation Save Our Children 2015 to combat trafficking in the county.

"In light of the larger anti-human trafficking campaign, I wanted to make sure we conducted a specific type of operation, which was undercover and which would net arrests of those who are prone to engage and want to engage in human trafficking to take advantage of minors," Butler said.

The operation has run once and six men were charged.

"Given its success, I intend for it to continue," Butler said.

Next year, human trafficking training will be mandatory for all law enforcement officers, new and old, in the state.

Congresswoman Renee Ellmers also is taking steps to help find trafficking victims.

Ellmers' Trafficking Awareness Training for Health Care Act, which will be an amendment to the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act, will focus on helping those in the medical community learn to spot victims. The bill will begin by adding trafficking training to medical and nursing schools.

The Beazley Institute study says 87 percent of 107 trafficking survivors who were surveyed had been in contact with a health-care provider while they were being trafficked. Of those, 63 percent went to a hospital or emergency room and 30 percent were seen by medical professionals at Planned Parenthood.

"This is important because the majority of those being trafficked are going to our hospitals, the same hospitals where you and I go," Ellmers said. "Those traffickers want them to be treated and back out on the street."

Ellmers said she did a lot of research on domestic trafficking and learned the medical community doesn't receive training on how to address victims or spot the signs of trafficking. Getting professionals trained will help victims get onto the path of recovery more quickly, she said.

"I think as this plays out, we'll see a significant difference," she said. "The medical community may be the only contact those individuals have."

The legislation is heading to President Barack Obama's desk now, Ellmers said.

"This has had overwhelming bipartisan support," she said. "It's very important to so many. (Trafficking) is very prevalent in our own community and it's something we all need to be aware of . I think this (legislation) is just the starting point. There are many other sides to this issue I think we can all work on."

Help in the end

New laws and more training will only do so much if the victims can't be kept safe after their rescue.

There's a great need for better resources to keep the girls from being trafficked again, Twedell said.

"It's all in the follow-up," she said, explaining one girl she rescued was contacted by her pimp through Facebook after being saved. He offered her more clothes, shoes and money if she worked for him again.

She didn't accept.

"It's easy to fall back into the trap when someone starts paying attention to them again," Twedell said. "So we need to be giving them positive attention."

Agencies like the Dream Center compete with traffickers to keep girls safe. The revolving door struggles to stop.

"(Survivors) are always being offered something new," Twedell said. "(Advocates) need to provide them services that are better. There's a lack of self-esteem and it's not easy to go forward with work or school. I'll show them the used clothes closet and they're like 'Spsh, you should see the new clothes he bought me.' They're not impressed."

Twedell also faces setbacks when she tries to find the girls places to live.

"A lot of these girls don't want to go to safe houses because you have to give up your cellphone and they don't want to stop talking to their friends," she said, explaining many girls still have the mentality of someone much younger.

Girls who are able to breach the line between seeing trafficking as a way of life and seeing themselves as victims, have an easier time being introduced back into normal life.

"We have girls that come through and are very successful in their detox or counseling and they have jobs and are working hard to rebuild their lives," Twedell said.
But too many, she said, remain in the revolving door.

Staff writer Nichole Manna can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 486-3596.

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