A major human trafficking case in South Carolina has helped reveal more to prosecutors how sex traffickers find victims and keep them under their control.
But the case also yielded more information on ways the public can know what to look for in a potential trafficking situation.
“These traffickers are equal opportunists. They will look for victims anywhere,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Austin, who prosecuted two recent cases in federal court in Charleston, said. Austin said most of the cases prosecuted in South Carolina involved sex trafficking.
Potential victims can be found anywhere; from acquaintances or partners to strangers on the street, to exotic dancers and prostitutes who operated independently.
“There were a number of victims with pretty severe drug habits that the defendants used to try to manipulate them,” Astin said. Manipulation included withholding drugs until compliance giving them just enough drugs to keep them going but not enough to satisfy their cravings. “They became dependent on their traffickers,” he said.
Austin said some of the victims thought they were in a relationship, but then the trafficker would manipulate them into doing various acts. “They were told to do it,” he said. “They had to do it and if they didn’t they suffered pretty severe consequences.”
“We saw a number of different ways where these men controlled the young women but some of the most consistent ones were brute force,” he said. “Beatings. The threat of beating. Girls hearing that others had been beaten by some of these guys. . . at trial, you could still see the lingering effects even years after the fact. We had several victims testify that were visibly shaking when they took the stand.”
Austin said the victims were so scared of the defendants they were testifying against, the court needed to provide armed guards for escort into the courthouse. Austin said that timidity, fear and lack of eye contact is a sign that a woman is a trafficking victim.
“The girls are not supposed to make eye contact with particularly other men,” he said. “Especially other traffickers when they were around them. It was a sign of disloyalty and that was something they particularly harped on. There’s reluctance to engage in conversation with men around, sort of cowering.”
Sometimes, even law enforcement officers do not recognize the signs, especially during a traffic stop or drug investigation.
“When an officer walks up on a scene it’s just not always clear what’s going on and if you don’t have the victim saying something about it, it’s really hard to then reach that conclusion that’s what’s going on,” Austin said.
Defendants told prosecutors they instilled and reinforced to the victims that law enforcement was not to be trusted.
“If you can get them separated and get her in a safe place where she feels comfortable talking about what’s happening, that’s where we’ve found some success,” Austin said. “But as long as they’re in the vicinity of their trafficker, it’s really tough to get much cooperation from them.”
Austin recently prosecuted the conviction of Damon Jackson, who was sentenced last month to 40 years in prison for his role in a conspiracy to force underage girls and young women into sex trafficking throughout the southeast.
Jackson was convicted at trial in March 2017 along with Bakari McMillan of Columbia, and Corey Miller of Orangeburg. McMillan was sentenced to 40 years for his conviction on one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, and one count of trafficking of a minor for sex involving force, fraud, and coercion. Miller, also convicted of the conspiracy count, was sentenced to 20 years for sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion.
The other defendants previously pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking:
Tremel Black, 33, of New York, sentenced to 25 years
Robert Black, 47, of New York, sentenced to 20 years
Desmond Singletary, 32, of Florence, sentenced to 15 years
Kerry Taylor, 23, of Columbia, sentenced to 11 years
Ryan Turner, age 25, of Columbia, sentenced to 10 years
Da’Shun Curry, age 25, of Columbia, sentenced to 9 years
Howard Parker, age 25, of Columbia, sentenced to 6 years
According to a news release at the time of Jackson’s sentencing: Evidence presented at the trial and sentencing hearings established that the defendants preyed on over 100 vulnerable female victims, many minors, forcing them on an almost a daily basis to have sex with numerous “Johns” a night from 2014 through the summer of 2016. The defendants used brutal tactics, including physical beatings, brandings, supplying and withholding of drugs, threats, and various other forms of psychological manipulation in order to ensure their victims complied with a series of rules that were imposed upon them.
As part of their sentences, all of the defendants were given lifetime supervision, mandatory registration as a sex offender, and participation in a computer/internet monitoring program, amongst other conditions imposed on convicted sex offenders.
In fiscal year 2015, 1,923 suspects were referred to U.S. attorneys for prosecution for human trafficking offenses, a 41 percent increase from the 1,360 suspects referred for prosecution in 2011, according to a report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2015 is the most recent year for statistics.
Federal attorneys prosecuted 1,049 suspects for human trafficking offenses in 2015. This was a 44 percent increase from the 729 suspects prosecuted in 2011. The number of human trafficking defendants sentenced annually to prison increased more than five times from 2000 to 2015, from 132 to 759.