Although Charleston does not lead South Carolina in human trafficking incidents, the Holy City has a secret the local chamber of commerce does not want to encourage.
“Charleston turns out to be a pretty popular place for most traffickers,” Assistant United States Attorney Matt Austin said. “They feel they can make more money here than most other places in South Carolina. We’ve had a number of them confirm that directly to us.”
Austin successfully prosecuted two major human trafficking for sex cases and said convicted traffickers have told him they purposely market in Charleston.
“We’ve had multiple traffickers confirm that,” he said. “I would have thought that Myrtle Beach might be a hot spot and maybe it is in other types (of human trafficking) but these guys — the cooperating defendants — said… they couldn’t make half as much money (in Myrtle Beach) as they could in Charleston.”
According to the 2017 South Carolina Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force annual report, Greenville County led the state with the most reports of human trafficking. Charleston County was second followed by Horry, Richland and Beaufort Counties. Click here to read the report.
Austin said one of the defendants he prosecuted said he specifically came to Charleston from New York to sell prostitutes.
“Word’s out amongst them that Charleston is a place where they can do it well and there’s a solid market for some of these services,” he said. “There seems to be a steady demand.”
Why Charleston? Trafficking survivor Lindsey Hass said she was abducted from Virginia and brought to the Lowcountry.
“I was worked in both Myrtle Beach and Charleston areas,” she said. “So, from experience, there’s a lot more people to be seen in the Charleston area. You could stay busy 24/7 and in Myrtle Beach, you’re just not going to get that. It’s tourist. They’re usually there with their family and you just don’t get as many people in Myrtle Beach. The clientele in Charleston was very wealthy there. They’re well, put-together people.”
Local anti-trafficking groups say the city’s reputation as a tourism destination helps increase demand.
“We have a lot of conferences here,” Tri-County Human Trafficking Task Force chair Brooke Burris said. “Oftentimes when people are taking vacations or a meeting trip, they’re not with their families necessarily and there definitely can be a loss of accountability.”
And the year-round nature of Charleston’s tourism does not help.
“They probably do make a lot more money here in Charleston because there’s really not a season where we get a super influx of people,” Charleston County Sheriff’s Office Detective Philip Moniz said. “We always have a lot of people in Charleston. That would be my thought process on it.”
Hass said she could not remember to which specific neighborhoods her pimp brought her at the time. She could only remember a few names that stood out because she wasn’t familiar with the area and her pimp kept her under his control. “You can make more money in Charleston. It is more wealthy. Charleston is wealthy. Mount Pleasant — very wealthy.” Hass said. “In my opinion, the main reason is the amount of people. There’s more johns, more clients, more buyers in the Charleston area.”
Prostitution from sex trafficking does not just occur in cheap hotels, either.
“We really see it all over the Charleston County area,” Moniz said. “About the highest concentration we see it or get information on is closer to the entertainment areas: North Charleston Arena. . . Tanger Outlets. Every week there’s a pretty big show that comes here and draws in a lot of people so, that is going to be our highest concentrated area where we deal with most of our issues, along with everywhere else, too.”
Austin said the defendants he prosecuted would bring their victims to NASCAR races, football games or other venues where a lot of out-of-town men frequent.
“When we look at large sporting events nationally or within the region, we see that typically the people who attend these events have a higher disposable income and that’s when human trafficking sort of peaks,” Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force coordinator Kathryn Moorehead said.
“The household income in Charleston’s going to be higher than Myrtle Beach, I know that for a fact,” she said. “So I’m going to guess it’s a sort of supply and demand: that they are going to charge higher rates in a market where people have a higher disposable income.”
A Survivor’s Story
“It was pretty terrifying. Traumatizing,” said Hass.
She was able to escape her trafficker after they both were arrested. But it took almost a year between when she said he abducted her in Virginia and took her on the road to make money selling sex. She initially thought he was her friend.
“Be aware. Don’t trust everybody,” Hass said. “I used to be very trusting and that’s where I messed up. Don’t go on dates or go anywhere with somebody you don’t know because you never know who they really are.”
Now she’s telling her story so that other women don’t go through the horrors she endured.
“I enjoy talking about it now, raising awareness because hopefully, it will save someone else’s life from having to go through the same thing,” she said.
Sex traffickers use fear, abuse, intimidation, and control to keep their victims from wanting to leave.
Hass’s advice to someone who may be trapped in a sex trafficking situation: find the courage to seek help. She almost got away once but “the result wasn’t good,” she said. “If you have a chance to get away, just don’t lose it. Take it and go and call for help. Don’t be scared to call the police. You’re not going to get in trouble. They understand and you just have to let them know that you are a victim.”
Moniz said human trafficking investigations, particularly sex trafficking, are very difficult cases to run because the purported victims do not want to talk. “They might be getting paid in drugs,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just they might be getting meals but they’re not really getting money where they can have the ability to leave . . . whenever they want.”
“Nine times out of 10, if we can get them to open up, we can find out that they don’t have the freedom to come and go as they please and if they were to run away or they were to stop, the consequences could be anything from not eating to extreme violence,” he said. “If you get sucked into it, it’s hard to get away from it . . . they don’t even see themselves as a victim until it’s too late.”
“These traffickers are the greatest salesmen ever. They literally talk the person out of their life,” Moniz said.
If you are a victim or suspect human trafficking is occurring, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733 (BeFree).
Human trafficking is happening before our eyes
You may pass a victim of human trafficking on the street and not even know it.
“It’s just kind of crazy how rampant it is and people just don’t know about it,” Austin said.
You may see several women who are acting subservient to one man. They may be in a store trying on revealing clothes or lingerie. The women won’t make eye contact, particularly with men.
“If you see one man with multiple women, that’s usually a telltale sign,” Hass said. “When they’re out public the pimp will walk ahead of the women and they will not make eye contact with other men.”
She said some victims see their pimps as their boyfriends and may not realize they are in an abusive relationship. Traffickers will use social media not only to recruit victims but to arrange encounters with clients.
Burris mentioned a California case where gang members traveled to Utah to pick up a girl they met online and brought her back to California to work as their prostitute.
“Pimps can groom girls on Facebook,” she said.
They meet clients in hotels ranging from the cheap “flophouses” to expensive luxury suites.
“These situations can happen at many different levels of the hotel industry,” Columbia College Director of the Hospitality, Tourism, and Event Management Program Dr. Carole Sox said. “It can be at different levels of the hotel world.”
Sox and her colleagues put on workshops for hotel and restaurant businesses to help them identify human trafficking.
A call from a concerned hotel employee to report an odor of marijuana led to the rescue of two victims and an arrest in the town of Springdale. Police initially thought it was a drug investigation but after repeated interviews with the females found in the room, investigators realized they were not drug suspects, but being forced to prostitute against their will.
“Never discredit how important the information you have is,” Springdale Police Chief Kevin Cornett said. “Most people would say, ‘he just smells like marijuana and he’s asking for a room next to this.’ They wouldn’t think anything about it. But some employee did. Some employee said, ‘this isn’t normal behavior’ and took the opportunity to call us . . . these young ladies could very well still be victims of human trafficking and this guy could still be running the streets making more victims.”
“He had video on his phone of her committing sexual acts and he used that and drugs to continue to get her to function as a prostitute and he would bring her to different hotels across South Carolina and up the east coast to get her to perform sexual acts,” Cornett said of the 17-year-old victim rescued in the case.
Moniz suggests if you suspect trafficking is occurring, get as much information as you can regarding license plate numbers, descriptions, and locations and call police. But do not get directly involved.
“You never know who you’re dealing with,” he said.
What’s the solution?
Advocates say trafficking victims need to have a safe place to go after a police intervention. South Carolina is working on training victims service providers to assist human trafficking victims. Several shelters and rescue organizations currently are operating and others are being planned.
“One of our long-term goals is to get an emergency center, care center,” Burris said. “We need one for adults and one for children so that law enforcement and the Department of Social Services’ hands are not tied and that we can have a victim-centered approach to the issue.”
The South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force has regional task forces addressing the issues across the state. Their goal is to offer outreach and educational programs while supporting law enforcement and victims services.
“We have a number of different businesses that are starting to step up and really engage on the issue,” Moorehead said. “We’ve had a great showing from law enforcement as well, a lot of support in that area.”
Burris said she believes South Carolina needs to change its prostitution law to penalize the patrons as equally as the solicitors. “South Carolina has a very legally low-risk landscape for buyers of sex,” she said. “So across the state in general, the legal landscape isn’t very deterring of this.”
“Our law, solicitation of prostitution law, and just in general, prostitution law, treats the buyers and the sellers the same. So there’s not a strong legal distinction between the two,” Burris said.
Burris said the state law pertaining to prostitution has not changed since 1986.
“The penalty for the buyer should be higher. We have the third-lowest penalties in the nation for buyers of sex, buyers of prostitution,” she said.
Some victims service groups are offering education to men to discourage them from becoming johns.
“It’s fueling the incentive for traffickers to force these girls into prostitution because the traffickers are getting all the money so the buyers are fueling this underground sex economy,” said Burris.
Senators Brad Hutto, Darrell Jackson and Katrina Shealy have prefiled a bipartisan bill for the 2019 legislative session that would increase penalties for soliciting prostitution and address human trafficking in prostitution cases. Click here to read the bill.
Burris also would like to see businesses who allow sex crimes to occur on their property be penalized and a civil penalty levied that could support the victim in recovery and other victims’ services. “It serves as a deterrent without using prison resources,” she said.
Chief Cornett said of the victims in the Springdale case were terrified that he would hurt them. “One of them, he was the only source of living that she had,” he said. “She had no other money, no income or anything like that and he had connections all across the state and so she was terrified. Both of them were terrified.”
“There’s no doubt demand drives it,” Austin said of the cases he prosecuted. “It’s been pretty eye-opening. It’s pretty brutal stuff.”