Live 5 Investigates: Sex trafficking in the Lowcountry

Live 5 Investigates: Sex trafficking in the Lowcountry
Updated: Feb. 13, 2018 at 12:03 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Many people think sex trafficking happens in overseas countries.

But it happens in South Carolina...and in Charleston.

The question many have is what does trafficking look like.

Detective Charlie Benton said it looks like voluntary prostitution.

"The misconception is people who work in the escort industry are doing it voluntarily and because they want to," Benton said."A lot of those people are actually victims of trafficking. Once people start to realize what's going on, the difference between being prostitution and being prostituted, there's a world of a difference in that."

"When you see a woman walking behind a man with her head down. Nine times out of ten that's a pimp situation," said Beth, a sex trafficking survivor.

Beth said there are things you can look for to try and save people who may not have a way out.

"Situations like that people really need to open their eyes and realize it's right there," Beth said. "You see a man walking with four girls around him, and they're being really respectful, not acting crazy, and not friends. That's a situation. That's something that needs to be taken care of."

Beth said if you see that kind of situation to try and take a picture and call your local police to tell them of your suspicions.

She said the photo will help them look up the women online and also see who the pimp is. These kinds of scenarios are something that South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said we see every day.

"Human trafficking is something we see every day and don't recognize it for what it is," said Wilson.

Sharon Rikard is working to help people recognize what is happening.

Rikard works with Doors to Freedom, a local organization that aims to help survivors of sex trafficking.

Doors to Freedom will soon open the first home for survivors in South Carolina.

"I think sometimes we see things that maybe look odd but we just don't really know what to do with that information," said Rikard. "We're kind of desensitized by television and just the media and music against abuse and violence. Again, it's so common that when you see it you're no longer shocked by that. So I think sometimes we're guilty of doing nothing."

It doesn't have to be a woman.

It can also be a man and oftentimes it's children who are being trafficked.

"It definitely could be your child," said Rikard. "I was shocked when I realized there were so many children that were being trafficked in our country and understanding there's a vulnerable population of children."

"The youngest victim I've personally dealt with is 14 but I have other victims who say they've been sold for sex since they were 9," said Benton.

The same process traffickers use to manipulate adults into coming into their lives is the same one they use on children through a grooming process.

"They find a child that is vulnerable who maybe has some insecurities," said Rikard.

Rikard said the pimp will then ask question about their lives, who they want to be, what they love and what they like to do.

"He finds out everything about her to use against her when those tables begin to turn," said Rikard.

She said then he will use that against her and threaten them with violence, or threaten to hurt their family members into doing what they ask.

"Once he has her he beats her into submission most of the time and once she submits pictures are taken of her and uploaded to some internet site such as Backpage where she is sold saying she is an adult when she is actually a minor," Rikard said.

Sex trafficking and human trafficking is flourishing in South Carolina.

Charleston is the number two place in the state that sees the most trafficking.

"We've dealt with cases where it's happened in rural areas, hotels and motels. We've had it in nice private homes, we've had it in clubs. It's happening all over the place," Benton said

According to Benton, the Charleston area is known for being a hot spot.

"It is known as being such a profitable market," said Benton. "We have a high number of hotels that are here. A lot of the trafficking I've personally investigated takes place at hotels and motels."

That's why Beth's trafficker brought her and other victims to Charleston.

"It's really popular there. Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. It's huge. It's everywhere," said Beth. "The amount of tourists that come through, they just want a good time while they're there."

The trend is moving from selling drugs and guns, to selling humans.

"The statistics are startling. They're alarming," Wilson said. "Human trafficking is north of $30 billion dollars a year worldwide. There are estimates of 30 million human trafficking victims a year in the world. Human trafficking is the second largest criminal enterprise in the world and a close second place to drugs and armed trafficking and will probably over take those in the next couple of years."

Kathryn Moorehead leads the South Carolina Trafficking Task Force and said there's a reason people are moving towards the selling of people.

"They've also learned it's much easier to steal people," Moorehead said."They're not drawing as much attention. It's high profit and low risk because the public isn't aware of the problem."

Wilson said human trafficking has always been here, but the layers of how serious the problem is are just starting to get peeled back.

"We're a recruiting station for traffickers," said Wilson.

"A lot of them are gang members. Gangs find trafficking very appealing and are starting to move towards trafficking in persons versus trafficking in drugs," said Benton.

He said there are several reasons traffickers are moving towards people.

"It's possible to ride around with a car full of product if you're a human trafficker and not really be detected by police because if someone's stopped and they have a car full of people, unless one of those people talk to the police, they're not going to get caught right there," Benton said."Whereas if they're riding around with a car load of cocaine that's an issue if police stop you."

What the state is doing to stop sex trafficking

"Once you know about the problem you can start acting and reacting on it," said Wilson. "Before, we didn't know we had a problem and that was very alarming to us."

For 2017, South Carolina was given a C rating from Shared Hope International, a national nonprofit that works in all states to end sex trafficking.

That score has gone down from the year before.

"Under a federal statute it's mandated that the definition of child abuse and neglect and sexual assault has to include sex trafficking as well and our state definition is behind and we don't' have that yet," said Brooke Burris, a member for the Trafficking Task Force.

Despite the change in grade, South Carolina is moving forward when it comes to tackling the problem.

"In 2011 when I took office there was so much we didn't know about the problem of human trafficking in South Carolina," said Wilson.

Since then, the state has taken steps forward to combat the crime and expose it for what it is.

"We were able to lobby the general assembly which was able to pass a very robust human trafficking statute," said Wilson. "At that time, we were one of the worst states in the country in our enforcement of human trafficking in South Carolina and now we are one of the best states in the country in how we enforce human trafficking statutes in South Carolina."

Wilson has also spearheaded a trafficking task force.

The task force has a plan laid out to train those who are most likely to come in contact victims.

The training would include medical professionals, truck drivers, law enforcement, educators, and lawyers who may later represent the victims.

Elliot Daniels represents trafficking survivor's pro-bono and works with the task force to provide legal assistance for survivors of trafficking.

"We represent survivors of trafficking in a variety of capacities," said Daniels. "When their traffickers are being prosecuted often they'll ask for a lawyer to seek restitution."

Despite the progress South Carolina has made, those on the task force said there is still room to grow.

"There's a lot of work to be done," said Daniels. "But there's been a tremendous push in recent years and I think the US attorney's office, and the attorney general's office deserve a lot of credit for that. They've put a lot of energy in this issue."

Burris, also on the task force, said funding is also an issue.

She said funding will be needed to change the definition of child abuse which will raise the state's grade from the current low C rating.

A big issue the state is facing is the lack of housing and places for survivors to go once they are rescued and brought out of trafficking.

"We have an enormous amount of improvement," Daniels said."We have currently zero bed space in our state for survivors."

Benton agrees the lack of beds and housing for these victims is a key issue.

"That is a vital part of the prices to stop this," he said."Because when you encounter someone that you recognize to be a trafficking victim, a lot of times they don't self-identify as a victim. They've been so conditioned, and a lot of Stockholm syndrome is taken place. So to get them to recognize what has happened to them is trafficking is a big process."

Sharon Rikard will be the first home to open, and is expected to get the clearance to open any day now.

Rikard already has a home where girls under the age of 20 come to attend school and get help that they need.

As of now, those kids have to leave at the end of the day.

Rikard will give them a place to stay, and heal.

"We want them as soon as they walk in the doors here," Rikard said."Begin encouraging them and speaking about their lives so that they can accomplish any dreams they had at one time in their life. Most of the kids that I have dealt with were runaways. They have lived either with a mom or a grandmother so most of the homes were fatherless. The third thing I found out is there were no facilities in our state for survivors of sex trafficking, domestic minors, and I said,'I can do that.'"

Rikard knows how important it is to heal after going through what victims of sex trafficking have gone through.

"Chaos, their lives are chaos," she said."They live from moment to moment. There's no forward thinking, They don't' think about their future. They must think about what's happening in this moment.

"They're told when to eat, when to sleep, when they can go to the bathroom, if they're allowed to go outside, where they can go, who they can go with, who they can talk to," said Benton. "There are apps that mirror cell phones. So yes, she has a phone. But any phone call or text she sends or receives is also seen by the trafficker, it's often referred to as an electronic leash."

Beth knows what that was like, because for one year she had to live it.

"I was in an abusive relationship and went to Maryland to get away from that situation…that's when I met him," said Beth.

Beth thought a trip with friends would help her escape a bad situation at home, but a chance encounter outside of her hotel room would set the wheels in motion for months of misery.

"I gave him my number and we just texted," she said. "He seemed like a nice guy and we were supposed to go out and have drinks one night."

Beth never got that drink.

Instead he told her he had to help a friend move. That was another lie, and one she realized far too late.

"I thought we were just taking her somewhere else and then was going to take me home," Beth said."He ended up d ropping me off at a hotel with her, three hours from where I was staying at and left for like a week. And I didn't see him until he got back, he took the room phone and everything."

Her trafficker made it clear she wouldn't be calling anyone, and wouldn't be leaving the room anytime soon.

In that moment, Beth had no idea what was happening or the nightmare that was to come.

"After a couple of days you kind of figure it out," she said. "When I did see him he took me outside to his car and he asked if I was ready to work, and I told him,'I really don't think I have a choice do I?' That's when he gave me a little throw away phone and said,'Alright well you start today.'"

In that moment, Beth knew what was happening, and her life was forever changed.

"When you're under a pimp you have to call him 'daddy' of course and that's for a reason," said Beth. "He's in control of everything. He chooses when you eat, when you sleep, when you shower, what calls you can and can't take. He's there 24 hours a day. When he's not here, he's there. He's got eyes on you."

The life she was forced to live can only be described as hell.

"Kind of a blur. I don't know it was just, you just do it," Beth said."You go numb to it. I took myself out of that reality, I didn't want to believe that was my life."

Her life had become a part of a business of selling women and trafficking people.

It was a life she never knew existed.

"It's not something that's just in the movies like I thought it was," Beth said."It is very real, and it's in your face."

Beth was trafficked up the east coast from Maryland to Florida to Charleston.

"It was scary," said Beth. "You never know what was coming to your door. When we were in Florida it was just a normal day, I had been up for two days straight and I told him I'm taking one more call and I've got to go to sleep. I can't do it anymore. That call, he robbed me. So, he wouldn't let me go to sleep I had to get that money back."

Beth had no control over her own life, or her own body.

"The pimp got me pregnant and the only time he took me to the doctor was to have an abortion. That was hard," said Beth. "I don't believe in abortion. It was either we go do the abortion or pretty much have both of our lives gone."

During that time Beth felt that there was no way out.

"I contemplated suicide," she said."I just wanted out of it. But I didn't know how to get out of it,"

She said there was no chance of escape, she said knows this because she tried.

"The night that he found me trying to leave, I didn't know what to expect," Beth said."He made it clear I wasn't going anywhere."

"He tried to have three girls jump me, and when I started to fight back he held me down," she said."Kind of put his foot over my chest so I couldn't get up and let the girls beat me up."

Beth said the people who would come to her door would surprise you, because they're every day people you wouldn't expect.

"They're regular people," she said."FBI agents have come to see me. Government officials. It's everybody. It's your husband that will be there every day."

Beth said it's hard to describe what that year was like, but said it's unlike anything we could imagine.

"It's just a completely different world, it's not the same," she said."It's a long time to adjust back to real life. It was scary. Anybody I felt was a pimp when I got out of it, I went into a panic attack."

Beth said what was happening to her, is happening every day.

She said it never stops, and it's happening all around us.

Including Charleston, which is the last place Beth was taken to as a victim of sex trafficking.

"They apparently had been following us for a long time, Homeland Security was, and they finally raided us while we were in Charleston," said Beth, "At first I was upset but after a day or two in jail I was relieved. I was safe."

Jail had become Beth's new life, a safe haven from what she was rescued from.

"I literally cried and begged them not to let me go," she said."Because I didn't' know if the girls were downstairs waiting for me to get out. I didn't want to go back into that life."

Years later Beth has her GED, is going back to school and building a better life for her family.

Yet she is still picking up the pieces from a life she didn't choose to be a part of.

As well as living with the fear her trafficker could find her.

"I worry he's going to get out and look for me," Beth said."I don't want him to find me at all. I don't want him to know anything about me."

Beth went through more in her year as a victim that many will never fully understand.

She wants you to know that trafficking can happen anywhere and to anyone.

Beth's name has been changed to protect her identity.

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