From busts of illicit “massage” parlors to allegations of child labor, Cumberland County far exceeded even the largest North Carolina urban areas for new human trafficking cases last year, according to state court data.
Law enforcement in Cumberland County, including Fayetteville police, levied 48 charges against 34 defendants accused of human trafficking, sexual servitude or involuntary servitude, show records from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.
Wake County, triple the population of Cumberland, ranked second with 33 charges against 15 defendants. The numbers reflect that Cumberland County law enforcement has made a concerted effort to pursue trafficking cases and help those who are trapped in that life, according to experts, advocates and investigators.“Anytime you have more charges than anybody else, your initial reaction is, ‘Well, that’s not a good thing,’” Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said. “But here, I really do think it’s because of the focus of our task force that we have here. We’re one of the few counties that has a task force.”Nearly 2 out of 5 people charged with trafficking offenses in North Carolina last year were in Cumberland County, the state data show.
The high caseload isn’t just a result of more aggressive policing, though. Fayetteville’s geography, in particular with Interstate 95, is a factor, West said. “With us being located where we are, right beside I-95 coming through our county, and kind of being half-way between New York and Miami, as we’ve heard — I’m sure that contributes to it,” he said.But the district attorney thinks Cumberland County’s higher number of arrests is primarily the result of law enforcement making the crimes a high priority.Cumberland County’s human trafficking task force includes the DA’s Office, Fayetteville police, the Sheriff Office and the 5 Sparrows nonprofit organization that assists victims. Staff from those groups meet regularly to discuss cases and coordinate efforts.
As of Monday, West said, 65 people had pending cases in Cumberland County involving trafficking or related charges. West’s tally focuses on those caught in organized sex trafficking situations, rather than an independent prostitute who may solicit a stranger on the street. They also include involuntary servitude cases, which involve forced labor without sexual activity.
The bulk of human trafficking here involves sex, experts say. The victims come from different backgrounds and circumstances.
“You’re dealing with major manipulation, mind control,” said Sgt. Michael Hardin of the Fayetteville Police Department. “You have trauma bonds that get built up between these victims and their traffickers.”
Hardin leads a five-person team of investigators that works only on human trafficking cases. He said some people engage in prostitution on their own and aren’t seen as victims of trafficking, but the majority that his team sees is under the control of another person.
“Now whether that control be in the form of narcotics, money, manipulation of having them on video — threatening to show it to their work, their family. Capitalizing on somebody that has low self-esteem. Especially some younger folks,” Hardin said.
“These traffickers, they’re masters at what they do. They’re good at it. They get in almost a mind-controlling aspect. And people will fall into it and oftentimes be stuck in that life for years on end,” he said.
Traffickers can be local people, some with day jobs, Hardin said. Some are from other cities or states, traveling the country and stopping in hotels for a few days to serve each “market.” “We’ve developed cases all up and down the East Coast,” he said. A significant number of victims are addicted to heroin or fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times stronger than morphine, Hardin said. The traffickers withhold the drugs from their victims if they fail to earn enough money from prostitution.
As the victims often are breaking the law, West and Hardin said law enforcement has to evaluate whether to charge them with a crime, and how to help them break away from the control of the traffickers. Investigators send some victims to 5 Sparrows for assistance.
Kelly Twedell, a victim advocate coordinator with 5 Sparrows, said her organization helped 229 human trafficking victims in the 12-month period that ended in September. Of these, 221 were women or girls, and 33 were 17 or younger.
Some of the notable human trafficking cases reported in Cumberland County in recent years include busts at massage parlors on Hope Mills Road and Cliffdale Road that Fayetteville police say were fronts for prostitution. Men have been accused of bailing women out of jail and then requiring them to prostitute themselves to pay back the money. The Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, says it has instituted policies to prevent that from happening again.
A year ago, John C. McCollum and nine others tied to a ranch near Godwin were arrested on allegations involving children forced to work for little or no money at fish markets and grills. McCollum died in August. This is an involuntary servitude case. One of the most prominent trafficking cases was in 2009, when the mother of 5-year-old Shaniya Davis traded her to a man to settle a $200 debt. The girl was sexually assaulted and murdered, and the man now sits on death row.
Like the Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office had a detective devoted to human trafficking cases. That deputy was recently transferred to a criminal intelligence position, said Lt. Sean Swain. “We just weren’t turning as many cases as we had expected to,” Swain said. “We did get a couple of girls off the street, but we just haven’t made a huge impact with that” in cutting prostitution. “So having someone solely do that just wasn’t feasible for the Sheriff’s Office because of our shortages. We’ve had to delegate other duties as needed.” The Sheriff Office is “way short” on manpower, Swain said.
In his new job, the former human trafficking detective works with vice and narcotics officers and will see human trafficking matters, Swain said. “He can still be as involved as he was previous, it’s just that’s not his sole job anymore.”
Hardin of the Police Department said the public can help uncover trafficking. Some indicators, he said, include:
• A teen or young woman with an older man who does not appear to be her father.
• A person with fearful, submissive behavior — at a restaurant, the girl or woman won’t answer for herself or make eye contact when the server asks for her order, but instead defers to the man.
• Odd activity at a hotel, such as a number of people coming and going from a room.
• Some listings in online personal ads may be for prostitution activities.
Despite the number of cases, some people still don’t believe human trafficking happens here, Hardin said. They think it only happens in third-world countries.
“Part of our educational process is getting people to be attentive and understand,” he said. “You never know who’s standing behind you in the grocery line at the grocery store.“So, I mean: The stuff does happen. There’s criminal activity that takes place, and oftentimes it’s underneath somebody’s nose. They just don’t know it.”