During a recent forum on human trafficking, DeDe Wallace got the attention of the 110 people in the room when she asked about those who trade sex for money.

“If I said I work with prostitutes, how many of you would be here?” wondered Wallace, a Stafford County resident and victim assistance specialist with Homeland Security Investigations.

Wallace then explained the difference between the oldest profession in the world and human trafficking, one of the fastest-growing crime categories in the United States.

“If you’re a prostitute, it’s because something happened, and your body is your commodity,” she said. “You stop being a prostitute and become a human-trafficking victim when somebody controls you, when you can’t make the decision.”

Human trafficking involves transporting people from one country or area to another for forced labor or sexual exploitation. The most common type is when adults are forced to provide sex in exchange for money, food or drugs—or when minors are involved in sex acts.

The Fredericksburg, GFWC Mary Ball and King George women’s clubs hosted the recent forum, which was attended by at least two women, plus the mother of a third, who had been lured into sex trafficking.

One was Amy, a single mother who needed money for her baby’s medical needs. Another was Marie, a graduate of Stafford County schools who wasn’t on the agenda, but attended to network with local advocates. Her heroin addiction led to trafficking, and for two years, she was sold for sex at Fredericksburg-area hotels.

The third was a ninth-grader, living in a well-to-do home in the shadow of the nation’s capitol, when she was targeted by a member of the MS–13 gang.

Each was manipulated into believing she would be taken care of or loved.

All were broken into submission when the so-called protection morphed into brutal domination. The men became pimps who put photos of the women and descriptions of services they could provide on raunchy websites that advertise escorts.

The pimps arranged the encounters and pocketed the money. If the women didn’t comply, the pimps beat them, denied them drugs and food or threatened to harm their loved ones.

“I was told, if I don’t do what I’m supposed to be doing, I won’t get back to my baby,” said Amy, a quiet woman in her 30s who recounted events from a decade ago. “That was more powerful than the violence, and there was a lot of violence.”

STATE RANKS SIXTH

Reports of human trafficking are on the rise across the country because either the problem—or awareness of it—is growing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Because it’s often mixed with other crimes, such as selling drugs or guns, human trafficking can be hard to identify, investigate and prosecute, according to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Service. While some of its victims are brought to America illegally from foreign countries, they’re not the only ones recruited for the purpose of selling sex.

“Traffickers are increasingly targeting more young people, ages 14 to 16 years old,” Bill Woolf, executive director of Just Ask Prevention Project, said at the women’s club session. Just Ask is a McLean-based organization focused on educating others on human trafficking. “Think about that. One of five kids will be approached by a trafficker in some point in their lives.”

An April 2018 report by the Human Trafficking Institute in Northern Virginia looked at every human trafficking case handled by federal courts in 2017—all 783 criminal and civil cases. Virginia ranked sixth with 33 cases, 74 defendants and 401 federal charges.

New York was tops, followed by Texas, Florida, California and Pennsylvania.

The report looked only at cases in the federal system, not those filed in various state courts. Human trafficking cases often cross city, county and state lines and are tough to tackle with limited manpower, said Capt. Liz Scott of the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office. Her office has two people who work on human trafficking cases as part of other duties.

“These are not cut-and-dried cases,” she said. “They’re lengthy cases with a lot of parties involved.”

‘TRAUMATIZED VICTIMS’

The largest sex trafficking case ever discovered in the Eastern District of Virginia, an area that includes 6 million residents from Northern Virginia to the Tidewater area, was tied to the Fredericksburg region.

Investigators uncovered 58 victims who’d been prostituted across at least seven states—and suspected more, but stopped because the case got so big. It included an overdose death in a Spotsylvania County hotel, a baby kidnapped and taken across state lines and “traumatized victims we’re still working with,” Wallace said.

The ringleader was a Fredericksburg resident, Robert E. Bonner Jr., who targeted single mothers and drug addicts he recruited from internet sites by promising a better life, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. He got those who weren’t already on drugs hooked, then made them perform sex acts to get their next fix.

Bonner, then 34 and known as “Ace,” was sentenced to 30 years in prison after his July 2015 guilty plea.

“Traffickers can be anybody who wants to make money,” said Wallace, a mother and grandmother who worked locally as a victims’ advocate before getting a job with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “We’re slowly starting to realize anybody can be a bad guy.”

Likewise, anybody can be a victim.

Suzie Smith, president of the GFWC Mary Ball club, arranged the panel of speakers and specifically asked for Susan Young, mother of the ninth-grade victim. Young serves as a technical adviser for Just Ask and “does not look like someone who could lose control of her family’s welfare to the likes of MS–13,” Smith said.

“She looked like us.”

EASY TO ORDER

Rob Grella Jr., a detective with the Stafford Sheriff’s Office, grew up in Stafford and has worked in law enforcement more than 20 years. He first encountered human trafficking eight years ago, as part of his work with the special investigations unit.

He knew Interstate 95 was a convenient corridor for gang activity and moving drugs and guns. It’s been no different with those trafficking women from one hotel room to another, right off I–95 exits.

“It’s been a real eye-opener for me,” he said. “I never thought what I see on a daily basis is out there in terms of human trafficking and prostitution.”

Back in the day, prostitutes worked the corner or hopped from one tractor–trailer to another at a local truck stop, Grella said. Social media has changed the game, fueling the need for girls who are available at the drop of a text.

Modern technology also has made it easier for clients to stay invisible. They don’t have to cruise around red-light districts, but can pick up their phone, scan the offerings and arrange a meeting.

“It’s sad to say, but I can order a pizza and a prostitute in 5 minutes,” Grella said.

Customers typically meet women at local motels as pimps wait nearby. Business is transacted, money is collected, and the cycle repeats itself.

“We’re living in a different world these days,” said Meg Bohmke, a member of the Stafford Board of Supervisors who has attended three sessions on human trafficking. “It has been going on all these years, and the average person does not realize that it’s here.”

‘SEX SLAVES’ FOR HEROIN

Grella used to think that arresting the women involved in prostitution would make the problem go away, but as he learned their backgrounds, he heard about the fear, force and intimidation used. He met a woman who is partially deaf after a pimp’s beating; another was permanently disfigured.

“I knew girls that hid in closets and watched [the pimps] rape a girl with a shotgun or scalp a girl because she said something,” said Marie, the Stafford woman.

Officials in Spotsylvania County, who have pursued human trafficking cases this year, hear from their federal counterparts about traffickers who also sell drugs, Scott said.

“They are finding drug addicts, females who are kind of made to be sex slaves for their heroin,” she said.

Scott also has heard about prostitute deaths, particularly in the Winchester area. Their bosses may have thought they were snitching and gave them dirty heroin, she said.

“It’s a very dangerous game, and these guys don’t care,” Grella said. “They’re that heartless. They have wives and children at home, and this money is paying their [lifestyle]. They could care less if they’re putting your daughter or my daughter on the street to make that happen.”

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Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425 cdyson@freelancestar.com

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