Human Trafficking Hidden in Dozens of Md. Communities While Authorities Struggle to Fight It

By Katelyn Secret, Jin Kim, Jessica Evans and Courtney Mabeus

This story is part of an investigative series on human trafficking in Maryland.

BALTIMORE—These women's stories, told in a variety of Maryland courtrooms, are similar. And chilling.

R, an immigrant in her early 20s with no papers, a third-grade education and a baby girl, entrusted her life to a man she met at a restaurant in Prince George's County who told her he'd take care of them. Instead, he beat her and threatened to harm her daughter to force her into prostitution.

S, 23, took a bus from St. Louis to Baltimore to work for a man who promised he'd give her a job in his "webcam business." Arriving on the ticket he paid for, she learned the man was actually a pimp—who told her she'd have to work as a prostitute to pay him back, including a stint in a hotel near Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.

C, a 14-year-old runaway, was walking down the street when a man offered her a ride and a place to stay in Clinton. He pampered her, fed her and took her shopping. Then on the third day, he revealed he ran a prostitution business and expected her to work for him. When she messaged friends on Facebook that she wanted out, he became violent.

Their stories, taken from court records, sketch out a common theme: Traffickers find vulnerable young women, seduce them with promises of security, then force them into the sex trade.

When they resist, they are beaten, drugged, threatened with the loss of their children.

And the businesses are everywhere. From a brick house in a quiet neighborhood to a three-star hotel near a swanky mall, sex trafficking has infiltrated the most ordinary of surroundings in Maryland. Behind closed doors, its victims—runaways, single mothers, immigrants, addicts—do what they're told in unimaginable conditions.

"I would say that there isn't any part of the state that's immune to this," said Steven Hess, law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore.

Three years ago, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley unveiled the state's plan of attack at a gathering of 400 people from state, federal and local agencies. A centerpiece of his plan was an ambitious initiative to collect and share data on human trafficking "from every part of government"—and use it to mount a "coordinated, effective, targeted attack."

But as the state's fourth annual conference on human trafficking convenes Thursday in Catonsville, current and former officials say that little progress has been made on the information-sharing plan.

Initially spearheaded by the State Police, the effort has been stalled by staff turnover and slow response by government agencies to requests for information, said Amanda Rodriguez, who stepped down in March as human trafficking policy manager for the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

She now is chief program officer at TurnAround, a nonprofit social services agency in Towson that works with trafficking victims. The Crime Control and Prevention Office Wednesday announced it has hired Thomas Stack, a retired Montgomery County Police detective, as her successor. Stack, who has 10 years of experience on human trafficking investigations, was not available for comment, a spokeswoman for the Crime Control and Prevention office said.

Rodriguez and others involved in anti-trafficking work said lack of information has hurt efforts to win adequate resources on state and local levels to fight the problem. Work on human trafficking cases is mostly done by adding on to the responsibilities of people doing other things.

"To be able to ask for funding, we have to be able to support it with numbers," Rodriguez said.

In the absence of a comprehensive state assessment, Capital News Service obtained a state database of human trafficking arrests and sent public records requests to every county in Maryland.

The news service also mined police and court files on three dozen criminal investigations from the past decade for details about how victims become trapped, how traffickers operate and how authorities respond locally to what law enforcement and victim advocacy groups say is a significant nationwide problem. CNS is using initials to identify victims, because it does not name victims of sex crimes.

The raw numbers that emerge from enforcement data present a mixed picture: Authorities have uncovered extensive evidence of sex trafficking in Maryland but are still struggling to win convictions with it.

Prosecutors filed 274 sex trafficking cases in state courts between January 2010 and December 2014, according to a CNS analysis of data from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Fifty-nine defendants were charged with felony sex trafficking, including 40 cases involving trafficking of minors.

But most of the rest—215—were prosecuted under the misdemeanor trafficking provision of the law.

And relatively few defendants were convicted of sex trafficking: Those charges were dropped in two-thirds of the cases. There were two felony and 20 misdemeanor sex trafficking convictions, with 54 cases still open as of December 2014, according to the state's database.

Federal prosecutions are rarer but more successful. Eighteen cases filed since 2010—including 11 in which the victims were minors—had resulted in conviction of 21 defendants on federal sex trafficking charges in Maryland.

Many of the federal cases came out of joint investigations between federal and local law enforcement. The U.S attorney's office coordinates the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force, which collaborates with local authorities on prosecution of traffickers and provision of services to victims.

Both federal and state human trafficking laws require proof that a pimp used force, fraud or coercion to control a victim in order to convict on a felony charge. If the victim is a minor, coercion is presumed. Otherwise, authorities must prove that the trafficking victims weren't willing workers.

Proving that often requires the cooperation of victims—and the emotional and financial hold traffickers have over victims was a top reason investigators gave for not producing more trafficking convictions. Other kinds of evidence—cell phone communications and following the money—take time and resources that haven't materialized.

When police have evidence of force, fraud or coercion, the cases often are pursued in federal court, where the penalties are harsher—up to life in prison.

For federal prosecution, prosecutors may consider whether the crime is multi-jurisdictional, includes factors that increase severity—such as drug violations or violence—or if the defendant is a danger to the community, said Rachel Yasser, assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore.

So most sex trafficking charges are filed in Maryland state court.

A conviction under the felony provision of the state's human trafficking law carries a penalty of up to 25 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

But, more likely, the case will be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of 10 years and $5,000 fine.

Police and prosecutors say they choose that path if they don't think they can prove the force, threat, coercion or fraud required to win a felony conviction.

"I mean it's basically a slap on the wrist," said State Police Sgt. Deborah Flory, whose job includes investigating trafficking cases. "There's no real penalty. Catching a robbery charge is worse than catching a trafficking charge for an adult."

That also helps explain why human trafficking charges are dropped in so many cases: Defendants may be convicted on other types of charges—such as prostitution, weapons, drugs or assault that are easier to prove and carry similar or tougher penalties.

Maryland Department of Public Safety officials would not release the full arrest database, which would have allowed CNS to make that determination.

However, a search of criminal court records in Baltimore, the state's largest city, found that, since January 2013, prosecutors have dropped all charges in eight of the 10 cases that included trafficking charges and deferred prosecution on a ninth. One case led to a conviction on a non-trafficking charge. All involved misdemeanor trafficking charges.

Christine White, head of the research committee for the Prince George's County Human Trafficking Task Force and a University of Maryland, College Park criminologist, said the enforcement statistics are disheartening several years into a major state push to combat trafficking.

"With all the problems with arrests and prosecuting," she said, "you wonder are we all on the same page?"

Cyber traffic

Behind the numbers is a thriving underworld that depends on a steady stream of vulnerable women and minors for its profits. To get a better picture of human trafficking's reach and impact in Maryland, CNS examined hundreds of pages of testimony and evidence produced in three dozen successful trafficking prosecutions over the past decade.

The traffickers aren't always the flashy, bling-wearing, urban street pimps Hollywood portrays, the records show. They are sex salesmen who use business cards and online classifieds like Backpage to market their products. The business—often referred to by insiders as "The Game"—includes strategy and deception.

Advertisements under the "Escorts" link on Backpage include erotic photos and descriptions of services by location. On a recent weekend, there were nearly 100 such ads posted for the Baltimore area, three dozen in Western Maryland and a dozen on the Eastern Shore.

"WeeKdaY SpEci@Ls SwEEt TrE@T PriCeS U CaN't Be@T 18-18-18," reads one Backpage posting submitted as evidence in a 2013 human trafficking case. Many provide ages, but authorities have found some of those listed in their late teens or early 20s are actually minors.

Not all ads are for prostitution, and not all prostitutes are under the control of traffickers. But the Internet, social media and mobile apps have allowed traffickers to reach a wide audience of victims and johns—and then disappear through Web wormholes when police try to track them down.

"In the past, all prostitution was run on the street," said Montgomery County prosecutor Patrick Mays, who works on human trafficking cases. "Previously, there was a physical location in every city where girls would walk the street. Now it has completely changed with the Internet. Trafficking is all over the place."

Jeremy Naughton, of Oxon Hill, identified prostitutes who were working independently through their website ads, according to evidence presented at his 2013 federal trial in Baltimore. He then posed as a client and, once alone with them, pulled out a gun, seized their belongings, and forced them to prostitute for him in Montgomery County and in New York, prosecutors said.

He intimidated one prostitute into compliance by "snapping the neck of her dog with his hands," investigators said. He was convicted of sex trafficking and weapons charges and sentenced to 36 years in prison. Naughton, now 34, is appealing. He told CNS through his attorney that he "never denied that he was in the business of prostitution, but the women who worked with him did so voluntarily."

While traffickers conduct much of their business in cyberspace, the methods for maintaining emotional control over victims are still largely old school: drugs, dependency and brute force.

A blurry surveillance tape from the early morning hours of Feb. 23, 2013, shows the garage of the Maryland Live! Casino: A slender woman stands in front of a heavyset man amid the parked cars. He suddenly swings his fist, delivering a blow to the side of her head that catapults her several feet, stumbling.

He pauses before walking over to connect more punches, striking her in the face as she crouches to shield herself.

According to court records, the woman, referred to as J, was a prostitute; the man, Michael Wesley Lee of Odenton, was her pimp; and the beating was punishment for failing to attract enough customers at the casino to have sex with her.

While Lee sat in an Anne Arundel County jail on an assault charge, his partner, Robert Downing, also of Odenton, took J to a hotel to have sex with customers to raise money for Lee's bail, the records say.

J escaped when Downing left her alone. She declined to press charges, and the assault case was dropped, records show.

Six months after the assault, in August 2013, Lee used the social media website Tagged to entice S, a 23-year-old woman living in St. Louis, to come to Baltimore with the promise that she could work for his "webcam business," according to court documents. Lee bought the woman a $208 one-way Greyhound bus ticket and she traveled to Maryland in August 2013.

After she arrived, Lee revealed the truth: He was really a pimp with women in several states working for him, court records say. He took her to a Microtel in Linthicum Heights, confiscated her identification—a common ploy by traffickers—and told her she needed to pay off the ticket and a $1,000 initiation fee, court records say.

S "was afraid to challenge Lee because of his size and his demeanor," and had no money of her own, the records say. By the next day, she'd had sex with 10 different clients and charged rates as high as $200—but he kept the money, some of which was used to place advertisements on Backpage, records say.

Around the same time, he lured M, a 21-year-old exotic dancer to the hotel on the pretense that he would get work for her at clubs, according to court records. When he tried to force her to stay to prostitute for him, she ran from the hotel, records say. He chased her, but she escaped by hopping a fence.

S got away several days after M by calling 911 for an ambulance from an Extended Stay hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. When the ambulance crew arrived, she told them about Lee and they called police, who arrested him, according to court records.

Lee, now 31, pleaded guilty to federal trafficking charges and was sentenced in March to 13 years in prison. Downing, now 46, pleaded guilty to a federal charge of using interstate facilities to promote and facilitate a prostitution business and received a 46-month term. Both men declined to be interviewed by CNS.

Parent trap

Single mothers make an especially vulnerable target for traffickers. Pimps often use the children as a soft spot to exploit—either offering a way to support the child or threatening the child if the mother refuses to meet their demands, court records show.

R left her parents' home in a small Guatemalan town at 17 for the United States. She was raped in transit and gave birth to a baby girl after arriving in America, she later testified in federal court.

She took a job in 2006 making around $400 a week at a recycling plant in Prince George's County and moved to Langley Park, a landing spot for many Central American immigrants who arrive without legal immigration papers. A man spotted her at a restaurant and offered to pick up the bill. She refused. But within weeks, the two were dating, she said in court.

He told her that he was in construction, that he was a painter, she said. His aunt could care for her baby at her house while she worked. Three months into their courtship, with her baby under his control, he told her how he really made his money: "Selling women," she testified.

And soon R, in fear for the baby's safety should she say no, was working for him.

She became one of the prostitutes in a brothel the man had set up in a house in the Washington suburbs, she said in federal court.

Then she met German de Jesus Ventura. He was a client who told her he would take her away from this life and take care of her and her daughter, R said. She wouldn't have to prostitute anymore if she came with him, she said.

At the beginning, their relationship was "very perfect," she said.

Then one day, Ventura tossed her a box of condoms and told her it was time to get to work. When she refused, he beat her, she testified at his 2013 federal trial in Baltimore on trafficking charges.

Ventura didn't just run prostitutes - he controlled them with violence, and used them to build a network of brothels, according to court records.

"I didn't want to have sex with men," R told the court during Ventura's trial. She told how he would threaten her and the other prostitutes with guns, how he abused her "with his fists and a belt" when she resisted him.

"He would beat me and tell me that he was going to kill me," she said.

Court records outline how from March 2008 to November 2010, Ventura and his partner, Kevin Garcia Fuertes, expanded their prostitution business from a small brothel in an Annapolis apartment to a major sex trafficking ring that operated out of residential neighborhoods and sprawled across the borders of Maryland and Virginia.

To attract customers, he used accomplices to distribute business cards advertising "deportes" or "sports" in the vicinity of his brothels, records say. These cards signaled to seasoned patrons where to find prostitutes.

Paper tally sheets scrawled by Ventura and later confiscated by authorities, recorded whether each girl was reaching her quota - as many as 30 men a day. One 15-minute session typically cost $30. The women were allowed to keep half of those proceeds, according to trial testimony.

Despite at least one police raid, in 2008, the prostitution operation carried on for two more years before a joint investigation by federal and state law enforcement gathered enough evidence to arrest Ventura and Fuertes on sex trafficking charges. It took court orders to track cell phones and surveillance to photograph Ventura transporting women for prostitution, records say.

A jury convicted Ventura, now 37, of sex trafficking. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison. His case is on appeal. Fuertes, now 27, also was convicted of sex trafficking and sentenced to nearly 20 years.

Neither man could be reached for comment. At his sentencing, Ventura said, "I have never sold prostitutes" nor harmed anyone and that "the only thing I did with Ms. [R] was to help her."

At the time of the trial, R had obtained a work permit and found a job as a laborer in construction. But her baby had been taken during the 2008 police raid of Ventura's brothel, she testified, and legally adopted by another family.

Runaway problem

Runaways are among the easiest targets for traffickers, advocates say: Many come from troubled families and unstable living situations. They're often on their own without money or shelter.

"These victims are looking for somebody who's there to pay attention to them and somebody who might be the first person in their life to offer them the care, support and love that they're looking for," said Alicia McDowell, executive director of the Araminta Freedom Initiative, a Baltimore anti-trafficking advocacy group.

Harvey Mojica Washington was charged in state court with misdemeanor human trafficking, sexual assault of a minor and other charges stemming from his recruitment of C, a 14-year-old runaway, for his prostitution business in January 2012. The trafficking charges were dropped, and he pleaded guilty to a third-degree sex offense, a felony.

At his sentencing hearing in March 2015, Prince George's County Assistant State's Attorney Christina Caron-Moroney said that Washington fed and clothed C for a few days after picking her up off the street before revealing the real price of his attention: prostitution.

She was shown how to post ads on Backpage to attract clients and how to turn tricks, the prosecutor said. Washington instructed her to sleep with men in cars in a parking lot until she raised enough money to get a hotel room, she said.

The girl contacted friends through Facebook to tell them she was unhappy with what she was doing and wanted a way out. When Washington found out, he "became violent with her," Caron-Moroney said at the sentencing. Her mother sought the FBI's help and, through her friends, agents tracked her down in February 2012.

Washington, now 31, was sentenced to 10 years in prison with five years suspended.

"This is the time for excuses and reasoning, and I have neither," Washington said, voice weak, at his sentencing. "I'm not opposed to any sentence, I'll do whatever I have to do."

C decided not to testify in person at the sentencing. The girl had spent more than two years in a treatment facility for post-traumatic stress disorder following her ordeal, Caron-Maroney said. So the teen wrote a letter to the court, which the prosecutor read aloud.

"I am not his first victim of this type, but I would like to be the last," C wrote. "I couldn't sleep for months thinking this man would be free and come and find me or my mom and little brother.… He puts girls in this situation, takes away their pride, and joy of becoming a woman just to make money."

Lisa Driscoll, Jon Banister, Fatimah Waseem, Hayley Goodman and Melanie Kozak contributed to this article.

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