[anvplayer video=”WPRI:1533657″] PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When FBI divisions nationwide conducted a three-day crackdown on human trafficking and child exploitation last month, the sting turned up one arrest in Rhode Island, in the seaside town of Tiverton. Police there arrested Jerry Isme, 27, who lives in Boston, for allegedly trafficking a 16-year-old girl.
The arrest sheds light on what the FBI tells Eyewitness News is a common misconception: that sex trafficking is mostly taking place in large cities. Traffickers don’t discriminate by zip code when they choose their victims, according to Special Agent Brooks Broadus, because the internet allows them to target vulnerable women and girls from anywhere.
“We’ve seen girls from Maine all the way though Rhode Island, and they’re actually being groomed from Boston,” Special Agent Broadus said in an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News on Wednesday. Broadus said the I-95 corridor is often used to traffic victims along the east coast.
In the Tiverton case, a police report obtained by Eyewitness News describes police approaching Isme after he parked his car at a location police did not disclose. A woman and a teenage girl were in the car, according to police, along with two boxes of condoms and a hotel room card.
“I was just giving them a ride,” police say Isme told them. “I already told y’all I’m not selling them [girls], I’m not getting paid for this.” The officer who wrote the report said he had not asked Isme if he was selling the girl, who police later discovered was 16. The victim spoke to police and Isme was charged with sex trafficking of a minor.
The sting was part of Operation Cross Country, the eleventh iteration of the nationwide FBI initiative that ran from Oct. 12-15. According to the FBI, 84 exploited children were rescued and 120 traffickers were arrested.
“Anyone can be vulnerable to this situation given the right opportunity,” Broadus said. He said victims come from low-income and wealthy communities, and span all races and ethnicities.
The “pimps,” as the traffickers are called, are typically able to groom their victims into believing a lifestyle in the sex trade would be glamorous and lucrative, before trapping them in a situation that can be difficult to escape from. The FBI says some suspects use a tactic called “debt bondage,” where traffickers charge victims for transportation and other living costs that they’ll never be able to pay down.
“A predator knows who their victims are,” Agent Broadus said. “They understand who are the weak ones that they can actually exploit…they will recognize that in a child and start exploiting them.”
Warwick Detective Kerri Chatten works on the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Task Force, which investigates these crimes and often infiltrates hotel rooms, truck stops and private residences to rescue exploited children.
She says a big part of catching the predators involves cooperation from hotels and motels, where sex crimes are often committed. A brochure provided to Eyewitness News advises housekeepers to look for “multiple condoms in the trash,” or men waiting in the hall. Employees who work in the lobby are encouraged to converse with minors arriving with adults to try and get a sense of whether they are in danger.
“If we can get to these young people at a younger age and we can provide them services and help them, maybe we can prevent it,” Detective Chatten said.
There are warning signs for parents to look for, such as a girl coming home with expensive gifts and phones with no explanation, or a drastic change in behavior after starting to associate with a new person. Some victims are even “branded” with tattoos by their pimps.
The FBI only recently began reporting sex crime statistics to its Uniform Crime Report, but the first report that came out in 2015 only contained data from 13 states. The FBI is planning to collect more data in future reports.
According to data from the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s office, there were 11 sex trafficking cases prosecuted in Rhode Island in 2016. Year-to-date in 2017, U.S. Attorney spokesperson Jim Martin said there have been eight cases. Year-to-date statistics from the Attorney General’s office were not immediately available.
The numbers are almost certainly lower than the total number of victims, because sex trafficking crimes are under-reported by victims. Special Agent Broadus said that’s the reason the FBI is not focused on arresting women in prostitution cases, because it often takes 8-10 contacts with a victim before they disclose they are being trafficked.
According to the FBI, these are possible indicators of human trafficking:
- Working in the same place they live
- Poor living conditions
- Letting someone else speak for them
- Not being in possession of their own travel/immigration documents
- Locks being on the outside of doors rather than inside
- Increasing debt
- Boss taking their pay
- Paying boss for food, clothing, rent
- Not free to leave
- Someone always watching/guarding
- Threatened by boss
Victims who need assistance can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at (888) 373-7888, or their local police department.