Crime, Local News, News, Providence, West Bay

Man says RI attorney used him as ‘scapegoat’ for check-cashing scheme

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Marcus Crook says he was surprised when he was picked up by police at his job in Connecticut back in December, and sent to Rhode Island to face charges in an alleged check-cashing scheme from 2016.

The 30-year-old Pawtucket man was charged with three crimes, accused of cashing checks from the business account of attorney Robert McNelis at a local establishment, which lost more than $7,000 in the alleged scheme.

“He used me as a scapegoat,” Crook said in an interview with Eyewitness News on Thursday.

Police said McNelis had accused Crook of stealing his checkbook. But a month later, McNelis was also arrested, charged with 11 counts including bank fraud and soliciting another to commit a crime.

“Every check that was cashed, I was directed to do by Rob,” Crook said. “I had no reason to believe that anything I was doing was illegal.”

Crook, who said he knew McNelis because the lawyer had considered representing him in a civil case, told State Police that McNelis had directed him to cash the checks. Police said Wednesday: “The investigation corroborated certain key aspects of what Mr. Crook had told investigators.”

“I had text messages back and forth between Rob and I,” Crook said. “State Police aren’t going to go arrest him on 11 counts just on the word of me.”

State Police spokesperson Laura Meade Kirk declined to comment on those text messages on Thursday. But McNelis’ attorney–his twin brother Ryan McNelis–claims the texts are fabricated.

“A doctored, fabricated text record that Mr. Crook created by a cloned cell phone,” Ryan McNelis said in an interview on Wednesday.

Ryan McNelis said his brother maintains his innocence, and believes he will be exonerated as the case is adjudicated. He also contends that Crook stole his checkbook from Robert McNelis’ Johnston law office.

“He had access to the building and raided my brother’s office while my brother was away,” Ryan McNelis said.

“I didn’t steal them from his office,” Crook countered, claiming Robert McNelis handed him the checks. “I was actually sitting on his couch at his house.”

Crook says McNelis told him he needed the cash to pay back a woman from a case that was the subject of a disciplinary matter before the Supreme Court in 2016. According to the court order, McNelis had a non-lawyer assistant who had access to his financial accounts, and overcharged a client. McNelis paid the woman back $9,100, and was publicly censured by the court for his “recklessness.”

The court said he had ample time to learn from his errors after a previous public censureship in 2014.

McNelis was arrested at the Garrahy courthouse in Providence on Wednesday, and later arraigned and released on personal recognizance. His brother said he was heading on a belated honeymoon to Europe on Thursday.

Crook has a lengthy criminal record, and acknowledges he has broken the law on multiple occasions. He said McNelis paid him to cash the checks back in 2016, and he needed the money at the time.

“I’m responsible for what I do, and what I do wrong,” Crook said. “That’s all on me.” But he says he feels that the attorney exploited him in this case.

“A lawyer who’s supposed to have my best interest at heart,” Crook said. “Instead of having my best interest at heart, he used me as a scapegoat.”

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Local News, News, Politics, Providence, Top Video

Child Advocate: DCYF mistakes contributed to baby’s death

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A social worker whose recommendation allowed a newborn baby to go home with a mother who had serious mental health problems, only to be severely abused, is still employed by the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The information shocked some lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee Thursday night, where the state’s child advocate detailed her office’s review of two baby deaths and four near-fatalities last year.

The aforementioned infant was not named in the report, but has previously been identified by police as Tobiloba Olawusi. Baby Tobi was admitted to the hospital at just 3 months old, suffering from at least 12 fractures, a skull fracture and apparent bite marks.

Tobi died at Hasbro Children’s Hospital on November 30.

“Things could’ve been handled much differently, specifically for this child’s life,” said Jennifer Griffith, the child advocate, who serves as watchdog over DCYF. She described to the committee the story of Tobi’s short life, which began when he was born to a mother who had already had a previous child taken away from her by the state.

The mother, Arinola Olawusi, was only allowed to have supervised visitation with her older child, but was allowed to take baby Tobi home, after Griffith says a social worker failed to report the extent of Olawusi’s mental health problems to a family court judge.

“She left things out,” Griffith said.

The judge allowed the baby to go home with the parents under a “safety plan,” in which the mother was not supposed to be alone with the baby. Her husband, Olalekan Olawusi, was tasked with watching the baby at all times.

“Straight out, we don’t feel this makes any sense,” Griffith said. “You have to go to the bathroom; at some point you’re going to sleep.”

Griffith’s report also found that the father had said Tobi would go to a daycare, for which he gave DCYF a fake name and address. DCYF never visited the daycare or verified that it was appropriate, or even existed.

“It was not until after the child presented with extensive injuries was it learned that the address provided was for a vacant building,” the report says.

Tobi’s mother was charged with cruelty and/or neglect of a child, and his father was charged with first-degree child abuse. Charges for Olalekan Olawusi were expected to be upgraded after the baby died, but police said he had jumped bail. There is a warrant out for his arrest for missing his court dates.

Several lawmakers on the committee, including Chairwoman Patricia Serpa were baffled that the social worker who had recommended the baby go home with his parents is still employed by DCYF.

“Babies die, and we still have people working at DCYF? What am I missing? Someone explain to me what I’m missing,” Serpa said, incredulous.

Trista Piccola, the department’s director since 2016, said the situation was reviewed, but she couldn’t go into details about personnel matters. She did say that safety plans similar to the one used in Tobi’s case were no longer being used by DCYF.

Serpa, D-West Warwick, elaborated in an interview after the hearing. “People get fired from jobs for stealing supplies from a company,” she said. “I can’t imagine that someone would still be employed after having a hand in the death of a baby.”

Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, asked Piccola if the social worker had been overloaded with cases, drawing quick objections from some of her fellow committee-members.

“I’m not making excuses,” Tanzi responded. “But we can’t just sit here and yell at people and tell them they should be fired. We have a problem in an agency that we have to solve.”

Griffith said social workers are responsible for making sure they can handle their caseloads.

“If you feel … that you have too much to do, you need to tell your supervisor,” Griffith said. “And if your supervisor doesn’t handle it, then you need to call the union. You need to call someone.”

Piccola said progress was being made in filling DCYF vacancies, but said the department was being swamped with calls, as people become more aware of mandated reporting laws. She said investigations had increased by 20%.

“We are still drowning in the department,” Piccola warned.

Griffith also detailed another infant death from July 2017, where a 3-month-old girl died in a Providence home. The report said the newborn was sent home from the hospital despite “numerous risk factors” in the home. Four other children and a grandmother were home at the time of the baby’s death, and a sibling reported the baby had been removed from her crib and brought into bed with the mother. Just five hours before the baby died, police had found the mother passed out in a driveway after a night of drinking.

Griffith said the child review panel would convene again next month to review 17 cases, including five child deaths and 12 near-fatalities.

Crime, Local News, News, Providence, Top Video

Man accused of killing local doctor had filed Department of Health complaint against him

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EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Warren man charged in the killing of former Barrington chiropractor Clive Bridgham had recently filed a complaint against him, according to East Providence Police.

Owen Morris, 21, was charged Tuesday with first-degree murder, accused of stabbing Bridgham numerous times at his Pleasant Street home. Police disclosed at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that Morris had been one of Bridgham’s patients.

The complaint filed with the Department of Health based on a 2016 incident led Bridgham to agree to surrender his chiropractic license in September 2017. Paperwork from the Department of Health says a patient accused him of “violating the professional boundaries of the chiropractic physician-patient relationship.” The surrender was accepted on Nov. 1.

Two months later, on Jan. 11, police got a call from Bridgham’s significant other, reporting that she had not heard from him. Police went to check on him and forced entry into his Pleasant Street home, police said. They found he had been stabbed “multiple times.”

“It was particularly brutal,” Parella said. He described it as “an attack with an edged weapon,” but declined to say what the weapon was or if police have recovered it. Parella said the alleged murder was premeditated.

One day after the murder, investigators sought records surrounding the surrender of Bridgham’s chiropractic license, according to a search warrant obtained by Eyewitness News.

In the warrant’s affidavit, a detective explains he needs records from the Department of Health related to complaints made about Bridgham, including names, “so as to assist in the investigation of the death of Bridgham.”

Twelve days after the homicide, police arrested Morris on a warrant Monday and charged him with murder. Morris was arraigned in Providence District Court Tuesday morning and ordered to be held without bail. His defense attorney, Jason Knight, declined to comment on the charge.

Bridgham’s license was also put on probation in 2003 after he was accused of having a sexual encounter with a patient, according to a consent order. Police declined to say if any other complaints were discovered, but said they are investigating.

“Everything we looked at was a contributing factor in making this arrest,” Parella said.

In a police report from 1999, a neighbor accused Bridgham of being a “pedophile,” claiming he sexually assaulted a 12-year-old boy whom the neighbor had sent to mow Bridgham’s lawn. The neighbor told police the boy’s family had declined to pursue charges.

Around the same time Bridgham was relinquishing his medical license, Morris withdrew from the University of Rhode Island. The economics major was on the Dean’s List and lacrosse team, according to spokesperson Dave Lavalee, but took a leave of absence in the spring of 2017. He eventually withdrew from the university in September.

Clive Bridgham was found murdered in his East Providence home on Jan. 11, 2018. (WPRI file photo)

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Local News, News, Politics, Providence

Superintendent: ‘We are in dire need’ of school funding proposed by Raimondo

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — There was a bipartisan standing ovation when Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed a “once in a generation” investment in public school buildings in her State of the State address Tuesday night, and superintendents across the state are already planning for how to make the most of the possible funding.

Raimondo proposed spending $1 billion on school repairs over the next five years, which breaks down to $650 million in state funds and $350 million in municipal funds. If passed by the General Assembly, the plan would ask voters to approve a $250 million general-obligation bond on the ballot in November, and would continue the current $80 million annual appropriation for school repairs.

“I’m so glad she emphasized the school bonding issue,” East Providence Schools Superintendent Kathryn Crowley said Wednesday. “We are in dire need of that money.”

Like districts across the state, East Providence schools are in need of repairs; Riverside Middle School flooded on Tuesday, and Myron Francis Elementary School had to close last week after a pipe burst. The 67-year-old East Providence High School is in such disrepair, Crowley says the city needs to build a brand new one.

“The mechanical and the electrical beneath that high school has deteriorated to such a point that we’re constantly band-aiding it,” Crowley said. “I’m operating on a wing and a prayer.”

Eyewitness News took a tour of the school last month, where some areas have been blocked off to students due to cracked ceilings, crumbling concrete and rusty pipes.

Raimondo’s speech was music to Crowley’s ears.

“It would be really impossible to raise that kind of money without state help,” Crowley said. Plans are already in the works to build the new school, with an estimated cost of $170 to $190 million.

While Raimondo has not yet released all the details of the program including how cities and towns will qualify for the money, Crowley believes East Providence could get up to 75% of the cost of a new high school from the state. She said she met with the governor about the proposal last week.

“Cities and towns will continue to have to invest in their owns schools,” Raimondo told reporters Wednesday. “But they do that now, and every city and town will be made better because of this program.”

She said more specifics would be released Thursday, along with her entire tax-and-spending plan for the 2018-19 state budget year.

A task force slated with reviewing the problem of crumbling schools recommended last month that the state borrow $500 million by 2022 for the repairs, in addition to continuing to set aside $80 million per year for school infrastructure projects.

The task force also recommended a “bonus system” that would incentivize towns and cities that move quickly to make repairs.

Raimondo’s pitch was generally well-received at the State House Tuesday night. Republican House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan, who was critical of much the governor’s speech, said she’s open to the school funding proposal.

“I think children and teachers deserve healthy schools to spend their days in,” Morgan said. “I just want to know the details.”

Crowley, who is also the chair of the legislative committee of the Rhode Island Schools Superintendents’ Association, said she plans to testify in favor of the plan in the General Assembly.

“It’s so important to the children, and the children are our future,” Crowley said.

Kim Kalunian contributed to this report.

Local News, News, Politics, Providence

Proposed law would exempt senior citizens from jury duty in Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Islanders aged 70 or older would be off the hook for jury duty under a newly proposed bill, unless they choose otherwise.

The bill, introduced in the House this week by Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly, would add those senior citizens to the list of people exempted from jury service in the state.

The list also includes members of Congress, the state’s general officers, members of the General Assembly, the jury commissioner and assistants, judges, court clerks, practicing attorneys, correctional officers, deputy sheriffs, probation and parole officers, police officers, firefighters and active duty members of the armed services.

All of the groups have the option to waive their exemption, if they want to still be called for jury service.

Rep. Azzinaro said he introduced the exemptions for seniors at the request of constituents.

“Many retired people head south or west for the winter months and may not get notified because they are away and not receive the mail,” Azzinaro said in an email. “Also many seniors have to depend on someone to drive them to various places.”

The bill was referred to the House Municipal Government Committee.

Massachusetts has a similar law, which allows residents ages 70 and older to choose to be removed from the jury list.

Local News, News, Providence, Top Video

Family of woman pulled from Providence fire demands justice

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Lucy Feliciano first rented a room at 110 Bowdoin St. in December, her family said, after having trouble finding an affordable apartment.

Two weeks later, the 49-year-old woman was dead. Her body was pulled from the rubble of a destructive fire in Olneyville that burned the building to the ground and destroyed two adjacent homes.

Her devastated family is demanding the landlord be held responsible for her death, and asking why city officials did not immediately condemn the building after an inspection last week revealed numerous code violations.

Feliciano was identified Wednesday as the person whose remains were found at 110 Bowdoin St. two days after the fire, but the Medical Examiner has not determined her cause of death.

“Lucy was a very beautiful soul, she was very happy,” her niece Stephanie Rubio said. “She didn’t deserve to die this way.”

At least two dozen relatives gathered at the site of the fire to place candles in the snow and honor the mother of nine Wednesday night. They brought signs plastered with her photos, and decorated with red lip prints, in honor of her signature lip color.

The signs also listed some of the code violations found in the house by a city inspector three days before the fire, including the lack of heat and hot water. The inspector issued an “intent to condemn” the property after declaring the house “a mess,” filled with debris, dubious wiring, space heaters and propane torches that occupants were using to keep warm.

The building burned down in the early morning of Jan. 6, before the inspection report was filed.

“They should’ve just closed it, simple,” said Yahaira Lavoy, Feliciano’s niece. “He had the authority to close it down.”

Victor Morente, a spokesperson for the city, said while the inspector found numerous violations in the house, “he did not observe any conditions presenting an imminent danger of fire or collapse to warrant immediate evacuation of the building.”

Morente said the landlord, Dexter Jackson, was walked through the condemnation process that day.

“Property owners are entitled to due process,” Morente wrote in an email. “Typically they are given a 24-72 hour window to address violations. As always, the city takes these matters very seriously and will continue to address them if and when they arise.”

Feliciano’s family also believes Jackson should be held responsible for failing to fix the problems. They objected to an assertion Jackson made on Jan. 1, when firefighters visited the property and wrote in a report that “he complained that the tenants are drug addicts who don’t pay their rent, causing him to be unable to pay for the necessary work needed on the property,”

“She never used drugs,” Lavoy said of Feliciano. “She just moved there.” The family said Feliciano was renting a room in the same unit where Jackson lived.

“It’s not fair,” Lavoy added. “We lost someone.”

“He has to pay for this,” Rubio said. “This is negligence. This should be negligent homicide.”

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said fire investigators will need to determine the cause of the fire before deciding if anyone is criminally responsible.

In an interview with Eyewitness News on Tuesday, Jackson brushed off his code violations as unrelated to the fire, and denied some of the issues detailed in the inspector’s report.

Target 12 learned that Jackson’s property at 110 Bowdoin St. had previously been ordered to be condemned in 2015, after being deemed “unfit for continued occupancy.”

Another property he owned at 708 Atwells Avenue was also condemned by the city, and later caught fire.

“We want change,” said Jesus Lavoy, one of Feliciano’s nephews. He said the city should be cracking down on problem landlords with repeated violations and condemnation notices.

“This could happen again to another family,” Lavoy said. “That’s why we want justice.”

Local News, News, Providence, Top Video

Landlord: Poor conditions, intent to condemn house not relevant to fire investigation

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The owner of an Olneyville home that burned down Saturday, leading to the discovery of a woman’s body two days later, claimed deplorable conditions described by city inspectors inside the house did not cause the massive fire.

Dexter Jackson, the landlord at 110 Bowdoin St. who was also living inside the building with his tenants, told Eyewitness News Tuesday that it’s normal to have numerous code violations, and news reports documenting his property’s history of problems are “stupid.”

“You all are just ignorant,” Jackson said in a phone interview. “You don’t understand. Every house has violations. What’s the cause of the fire?”

Investigators have not determined the cause of the fire, which they say started at Jackson’s property and spread to two adjacent homes, both of which were destroyed.

A city building inspector recommended the home be condemned after inspecting it three days before the fire, writing in a report dated Jan. 3 that the home was “a mess.”  Inspector Bill Monaco said the house had no heat and no running water.

“Occupants were running space heaters, numerous propane torches throughout dwelling, debris on every floor including basement, open electrical panel in basement,” Monaco wrote in the report. Photos provided by the Providence Fire Department show the piles of debris, along with tangled extension cords, exposed wiring and multiple space heaters.

The building burned down before the city could condemn it. A woman’s body was pulled from the rubble Monday, identified by family members as Lucy Feliciano. A spokesperson for the Medical Examiner’s office said Tuesday that an autopsy was being performed to determine Feliciano’s cause of death.

“It was sad to know that somebody died in there,” Jackson said, adding that he was inside at the time of the fire and suffered injuries. He said he did not know Feliciano was still inside until after he escaped.

Jackson brushed aside the violations detailed by the code inspector and documented in photos by the Providence Fire Department, asserting that the fire started at the house next door. He also denied some of the claims made in Monaco’s report.

“There was running water, there was heat,” Jackson said. He said the space heaters in the house were only being used in the basement to prevent frozen pipes, and denied the inspector’s assertion that occupants were using space heaters.

“I had an extension cord going to the basement to warm up the pipes,” he said. “Because, you know, it was cold.”

The temperature was 3 degrees when the fire broke out at the heat-less home Saturday morning.

Roland Colpitts, the tenant who complained about the property and triggered the fire department inspection, said he wished the city had acted faster to condemn and evacuate the building after discovering the poor conditions.

“It’s my belief they should have shut the house down right then and there because they were aware how bad the conditions were,” he said.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré said the condemning process has to go through housing court and the landlord has to be given time to fix the problems, unless the house is structurally unsafe.

Jackson objected to Target 12’s reporting on his building’s deplorable conditions, insisting the inspection records should not be subject to public scrutiny unless firefighters determine that his code violations caused the fire.

“You’re being stupid,” Jackson said. He hung up the phone shortly thereafter.

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Crime, Local News, News, Providence, Top Video

Providence man pleads guilty to killing pregnant girlfriend

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Providence man admitted Thursday to killing his girlfriend and her unborn child in 2015 by beating her repeatedly with a fire extinguisher and setting her apartment on fire.

Born Smith, 31, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and first-degree arson and was sentenced to two life sentences by Superior Court Justice Sarah Taft-Carter. The sentences will run concurrently.

The victim, Aliss Collins, was eight and a half months pregnant at the time of her death, according to family members who attended the plea hearing. She planned to name her son Alexander.

“Since Aliss was killed my whole world is changed forever,” said Olabisi Agboola, Collins’ younger sister. “The amount of pain that is in my heart…I cannot quantify into words.”

In court, Assistant Attorney General John Krollman said Cranston first responders went to to Collins’ Marcy Street apartment on Nov. 13, 2015 for the report of a fire, subsequently finding Collins on the bathroom floor with severe head injuries.

Krollman said Collins’ cause of death was ruled to be blunt force head injuries and smoke inhalation. Police charged Smith with her murder and the arson after discovering his handprint on a fire extinguisher that was also covered in Collins’ blood.

Smith had just discovered he was the father of Collins’ child, Krollman said. A DNA test later proved he was the biological father.

Smith admitted to the crimes and declined an opportunity to address the court.

Leemu Seabook, Collins’ older sister, described her as a “beautiful, educated, caring, giving, strong, excited woman full of life, as she shared pictures of her growing belly and constantly updated her sisters on her motherhood milestones.”

Multiple family members described her as having a high-pitched, infectious laugh that everyone could recognize.

“My sweet Aliss, my little sister who hated getting her hair braided,” Seabrook said. “My sister who laughed, and made you laugh.”

The family plans to plant an apple tree in Collins’ honor, and in memory of an annual apple picking trip she started. Collins’ aunt, Lisa Jackson, held up a photo of Collins at her final trip to the apple orchard. She was seven months pregnant.

After the sentencing, Col. Michael Winquist said he was “very proud” of the work his detectives did to solve the case. He said the palm print on the fire extinguisher was the key piece of evidence that tied Smith to the crime.

Smith will first become eligible for parole after 25 years, according to the Attorney General’s office.

Local News, News, Providence, Top Video

Students stage walk-out to support ousted assistant principal

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A few dozen students at Mount Pleasant High School walked out of school a half hour before dismissal on Friday to protest in support of Thomas Bacon, the former Central High School assistant principal who resigned his post last week due to a controversial video.

Bacon, who previously worked at Mount Pleasant, was seen in the video pinning a 15-year-old student to the ground at Central High. Providence Police said the student was accused of elbowing a teacher in the face.

Neither the student nor Mr. Bacon have been charged.

“We all love him as students, we’re like a family,” said Hope Fernandez, a senior at Mount Pleasant who was at the protest.

“Bacon was always the principal that helped the students when they were in trouble,” said Marcus Correia, another senior. “Gave them a second chance.”

The students held signs that said “Justice for Bacon” and “Doing his job is not a crime.”

While Bacon was not fired from his post, Mayor Jorge Elorza told Eyewitness News last week that Bacon had been notified termination was on the table. Elorza said Bacon’s conduct did not meet the “values” of the Providence School Department.

Bacon has worked for the school district since 1994. A spokesperson said he worked at Mount Pleasant High as an assistant principal from 2014 to 2017 before moving over to Central High School.

The 15-year-old student’s mother told Eyewitness News last week that her son was “compliant” with the administrators during the altercation.

“There was no need for him to put his hands on my son at all,” the mother said.

But Fernandez said she thinks the investigation should have been completed before Bacon was pushed out of his job.

“I don’t think the video tells the whole story,” Fernandez said. “To see him in that position, he doesn’t deserve it. That damaged his whole career, and him as a person. And he doesn’t deserve that.”

Providence Public Schools spokesperson Laura Hart issued a statement after the walk-out:

“This has been a difficult situation for both students and staff to work through. We support the rights of our students to voice their opinions in a thoughtful and peaceful manner. Disciplinary action, when appropriate, will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

Providence Police said Friday the investigation into the incident between Bacon and the student is ongoing.

Crime, Local News, National, News, Providence, Top Video

FBI cracking down on human trafficking in Rhode Island communities

[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.