PITTSBURGH When Moon Township, Pa., police got a call from staff at America's Best Value Inn last month, reporting an argument among shady guests, they swooped in and separated a 17-year-old girl from the group of five.
With her help, they found two of the others listed as prostitutes on an Internet site.
Now Ivory Williams, 34, from Huron, S.D.; April Holloway, 24, from Columbus, Ohio; Sarrha Herman, 22, from East Point, Mich.; and Harley Fournier, 20, from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., all face charges of promoting prostitution, conspiracy and possession of instruments of crime. The girl, who had been away from her family for a year but was never reported as missing, has been returned to her grandmother in Detroit.
Chief Leo McCarthy of the Moon police said he hoped the FBI would take the case and consider a human trafficking charge something almost unheard of in this region's courts until last year.
"I think there is a perception that human trafficking is something that happens in large, urban centers or on the coast," said Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
But she often sees girls and women with mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder, along with those who need treatment for physical issues like sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition and other health consequences of trafficking. "This is really uncomfortable stuff, to think that there are young people in our community where adults who should be taking care of them are exploiting them using them sexually."
There's a reason human trafficking is now considered to be the second-most-lucrative criminal enterprise, behind drugs. It's estimated to be a $32 billion worldwide industry, with more than 12 million victims.
"You can sell drugs, you can sell guns (once). You can sell a human being more than once," FBI special agent Kelly Kochamba told some two dozen members of the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh's Center for Race & Gender Equity last month.
Legally, human trafficking is compelling a person by force, fraud or deception into forced labor, domestic servitude or sexual commerce, or enlisting a minor in the sex trade.
"We call this modern-day slavery," said U.S. Attorney David Hickton. "There are many people here who are not here voluntarily, who are being oppressed, who are being subjected to substandard housing, substandard labor conditions, and often are being used for sexual purposes."
Last month, his office indicted former drug dealer Rasul Abernathy, 32, and Poshauntamarin Walker, 33, a former state corrections officer, for child sex trafficking. The two taught a 16-year-old Western Pennsylvania girl prostitution and controlled her with drugs and alcohol, transporting her from North Versailles to Coatesville, 39 miles west of Philadelphia, according to an FBI affidavit.
While that girl was allegedly prostituted in hotel rooms, human trafficking on a larger scale is happening in business districts, experts said.
Subtle clues include unnecessary bars on windows, people frequently coming and going in residential areas, businesses such as massage parlors open in the middle of the night, said Mary C. Burke, executive director of the 10-year-old coalition and director of training for the doctoral program in counseling psychology at Carlow University.
Victims are often non-English-speaking foreign nationals, perhaps in the U.S. illegally, or those who have little understanding of the justice system. She said she has assisted 35 to 40 local trafficking victims during the past several years.
"If a new business pops up, and it just says 'Massage' up front, and there's no phone number and you can't see in the windows, that may be an indication" of illicit activity, said Brad Orsini, FBI supervisory special agent. When the FBI gets a credible tip, he added, it conducts undercover investigations, attempts to interview the workers and sometimes executes search warrants.
Why haven't more parlors been shuttered, and their owners prosecuted federally? "A lot of victims of human trafficking are very reluctant to talk with law enforcement," he said. "Are they going to get deported? Are they going to get arrested? If I talk, where will I live?"
In Pittsburgh recently, two teenage Russian girls were found locked in a home, forced to prostitute themselves to repay an immigration fee to a fraudulent business, Burke said. They were basically living as indentured servants and they feared police because of their previous experience with Russian law enforcement.
"They are scared for their lives," Burke said in a phone interview from Liberia, where she was on a mission to end such abuse. "Their survival instincts kick in."