Another high-profile sex trafficking trial, prosecuted in the same year by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland after a joint investigation with county police officials, resulted in a 36-year sentence for Jeremy Naughton, a New York-based rapper using the street name of “Jerms Black.” Naughton was said to have coerced a prostitute at gunpoint who was operating out of the Crowne Plaza hotel (now Sheraton) in downtown Silver Spring to work for him.
In recent years, women have been brought in from China through New York City by organized criminal enterprises and then dispatched across the nation to so-called “body works” businesses that are designed to skirt the regulations placed on massage parlors in jurisdictions such as Montgomery County. County police moved in 2012 and 2013 to shut down a number of these storefront enterprises—concentrated in Rockville and Gaithersburg—and arrest the owners on prostitution and human trafficking charges.
Ready access to I-95 and multiple airports plays a major role, he adds, in addition to the disposable income here that allows sex traffickers to charge significantly higher rates than in other areas. “In Montgomery County, we have the perfect storm: money, access and a low crime rate,” Penrod says. “If you run one of these things in downtown D.C., the chances of your being a victim of a crime goes up.”
Out-of-state traffickers fly in women from as far away as California, Penrod says, “and in minutes, once you’re off the plane and in your hotel room, it’s bing, bing, bing and you’re open for operation.”
If this appears at first blush to be little more than old-fashioned prostitution, experts say that modern-day sex trafficking has been dramatically altered in the digital era. Internet sites such as backpage.com and eros.com, where people can solicit sex, have given the industry a new mobility.
According to Penrod’s unit, during just one evening in May 2014 there were almost 150 ads for prostitution on backpage.com for the Washington area, with eros.com featuring nearly 175 such ads. Craigslist shut down its “adult services” section five years ago, but law enforcement officials worry that pressure on backpage.com and eros.com to do the same would simply send a greater volume of ads to offshore sites, making it more difficult to pursue prostitution and human trafficking.
“When I was in college, when you rode up 14th Street [in downtown Washington, prostitutes] were on every corner, and maybe multiple girls on every corner,” McCarthy says. “Now, you don’t have to stand on the corner, and what happened on 14th Street is the same thing that is happening at some of our local hotels.” McCarthy says that in some ways, the Internet has made prostitution harder for police to detect because it isn’t occurring in the open as much. But in other ways, the Internet has helped law enforcement. “The way the meetings are set up leaves a telltale trail,” he says.
“This is not a victimless crime,” Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy says of sex trafficking.
Maryland’s so-called pandering law was modified in the past decade to make it easier to prosecute prostitution as sex trafficking. And there has been an accompanying transformation in perspectives about what once was widely seen as a victimless crime—prosecutors and victims’ advocates often cite the risk prostitutes face of being raped or robbed by their customers or contracting serious diseases.
“This is not a victimless crime,” McCarthy says. “If you look at the young women being trafficked, large percentages were victims of sex abuse before they got into the trade. In some instances, that led to them being runaways, which led them to being kidnapped or coerced either by drugs or by force into becoming prostitutes themselves.” The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) says the average age of child sex trafficking victims who are reported missing to them is between 15 and 16 years. “NCMEC is seeing evidence that traffickers are targeting teens,” said Ashley Iodice, a spokeswoman for the organization.