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In Depth: Fighting sex trafficking in the Capital Region

February 06, 2017 07:09 PM

A young mother abducted in California, possibly by sex traffickers. It's a story that made national headlines.

Sherri Papini was held against her will, had her hair chopped off, was beaten, starved and branded and then finally released. Investigators say it may have been part of a sex trafficking ring. That led NewsChannel 13's Kelly Lynch to ask does that really happen and does sex trafficking happen here, in the Capital Region?

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To most people, life as usual in the Capital Region is work, school, kids, sports and the arts. However, there is a darker side. It's a seedy underbelly that most of us are completely unaware of. They operate in local hotels, online. It's sex trafficking. Young women taken from their friends and families and sold into a life of drugs and sex with strangers.

It happened to "Susan." NewsChannel 13 changed her name and identity.  She's not ready for the world to know that as a 14-year-old in Schenectady, she was grabbed off the street, drugged and forced into a life of prostitution.

"He stopped and pulled the car up and he got out of the car and he said, 'Get in the car,' and I said, 'No, I have two feet, I'm walking. I like walking.' Then, he pulled out a knife," she recalled. "I got shoved into the car and as I was kind of doing a fading out, it was like, 'You work for me now,'" recalled Susan.

She was forced to sleep on a blanket on the floor, wear provocative clothes and shoes. He told her what to say, and how to act and he was always watching.

"I was told that if I ran away, he would find me. He would kill me. I was told if I didn't do what he wanted me to do, I wasn't going to eat. I got hit, I got slapped, I got pushed out there I got threatened with 'I've got a gun in this car,'" she recalled.

She was taken to local motels, in random cars and most of the men she was forced to do things with knew she was barely a teenager.

"He actually made me walk up and down State Street and men would actually pull up and I tried being smart and saying, 'You know, I'm only 14.' 'That's alright. Get in,'" she recalled.

Susan doesn't know how long it went on for. She thinks maybe a year. Then one day, a family friend saw her from his cab.

"He said, 'Come on. Get in. We'll go for a ride' and I got in the car and he drove me straight to the police station," recalled Susan.

WEB EXTRA: "Susan" talks about getting out of a life of forced drugs and prostitution

The man who abducted Susan went to prison and Susan got the help she needed to put her life together. However, that's rarely how these cases turn out. 

Sadly, it happens here more than we realize.

"A lot of people think that it's just poor children, or strictly inner city children. That's normally not the case," explained Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.

He says he has seen it over and over and while they may not be walking the streets, they are now being put out there in other ways.

"Mostly they're younger girls who meet somebody online, who at that point have no idea who they are talking to. They think they are talking to an 18 to 20-something and instead it's a 50-year-old guy who has this going with three or four other young ladies. They'll meet her and boom, out of the area they go," explained Apple. "It happens a lot in a lot of area hotels. I know when people see this they're going to go, 'Jeez, does that really happen around here? You wouldn't believe the amount of times a day that we are getting calls or finding people."

The help is coming from the most unlikely of places.

Stephen Dick Jr. owns Nite Moves, a strip club in Latham. He's also part of a national coalition of club owners working with Homeland Security to fight sex trafficking.

"This is modern day slavery, these are people who are being held against their will and forced to do things they don't necessarily want to be doing," explained Dick.

The club owners are trained in how to spot a woman who is being trafficked and what to do about it and it's working.

"We have had several positive results," pointed out Dick. "We found, with education and knowing what to look for, we have actually been able to save several women," explained Dick.

Across the Capital Region, billboards have popped up providing a hotline and way out. However, just putting it out there isn't enough. Sheriff Apple says it's up to the public to help too.

"We always say if you see something, say something and it doesn't always have to be for terror," noted Apple. "When it comes to trying to help a child, you have to do everything you can, because this person has a long life ahead of himself or herself and there's a lot of services out there."

It's because of women like Susan who are willing to bring their stories out of the dark and shed light on the very real issue of sex trafficking right here in the Capital Region that help is available. The state has a hotline set up. There are resources out there. All it takes is a phone call.


More informaton:

Help for Victims of Human Trafficking, or to report a suspected case:

1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to 233733 ("Be Free")

How to recognize a potential victim of sex trafficking:

  • Young, often dressed provocatively
  • May be in the company of an older person who speaks for them
  • Doesn't make eye contact
  • Seems fearful or hesitant

Credits

Kelly Lynch

Copyright 2017 - WNYT-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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