FBI priority: human trafficking

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 6, 2016

FBI Agent Walter Henry (right) talks with Russell Pierce at the Exchange Club Wednesday. The Panolian photo by John Howell

FBI priority: human trafficking

By John Howell
The 70-mile vehicle pursuit on August 5 that led law enforcement officers at speeds up to 100 miles per hour on I-55 before coming to an end with a crash near the Yalobusha County line likely had its origins in human sex trafficking, an FBI agent said.
“A lot of our problems stem from Memphis,” FBI Special Agent Walter Henry of Batesville told members of the Exchange Club Wednesday.
“There was a 16-year-old abducted out of Memphis, being taken down to Jackson — it’s probably not the first time — they were taking her down to Jackson for commercial sex,” Henry said.
“One of the suspected pimps, a female, she died in the process of the arrest,” Henry said, a reference to a woman who apparently died from injuries when she either jumped from the fleeing vehicle while it was still traveling at a high speed or was thrown out as the vehicle careened out of control before it crashed. A second female who also jumped or was ejected from the pickup just prior to the crash is believed to be the juvenile from Memphis.
Human trafficking is a number one priority within the FBI, according to Henry. His job includes investigating suspected prostitution in northwest Mississippi as well as training state, county and local law enforcement officers on what should make them suspicious that they are confronting possible human trafficking suspects and victims.
Stepped up enforcement by the Memphis Police Department Vice Squad and the FBI’s Memphis Enhanced Task Force helps push prostitution and trafficking into surrounding areas, including north Mississippi, he said.
“We’re seeing a lot of pimps come down and operate in our area,” Henry said.
Price is also a factor.
“You can come into Tunica; you can come into Oxford … and get a better price,” the federal officer said. “You can charge more because you have less competition, because if you charge (too much) in Memphis and they don’t like your price; they (johns — customers of prostitutes) just go around the corner and find somebody else. If you’re in our area then you can negotiate a higher price, and they consider it a little safer.”
“It’s no one particular group; … it’s an equal opportunity business; it’s about money; it’s about commercial sex,” Henry said.
Prostitution in itself is not a federal crime, the agent said.
“What we spend our resources on, and what we are looking for are those individuals who exploit others,” he said.
Henry said that Mississippi has some of the strongest state trafficking laws in the nation.
“What we have to do here is educate our district attorneys and our (other law enforcement officials). These laws are on the books, but they don’t always apply them. A lot of our training is on ‘indicators’ — the things we try to train them on. They’re doing a better job of identifying pimps and indicators of trafficking.”
“If they’re under 18, we have a whole host of laws; if they’re over 18, we have trafficking laws,” the FBI guy said.
“There are a couple things we have to prove,” Henry continued, “force, fraud or coercion.”
“A lot of times, you’re not going to see them on the street; now in Memphis you might still see them working what they call the ‘track’ — certain streets, you drive down those streets you see a young lady — there’s a pimp around — but you’ll see a young lady out on the street advertising herself,” Henry continued.
“It’s not necessarily working that way in this day an age. Right now with these cell phones, with the internet you post yourself, you get you a cheap motel, you stay there, you post yourself and have your customers come to you,” Henry said.
“A lot of them, they’re going to be on Backpage,” Henry said.
Backpage.com is a web site that advertises everything for sale from auto parts to lawn mowers to women and men. The site was cited in 2012 by the National Association of Attorneys General as the premier web site for human trafficking.
“If you just happen to go on the internet, pull up Backpage, … put in north Mississippi and you’ll see a whole host of young ladies — and young men — and they’ll post in Batesville, Oxford, Tupelo, Tunica.”
Henry said that girls ages 13 and 14 are often targeted. “That’s that rebellious stage,” he said.
Young people who have been raised in churches are vulnerable, he said, because if they are photographed in an embarrassing circumstance, the threat of posting the image on social media can be used as blackmail to coerce the young person into prostitution rather than face condemnation from family and peers.
Addiction, pregnancy, and alienation from family also keep victims from escaping traffickers, he said.
“We are seeing gangs now, getting involved in commercial sex, dope dealers. It’s two ways to make money. You can make money selling dope, but the one thing about selling dope is … it’s a one time transaction. Now I’ve got to go find some more. If I have a human being … I can sell that human being to everybody in this room and make money off of them.”
Henry said that training patrol officers includes encouraging them to look closely when called to disturbances at hotels and motels and also separating for questioning people of opposite sex when there is an obvious age disparity and no familial connection.
“We don’t want to turn the United States into an over-policed state,” he said. “At the same time we don’t want somebody who is being exploited to go by the wayside.”
Henry said that a good source for additional information about human trafficking is Advocates for Freedom, a non-profit organization headquartered in Biloxi, <www.AdvocatesForFreedom.org>.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached by call 1-888-373-7888.

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