The egregious acts happening behind closed doors at some Richland County motels can’t be seen by the people driving past – sometimes not even by those staying or working at the establishments.
But law enforcement knows what’s going on, and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department is working with hotel and motel employees to help them spot and report the signs of child sex trafficking.
Hotels and motels are popular venues for traffickers to carry out their illegal enterprise, according to Capt. Joe Odom, who oversees the Sheriff’s Department’s Region 4. That portion of the county includes the Broad River and St. Andrews areas, home to more than 50 motels and hotels.
Motels allow traffickers to quickly move their operations with ease and without the paper trail, making it more difficult for law enforcement to track and bust the operations, which Odom said are more common now thanks to websites like Backpage.com.
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“Social media is ground zero,” he said. “That set everything off.”
It was a posting on Backpage that led to the sting operation last February at a Two Notch Road motel, where Samuel Pratt was arrested and later charged in the sale of two teenage girls to strangers. A federal jury convicted Pratt in December on sex trafficking and child pornography charges.
“Some, we believe, are very aware of what’s going on and they’re about the money,” said Capt. Heidi Jackson of the victim services unit at the Sheriff’s Department. “And then you have others that we’re actually receiving phone calls from – ‘Hey, there’s somebody young here you guys might want to check out.’”
Often, the victims rescued from trafficking are local girls, according to Jackson. They’re usually between 14 and 17, but the youngest so far has been 13.
More than half of the 50 pending state-level charges of human trafficking from 2016 were from Richland County, according to the S.C. Human Trafficking Task Force 2016 report. Of those 50 statewide cases, 36 involved victims under 18.
Odom and Jackson decided to confront motel and hotel operators about the sex trafficking in their establishments, specifically those in Region 4 that see more trafficking and prostitution activity.
Odom lays down the law with the managers and operators first.
“He goes in with the primary information: here’s what we’ve been seeing in your hotel; things are going to change around here,’” Jackson said. “He’s letting them know we’re kind of putting you on notice.”
Jackson then educates managers, giving them a folder with handouts about signs of trafficking – young girls accompanying older men, for example, who aren’t in school when they should be, refuse to give their addresses or are not allowed to speak with hotel and motel staff members. Managers also receive commonly used terms and what is expected of hotel and motel employees in suspect situations.
“Look beneath the surface,” reads a poster to be placed in the lobby. “A victim of trafficking may look like many of the people you see every day.”
A law passed by the General Assembly in 2015 requires certain businesses to post information about human trafficking, including the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. Odom credits enhanced laws with giving law enforcement “more teeth” to go after trafficking operations.
The Sheriff’s Department’s new initiative was praised by Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Victim Assistance Network.
“Getting the info out to those individuals and entities that might see that kind of activity is very valuable,” she said. “We’ve done some similar programs with domestic violence, getting special information out to hairdressers and people more likely to see that kind of situation.”
Odom said trafficking operations often go hand-in-hand with other types of crime.
“It’s like this big do, and all the fleas are jumping on it,” he said. “... The criminal element is doing several things. They’re not just doing one thing. The guys that want to get with the girls, they’re breaking into somebody’s house down the road so they can get the money.”
Some motels allow a deputy to examine their guest registries to determine whether certain offenders are renting rooms at multiple area motels, and others allow investigators to take pictures of their rooms so those images can be compared to online postings that advertise sex with underage girls.
Still, traffickers are finding ways around law enforcement.
Vishal Sagdeo is general manager of the Days Inn on Bush River Road, which Odom said has been helpful in reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement.
“If we see any suspicious activity – people going in and out, a lot of cars, anything suspicious – we’ll call them,” Sagdeo said, adding that he’s made his employees aware of what behaviors to look for and how to report them.
Criminals are smart, Sagdeo said, and those who have been banned from the property will often send someone else to rent a room for them.
“Many times, they cuss me out. Sometimes they tell me to go back to my country,” he said. “But hey, I need to keep my place clean. I need to be safe, my employees are staying over here, my guests are staying over here.”
Jackson said there are three steps to end human trafficking: Stop the buyers, rescue the victims and get the victims in a position to recover and rehabilitate.
“We can’t eat the whole piece of cake,” she said. “But we can bite off something. If we’re going to bite off something, we’re going to go after these young ones. We’re going to go after the bad guys.”
In praising the Sheriff’s Department, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson called human trafficking a “global epidemic.”
“It’s happening right here in South Carolina too,” he said. “Citizens, law enforcement officials, businesses – we all have a role to play in the war against human trafficking, and it’s imperative that we work together.”