The waves crash on the shore in a soothing cadence, but half a mile away the feet on the street are pounding with a zombie-like rhythm as they go to work.
It’s been called the oldest profession in the world. No young girl claims it as a goal in life, even though “the life” has claimed some of them. The services in this “big business” remain in high demand. But those fighting human trafficking say people won’t see it with their heads in the sand.
“The issue here in Myrtle Beach is it’s a tourist attraction so if we don’t talk about it, it’s not going on because we don’t want to ruin our tourism,” said Christina Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit Sea Haven. “That’s the battle we face everyday, that out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality.”
Thirty-year-old Tiffany Dawn Evans awoke in the bowels of a closed tourist attraction in Myrtle Beach on Dec. 8. She wasn’t feeling well that morning.
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“I got up and had called one of the local dope dealers and I said, ‘give me.’ He said, ‘do you have any money?’ I said, ‘no, give me … I gave you over $300 last night so give me, please,’” she said.
Evans has a history with drugs. She has been a “massive heroin addict for seven years,” but says she has been clean the last few months.
That morning, though, she needed a fix.
Evans was walking down Yaupon Drive, just a block away from the tourist-centric Ocean Boulevard, looking for a ride to that dealer, she said, when a “black-on-black Volkswagen Jetta” pulled up beside her.
“He looked alright. It’s a college kid or a college-looking kid. … He was very cute, which is not abnormal,” she said.
Evans got in the car. The young man inquired about sex, and she gave him a price.
“He told me up and down, ‘I’m not a cop. I’m not a cop,’” she said. “He took a left on 13th (Avenue South) going towards Pridgen Road and right before we get to Pridgen Road, I look behind … in one of the side view mirrors and there’s … a gun-metal gray Ford Explorer.”
Blue lights. They pull over.
Evans said she told the police officer, who knows her history with drugs, that she was just “trying to get a ride to Wal-Mart;” the officer just smiled.
Evans’ first arrest for prostitution came amid a sting that police say was spurred by complaints from neighborhood watches in the area.
“That whole entire first bust was done just to catch one dope man,” Evans said, adding that once they got to jail, officers leaned on the girls for the whereabouts of a fentanyl dealer, who was selling “the bags that were killing everyone.”
More arrests were made in the days that followed, including the capture of Dewane Lamont Cumbee II, who was charged with trafficking in opioids among other counts.
Whether the recent prostitution stings were done to appease nagging neighbors or to tamp down the drug trade remains a mystery. But the number of arrests is shockingly clear.
At least 47 people were arrested in connection with prostitution in Myrtle Beach during the months of November, December and January. It’s the most arrests within a three-month period in the past five years, according to crime data from the Myrtle Beach Police Department.
Heat on the street
Undercover operations got underway around the holiday season and continue today, according to Lt. Joey Crosby of the Myrtle Beach Police Department.
And police say the heat on the streets seems to have curtailed some activity. A recent operation in late January, early February yielded zero arrests, Crosby said.
“We will take that and see that as a significant improvement, but again it’s not always about the enforcement of the law. That’s what we’re here to do,” he said. “But we’re also here to take a long-term approach to try to combat the problem.”
Crosby says that for police, it’s all about helping break a lifestyle cycle some may find themselves stuck in.
“These individuals that are partaking in this activity, we find, tend to have addictions to drugs primarily, and oftentimes they are involved in other criminal activity,” Crosby said. “So it’s a lifestyle in which they lead, they live in, which we have to break.”
Crosby says they offer offenders “various resources” from drug rehab to counseling sessions with the help of partnering agencies in the community “in the hopes that they will accept our offer and take those resources and hopefully turn their life around.”
But next to no one takes the help.
“That doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop because I think they hear what we have to offer,” Crosby said. “But again they have to also trust us that we’re trying to enhance their lives and sometimes that’s difficult when they’re being arrested for a crime.”
Evans says that kind of help wasn’t offered to her.
“Their thing is, they’ll say um, you know, if I help them then it’s going to take care of my charges, but I’m like dude I’m not stupid. I’ve been through this rodeo,” she said. “I’ve been in this lifestyle for a while.”
‘One-eyed zombie prostitute’
Evans’ mugshot led the story of the prostitution sting she and 11 others were swept up in on Dec. 8. Mugshots are rarely ever flattering, but hers stuck out because she has one eye.
The story and photo of her arrest went viral, garnering cruel remarks from around the world.
“I’m, what did they call me? The one-eyed zombie prostitute?” she said, with a chuckle. “I had a guy actually meet me in the Wal-Mart parking lot the other day … and a guy named Dragon on a bicycle was like, ‘Wait a minute. You’re the one-eyed zombie prostitute. Like, I am star-struck right now.’ I was like, ‘are you kidding me? I mean, that’s how you approach me?’”
Evans lost her eye five years ago in the throes of her addiction.
She and her now ex-boyfriend had bought 35 bags of heroin and 90 blue Xanax pills.
“We would do things, pass out, do things, pass out… and the very last time that we woke up, we had 12 bags left and 55 Xanaxes so mind you, between the two of us we had … gotten really screwed up,” she said. “I barely remember anything that was going on. I know I was sitting down in between his legs and he said he was reaching over to grab something out my hand but I was too screwed up to hold onto anything.
“He started arguing at me because he thought we should have more dope than we did. … He thought I stole his dope and well, when he reached over to grab whatever out of my hand he thought was there he stabbed me with a needle full of heroin right here,” she said, pointing to a spot just above her right eye.
It caused an infection, she said, and “they did surgery to get the infection out and … accidentally scraped my eye in the process.”
Her eye died and began to shrivel in its socket, she said, “causing a lot of pain.”
“I went back to the hospital and said, ‘you guys don’t want me to self medicate but I’m overzealously self-medicating way too much and it’s not working. … I’m still in pain,’” she said.
Doctors removed her eye and replaced it with an implant that would make her new hand-painted prosthetic eye move in sync with her left eye. Although the implant is still in place, her prosthetic overlay is lost.
Evans is homeless. She sleeps where she can. She eats very little. She’s been to rehab 12 times and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder many years ago. She says she weaned herself off of the medication and learned how to calm herself down when she realized it was making her like a “zombie.”
To fend off the chilly winter nights, starvation and the constant pain from her eye, she turns tricks or panhandles for money.
“Things are so much different here than what I am accustomed to back home. Back home, I do have a felonious record for drugs, larceny, stuff like that. But it was in the height of my addiction. I mean I was insane,” she said. “We do what we can to survive and we do what we can to not get dope sick.”
Evans was facing warrants that would lead to a six-month prison sentence in North Carolina when she left her home and family behind. She moved to Myrtle Beach three years ago.
“I had no intentions of coming,” she said.
Evans was staying at a motel in Greensboro, N.C., she said, when she noticed a man on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle outside. She grew up on bikes and longed for a ride so she approached the man in the parking lot.
“I walked outside and said, ‘Hey, so what are you doing?’ He says, ‘ordering breakfast’ and at the time I thought he was literally ordering breakfast. So I said, ‘well, can I join you?’ because I wanted to go for a ride on the bike. It turns out I looked on his phone and he was ordering a Backpage(.com) girl named Breakfast,” she said, with a snicker. “Now, he ends up bringing me down here and but see it turns out that he was a … crack-smoking, cross-dressing Hells Angel.”
Evans came with the biker to Myrtle Beach where they ran into trouble in February 2015.
The two were arrested and charged with reporting a false felony. The biker bailed himself out of jail five days later, but left Evans behind. She served 96 days in the J. Reuben Long Detention Center before she was released for time served.
“I had not ever prostituted or any of that before, but I mean when you’re out here by yourself … what can you say?” she asked.
With no money, no home and no identification to find gainful employment, Evans noticed the money girls were bringing in when they offered to fulfill “fantasies” for money. She posted an ad on Craigslist.
“What screwed me up there was like … the first one I ever had, he had bought these, it looked like baby onesies, but they were adult sizes,” she said. “He wanted me to come sit on his lap and call him, ‘daddy’ and all that and … in my brain, I automatically go, so if you want me to do this then what happens if there’s a real baby here?”
It bothered her. So she took his money and ran.
Evans said she was getting so many of those calls that grabbing the cash and fleeing without doing “the deed” became a habit, until she was abandoned … again.
“Doing things like that by yourself, is not safe at all,” she said. “I tried and somebody threw a screwdriver at me.
“Yeah, so I’m left down here by myself. I can’t go back home because of the warrants. I’m stuck,” she said. “And I meet all the girls, you know. I’m out here on the streets by myself and the easiest thing to do is to just do what you do.”
Evans said she lived with an escort service for a while in Myrtle Beach after her release from jail. The man, who ran the service with another woman, hooked her up with a bag of heroin every morning in exchange for her answering a call once or twice a month and driving girls to jobs.
“I was like Mike’s little pet,” she said. “He took care of me.”
When he was arrested, Evans said, she worked up enough money to bail him out four days later. When she was arrested the following month, it took him 23 days to get her out.
Human service advocates work tirelessly to save kids and adults from a life of trafficking and prostitution on the streets, but separating the sex workers from their pimps isn’t easy.
“The success rate is not high at all. It is very hard,” said Jackson, the executive director of Sea Haven. “That’s their ‘daddy.’ That’s what they call him, their daddy.”
And the girls would do just about anything for the “love” of their “daddy.”
“I think it’s because they’ve not received that love or that attention at home,” Jackson said. “They say no attention is the worst attention at all … and ‘this one person loves me. He’s paying me attention.’ They’re brainwashed. To change that mentality is so hard, so hard.”
Memories of Myrtle Beach
Evans was born in Winston Salem, N.C., and grew up in the heart of the Triad. Her parents were bikers, and her first trip to Myrtle Beach to celebrate her seventh birthday was during Harley Week.
She and her younger sister donned brand-new matching Harley shirts on the trip.
“It was nice. We come and have a blast and the Pavilion was here and the overview (of Myrtle Beach) was so different,” she said.
Evans was a daddy’s girl.
“He was my best friend. We watched Saturday morning cartoons together. Mondays when I would get home from school, I went to work with him,” she said. “He was a mechanic by trade so I sat in the pits with him underneath the cars and passed him tools.”
Her father was hit in the head with a tire iron in a bar fight and slipped into a coma. He died on Father’s Day in 1995 at the age of 28. She was 9.
She said her mother threatened her not to cry in front of others at the funeral and wake because tears would show weakness. So she didn’t cry. “I still don’t,” she says.
The fond memories of Myrtle Beach she had as a child have been replaced by the nightmares of her reality here as an adult.
Evans was arrested again on Jan. 21. She was charged with loitering for prostitution.
Prostitution, exploitation and sex trafficking are real along the Grand Strand, although the ones fighting those crimes say it’s not a reality many care to see.
Prostitutes may stick out on parts of Yaupon Drive and Flagg Street, near where many of the recent arrests have been made, but even more threats linger in the shadows.
Lt. Crosby says officers have to dig deeper in prostitution cases to be ever vigilant in their watch for human trafficking.
The lines between prostitution, trafficking and exploitation can be thin and often blurred.
“We have to take this seriously because we do understand that the crime of human trafficking is serious,” he said. “So as we’re interacting with these offenders of prostitution we also have to be mindful, are they victims themselves?”
The average age of trafficked victims is 12 years old. Jackson said she and her partners have seen victims younger than that.
Sea Haven operates four programs for runaway homeless at-risk youth in Horry County. The agency operates the only drop-in center in South Carolina for street kids up to age 21. Project Lighthouse at 305 Highway 15 in Myrtle Beach offers at-risk youth a safe place to shower, do laundry, get survival gear and access services like counseling. It’s free and workers use the opportunity to get to know the kids in an effort to eventually get them into other programs offered by Sea Haven to help them escape the streets.
“We probably see 400-plus youth a year in these programs,” Jackson said.
“You have these young girls and guys who get caught up in this trafficking and prostitution because they’re on the streets. It’s the only way to survive,” Jackson said. “I’ve had girls with their pimps … coming in my drop-in center … and they’re telling us, ‘well this is our boyfriend.’ … We know who it is.”
Getting the trafficked and exploited to come forward and trust the help others are offering is a challenge in itself.
“The majority of the girls who are going through this trafficking or prostitution have been abused, sexually assaulted, molested at a young age, some type of abuse has occurred nine times out of 10,” she said. “Then you see situations where they’re involved in trafficking and prostitution and then they get to a certain age they’re no longer valuable for that pimp so they become the recruiter. They start recruiting young girls in for that pimp so it’s not just men, it’s women too.”
Robyn Causey, a human services professor at Horry Georgetown Technical College, who specializes in human trafficking, is helping fight modern-day slavery that is expected to outpace the illegal drug trade within five years by training future service providers and counselors who will work in the field.
Some trafficked persons might start their journey by thinking they are agreeing to a better life, Causey told her class of nearly 25 students, who spoke passionately about the issue on Tuesday. “Victims usually find themselves deceived, coerced or forced into an exploitative situation.”
Isolated and lonely
Perpetrators prey on the isolated and lonely.
“The whole thing about human services is teaching people about how to build a relationship with somebody so if they want to come talk to somebody they could come talk to you. If people had anybody else in the world they could talk to, there would be no need for this field,” Causey said. “So this goes to tell you how isolated and lonely people are and the perpetrators they exploit that, that you’re isolated and lonely.”
And those feelings can lead to a downward spiral of depression, self-medication and addiction.
“You feel isolated, alone, depressed and you just don’t want to feel that anymore so you’ll do whatever you’ve got to do not to feel it, to numb that pain,” she said.
Then people find themselves signing up for things they never thought they were signing up for, Causey said.
Tourist cities like those on the Grand Strand where thousands flock to vacation and perpetrators can be lost in the crowd are big targets for human trafficking. Many victims are brought in from other areas to service the swelling population.
“It’s not because your child is more likely to be taken here. It’s because there’s a lot of people to be trafficked in big commercial areas where there’s big industry,” Causey said.
More than 100 Horry County businesses carry the yellow diamond signs that signal safe places for teens, proclaiming in an unspoken code that hope and help is out there.
But advocates say more help is needed.
“We need more agencies. We need more organizations that are working with young people. We need a home for those that have been exploited or trafficked,” Jackson said. “You can’t put victims of exploitation or trafficking in the same home as these young people because then what happens is you have a young girl who comes in who has been trafficked and she starts recruiting all of my other young people in there. We’ve seen that happen.”
Evans says she doesn’t know what the future holds, but she has to survive today to reach tomorrow. She says she ultimately hopes to get a copy of her birth certificate to obtain identification that will aid her in landing a job. She just wants to be stable.
Evans longs for a brighter tomorrow, but a part of her has grown accustomed to the dark.
“I want to be stable. Yes. I want to be stable. But, I don’t know,” she said. “A part of me still loves the lifestyle and loves the game because I think everything is a game. I love being spontaneous and I love all the people that I meet because I meet so many on a daily even just talking.”
Elizabeth Townsend contributed to this report.
Where to go for help
National Human Trafficking Hotline
Text: “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733
For addiction recovery
LRADAC Addiction Treatment Center
Phone: (803) 726-9300
Address: 2711 Colonial Dr., Columbia, SC
Connect on Facebook
Shoreline Behavioral Health Services
Lighthouse Care Center of Conway
Address: 152 Waccamaw Medical Park Drive, Conway
Help Line: 866-515-8962 or 843-449-6262
Coastal Recovery Center (for adults)New Journey SDG (for adolescents)
Address: 1113 44th Ave. N., Myrtle Beach
New Directions for Men
(formerly Street Reach)
Address: 1005 Osceola St., Myrtle Beach
New Directions for Women
Address: 805 3rd Ave. N., Myrtle Beach
New Directions for Families
Address: 975 Campbell St., Myrtle Beach
North Strand Housing Shelter
Address: Highway 9 West, Little River
Sea Haven Shelter Home (for at-risk homeless youth)
Address: PO Box 600, North Myrtle Beach
Sea Haven’s Transitional Living Program
Address: 305 Highway 15, Myrtle Beach
For food and essentials
Sea Haven’s Project Lighthouse (for 13-21 year olds)
Address: 305 Highway 15, Myrtle Beach
Community Kitchen of Myrtle Beach
(serves breakfast 7:30 a.m.-9 a.m. and lunch 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday-Friday)
Address: 1411 Mr. Joe White Ave., Myrtle Beach
Project Safe Place
Phone: 843-399-9025 or 843-251-4216
Text: the word “SAFE” and your current location to 69866 to find a Safe Place nearby