Eric Douglas Published

Federal Prosecutors Often Pursue Human Traffickers In W.Va.

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Editor’s Note: There is no explicit language in this reporting, but some of the topics may be difficult for some. The first story in this three-part series gave an overview of human trafficking in West Virginia. This second story covers law enforcement and prosecution. In the final story, we’ll hear more from a survivor about her experiences. 

There is a chance that human trafficking is going on right in front of us, but most of us don’t know what to look for.   

William Thompson, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said it isn’t only an international crime, but also a local one. 

“We’re not seeing young girls being kidnapped off the streets of West Virginia and being shipped overseas,” he said. “Unfortunately, crime is happening right here in our backyard.”

He said teachers and faith and group leaders can be on the lookout for young people caught up in human trafficking.  

Watch for absences, like on Fridays, and Mondays for long weekends,” he said. “Also watch for all of a sudden a person comes in with a new expensive phone or toy or something that doesn’t quite fit.”

He explained that sometimes people being trafficked may have new tattoos that the trafficker uses to keep track of them. 

“Look for them to have a person, a significantly older boyfriend or female companion,” Thompson said.

The weekend absences may mean young people may be taken elsewhere for sex work. 

“Because of our location, six, eight hours in a car and you can be within probably 50 percent of the United States population,” Thompson said. “We’re not that far from a lot of major metropolitan areas. They’re being trafficked to Columbus, Detroit, New York, some of the same places where we get illegal, other bad things coming to us.”

William Ihlenfeld, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, explained that whether it is labor trafficking or sex trafficking, victims are isolated from anyone who can help. 

“Basically, they’re cut off from communication with anyone that might be able to help them,” Ihlenfeld said. “They’re not necessarily being moved from place to place when it comes to labor trafficking, although that’s possible. With sex trafficking, police officers might think it was just a prostitution ring, but in many instances, the females who are involved are victims, and they are being forced to engage in this type of activity by the person who is in control of the situation.”

According to Ihlenfeld, these are often vulnerable people. They might be a runaway. They may have suffered some sort of trauma, or they might have a substance abuse problem, and it is often a family member committing the crime. 

“We just recently had someone sentenced to 40 years in prison for the sex trafficking of her daughter,” Ihlenfeld said. “It’s not something that is always obvious. I’ve heard it referred to as an invisible crime, because it’s very difficult to see, but that’s where training comes in. I think all new officers should be trained in how to identify human trafficking.” 

One way law enforcement becomes aware of the problem is when traffickers begin exchanging images or electronic messages.

The reason that we came on to the case that I mentioned was because of images that were being exchanged between the mother of our victim, and another person involved in the conspiracy,” Ihlenfeld said. 

Because of the nature of these crimes, the West Virginia Fusion Center, a data clearinghouse for law enforcement, has set up a human trafficking program. Samantha Dial is the human trafficking intelligence analyst there.

I use different software and resources available to me at the fusion center, to look through different platforms and look through different areas that traffickers may be utilizing to exploit their victims,” she said. “I will look for red flags and different things that may lead me to believe that they are a potential victim or a potential trafficker.”

Dial said she compiles the information and presents what she finds to the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security. 

“When I do find a potential victim, or a potential trafficker, we are very closely partnered with Homeland Security Investigations in West Virginia,” she said. “I will put together, a lead is what we call it, and it’s a report. I will take that information that I can gather and send that to Homeland Security Investigations here in Charleston. And we kind of put our heads together, and they will open a case on whatever information I found if they found that viable.”

Human trafficking is both a state and federal crime. Often, though, it falls to the U.S. attorneys to prosecute it. For Thompson, that’s a good thing. 

“We have the resources at the federal level,” he said. “I come from the state level. I was a state court judge for 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of it. And some of it is prosecuted at the state level, but we have the resources. And our sentences are harsher on the federal level. This is one time where I’m very glad they’re harsher on the federal level. It’s good for us to get involved if we can.” 

Like most crimes, prosecution of human trafficking can take a long time. It may be hard to find evidence and witnesses and victims may be reluctant to come forward and testify. It takes a team effort of investigators, prosecutors and victim support staff to bring it all together. 

This story is the second in a three-part series on human trafficking in West Virginia. In the final story, we’ll hear from a survivor. 

Human Trafficking Resources:

If you or a loved one is the victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 or dial 911.