CABARRUS COUNTY — Sex trafficking can happen anywhere.
According to statistics provided by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, more than 100,000 minors in the United States are sold for sex each year.
Local officials say the human trafficking occurs in Cabarrus County, too.
They are warning people in the community about the warning signs and raising awareness that sex trafficking can be found in their backyard.
North Carolina ranks in the top 10 in the nation for human trafficking, with 287 reported identified victims in 2018, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Present Age Ministries, a nonprofit in Concord that provides assistance and resources for teen human sex trafficking victims, says that Charlotte ranks as the worst city in the state.
On Oct. 15, 2016, the Sheriff’s Office did a sting operation at the Sleep Inn & Suites, on Gateway Lane near Concord Mills Mall, in Concord. It was the first collaboration with the FBI on a mission to rescue these victims.
A pregnant girl came to the door of the hotel room which had been staked out by law enforcement officers and victim services.
She was looking for her newest sexual partner.
“The goal of that was to assist underage females or males getting out of this life of being trafficking,” said Sgt. Det. April Samples, with the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office.
While the girl originally told officers she was 22 years old, officers found out she was actually 17 years old.
“We began to interview her,” Samples said. “We asked her who had brought her to her hotel and she said her boyfriend.”
Daniel Clement Thomas, 23 at the time, was taken into custody and arrested. He was charged with promoting prostitution of a minor.
Samples said that typically sex traffickers are difficult to charge because the victims are terrified to identify their “handler.”
“The girl, why she didn’t give us the boyfriend’s real name, because she gave a false name for him, said she was scared and pregnant by him,” Samples said.
Samples said officers outside of the hotel saw Thomas drop off the victim at the hotel, and followed him, which later brought him back to the same room officers were providing the sting operation.
“He showed up at the hotel room looking for her,” Samples said. “I guess she was taking too long. He tried to lie and say he went the wrong room.”
Thomas was also in possession of a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson gun, according to Samples.
Officers learned that the girl, who was promoted through Backpage, a classified adverting website for selling and buying sex, was impregnated by Thomas, yet still providing sexual services. Backpage was seized and shut down by federal authorities in 2018.
It was also found out that the girl was a runaway from Charlotte.
Samples said the girl was handed over to a victim service and then sent to another state for help.
“She was sent out of state to a place that deals with human trafficking victims, and they offer them medical care, mental health care, life skills, counseling, got her through the pregnancy,” Samples said.
Thomas was sentenced to 29 to 95 months in jail.
Samples said Thomas had a friend visit him in jail, and he said he was going to continue messing with the girl until he received the “money back that he invested in her.”
“He instructs friends of his to go to her mother’s house to try and find her,” Samples said. “He’s sending people out to hunt her down.”
Samples said other victims were found during that sting in 2016, but the pregnant girl was the only one found to be a juvenile.
The FBI has assisted with the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office for two big human trafficking operations.
Several victims were identified but only a few traffickers were arrested and charged.
“The way I look at it, here in Cabarrus County, the FBI did two operations here, really not even trying to target traffickers, just to help victims,” Cabarrus County Assistant District Attorney Ashlie Shanley said. “In the first one, we caught a human trafficker and he has already pled guilty to human trafficking.”
Samples said the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office, aside from sex trafficking operations, have started sexual exploitation stings, kind of like what you see on Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” where officers pretend to be a juvenile to lure adults scouring and meeting teens through chatrooms.
Either way, officers are looking for men who exploit juveniles.
During the sex trafficking sting operations, Samples said law enforcement and victim services representatives will stake out in hotel rooms, scour websites where sex is advertised and contact minors who may be trafficked and attempt to persuade the could-be victim to the hotel.
“In human trafficking stings, we are specifically looking for ads being posted online, sex for money,” she said. “With those, we are looking for the youngest pictures, girls who look the youngest. Sometimes they show up and they are a minor and sometimes they are older than we think they are.”
Samples said that with Cabarrus County being so close to Charlotte, and just off Interstate 85, sex trafficking is expanding out to this area.
She said sex trafficking can occur at the local races, during race events at Charlotte Motor Speedway, or be impacted by major events in Charlotte, like last year’s NBA All-Star Game or the annual CIAA Tournament.
“We try to do as many (stings) as we can in Cabarrus County, in the city limits of Concord,” Samples said. “Every single time we do an op, we encounter victims. This is happening on a daily basis. I could go, and not even have an op planned, and set up in a hotel, and I guarantee, within a couple of hours, I could have a minor showing up there to have sex.”
During a sex operation sting in May 2019, law enforcement found 15 human trafficking victims during the week of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race near the Speedway.
Samples said 11 of the victims cooperated and three human trafficking suspects were arrested.
The victims were not arrested.
“It’s a victim rescue operation,” Samples said.
Samples said all of the victims were referred to victim services, such as Present Age Ministries or Esther House in Stanly County.
“Our goal is to rescue the victims, offer them a way out, get them the services they need and to gain intelligence,” Samples said.
Recently, the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office said it recently arrested “several” women on charges of prostitution.
In those cases, Shanley said authorities are working with the women to find out if they were forced into the act. None of them were minors.
“We looked at every single one of them,” Shanley said. “Are they here because they don’t want to be here? Nobody wanted to give anything up. As we understand, for human trafficking, that’s how it works. They are afraid. Most of them had court-appointed attorneys. One had someone higher as an attorney. How did they afford that?”
‘Red flags’ of human trafficking
Samples has been involved in sex trafficking initiatives for more than 20 years.
She says the most vulnerable victims of human trafficking are teenage girls who leave home, don’t have strict parental supervision or have parents who don’t monitor their social media activity.
Notable “red flags” are children coming home with brand new cellphones or becoming distant from their friends and family.
Samples said trafficking most commonly begins with perpetrators engaging in conversation with children through social media sites until they gain trust.
“Sometimes that something is as simple as love or a better way of life or they are promised money or do you want to be in my rap video or a model,” Samples said. “You say that to a 13-year-old girl, that’s attractive to them. What 13-year-old girl doesn’t want to be asked to be in a music video or be a model? They charm these girls, and then eventually, after a few weeks, if this girl is crazy about them, then, ‘I need you to do this favor for me.’ And then that’s how it starts and they can’t get out.”
Human trafficking PSA competition
January is deemed Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
On Monday, January 27, at A.L. Brown High School, local students will present a human trafficking public service announcement to a panel of judges to be voted on.
The competition will be held in the Performing Arts building at 6 p.m.
If you know someone who might be involved in human sex trafficking, contact Present Age Ministries at 704-956-2120 or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 or Text HELP to 233733 (BEFREE).