Long Island Murders: Sex Trafficking Ring Involved?

The discovery of ten dead bodies in a marsh in Long Island, at least four of them women who had some involvement with the sex trade, has been making national headlines. Police and reporters are calling it the work of a serial killer, publishing a detailed profile of him in The New York Times today:

He is most likely a white male in his mid-20s to mid-40s. He is married or has a girlfriend. He is well educated and well spoken. He is financially secure, has a job and owns an expensive car or truck. He may have sought treatment at a hospital for poison ivy infection. As part of his job or interests, he has access to, or a stockpile of, burlap sacks.

But Department of Justice-certified human-trafficking consultant Dottie Laster is not so sure that a sexually motivated serial killer is behind the murders. She worries that officials may be misidentifying the handiwork of sex traffickers. Laster, who has trained more than 5,000 police officers on recognizing and combating trafficking, was hired as part of a team to assist the Waterman family in locating their daughter, Megan, whose body was found in the marsh in December. She has since starting working with the family of Shannan Gilbert, whose disappearance in Long Island last May is believed to be connected with the murders.

According to Laster, Gilbert and Waterman have the characteristics of trafficking victims–those who are forced or scammed into the service of another for labor or commercial sex. If they were, it could offer another explanation for the murders: Traffickers operate through threats of violence and even murder, which they may follow through on to set an example, especially when victims try to get away.

“We have women from different parts of the Northeast who were drawn there through the same mechanism–posting on Craigslist for prostitution. Like a funnel that brought them there,” says Laster.

Beyond shared geography, there are other red flags that suggest human trafficking. First, says Laster, both Waterman and Gilbert had “boyfriends” who fit the model of “Romeo pimps,” men who target women for prostitution using the guise of a romantic relationship.  Both women had boyfriends who isolated them from friends, appeared to be benefiting from their sex work, and used violence to keep them prostituting:

Megan’s young daughter reports witnessing Megan being beaten, and being threatened and beaten in order to keep Megan prostituting. Traffickers often threaten a loved one because it works. What we perceive as normal doesn’t apply in this world.  Megan didn’t have control of her safety or her daughter’s safety.

Secondly, both women had constant financial problems:

We look at who is benefiting from their work and it doesn’t appear to be them. They didn’t benefit financially from being prostituted. They didn’t have money. They were borrowing money.

Thirdly, Waterman’s “boyfriend” was involved in other crimes, typical of traffickers:

We find that traffickers tend to do a lot of crimes. Sometimes the trafficking victims didn’t know what was going on around them in terms of criminal activities.

Lastly, both of the women were isolated from friends:

In Shannan’s case, as we were going over things and asking for a list of friends, there were none.  Looking for a list of contacts, we found her world was extremely isolated.  If I asked you for a list of friends, you could probably send me a page, maybe several. We found the same with Megan.

When asked why traffickers might kill the women they coerce into prostitution, Laster explains:

You have to understand the schemes and patterns. They operate through fear and threats, and they act on those threats. They make examples out of a few here or there, to make the rest of them compliant. Many tell me that they know of women who were killed when they tried to get out. Sometimes I have victims who get out of rings, and they’ve told of murders, of disappearances. They just disappear.  And if you look, there are many cases of prostituted people who have disappeared without any explanation and their cases are unsolved.

There is evidence in both Gilbert and Waterman’s cases, Laster says, that they were trying to get out of prostitution. Family and friends report that both were attempting to leave the business. Waterman believed she would doing one or two more jobs and then get out.

If the Long Island killings prove to be the work of traffickers, it could shed light on other clusters of prostitute murders that have stumped law enforcement agencies around the country. Of course, as many high-profile cases have demonstrated, some serial killers do target prostitutes. Serial killers may operate under the belief that prostitutes are easy prey, a belief born out by the lack of police protection for prostitutes (who can be arrested themselves when they call for help) and the slowness of law enforcement to investigate prostitute disappearances.

However, a narrow focus on serial killers could be obscuring murders committed by sex traffickers. Says Laster, “If you look at who might be benefiting from these murders, if it’s an organized criminal gain, then the case looks different.”

For more on how law enforcement fails to investigate missing prostitutes, pick up the new, Spring issue of Ms.

This story was originally published by Ms. Blog on April 25, 2011.

The Real Story on Human Trafficking

What exactly is human trafficking and how can we help stop it? One of the best people in the U.S. to answer such questions is Department of Justice-certified human-trafficking consultant Dottie Laster, who has trained more than 5,000 police officers on recognizing and combating trafficking. She hosts a weekly internet radio show, “Trafficked,” on Here Women Talk Radio. I had a chance to interview her about trafficking in the U.S. today:

Why have we begun hearing so much about human trafficking in recent years? Is it increasing?

I think that the rates have always been high, but we’re just becoming aware of it. However, it’s growing exponentially. Human trafficking is a lucrative and relatively low-risk crime, so it expands rapidly.

The Internet has made it worse. Social sites and chatrooms make it easier to connect victims with johns, with less and less risk for the people behind the crimes–it’s more difficult for police to intervene online. However, it certainly doesn’t lessen the risk for victims.

And in the United States, we have a very strong economy, so we have a large demand. The demand outstrips the willing supply, especially in sex trafficking, so traffickers must coerce their victims.

What types of coercion do sex traffickers typically use?

Most of the victims are lured with false or fraudulent promises. “I have a job for you. I have a place for you to stay.” For international victims, their identification is usually then held from them.

Then there are some women who are kidnapped or sold by loved ones. This is an extremely heinous form of trafficking because it breaks all the bounds of trust.

Then there are “Romeo Pimps” who target, isolate, seduce and brainwash girls. They will say, “I love you. I love you. I’m the answer to your prayers.” They will scare friends away. They will lie and say, “Hey, your mom called and she really doesn’t like you.”

The Romeo Pimp uses little drops of love throughout the day to keep the target attached. The brainwashing is on so many levels that target don’t know which way is up. No bearing at all. They’ll feel like they made this choice and it’s their decision, and that they caused all this pain. Their pimp will starve them, beat them, and they’ll think it’s their fault because they didn’t make enough money.

What are some myths about trafficking that you can clear up?

The first big lie is the media fairy tale that prostitutes are willing. Complete consent is very rare; in my eight years of working in this, I have never yet seen a case where the woman got all the money and made all the choices. Every time I had a case where it appeared that way, once we heard the rest of the story we found that she was coerced and someone else was benefiting. The person exploiting the women is selling a product, making her appear willing even when she’s not. He makes her work even when she’s tired, hurt and overworked. The only two people who have free choice in the transaction are the buyers and the traffickers.

Another myth is that human trafficking requires movement. In fact, trafficking happens whenever someone is held in the service of another through force, fraud or psychological coercion. Many people in the U.S. don’t realize that it’s probably happening in their neighborhood.

What are the barriers that prevent us from effectively addressing human trafficking?

The biggest barrier is that we keep arresting the victims. I spend most of my day getting victims of human trafficking out of jail. They are typically arrested for prostitution or due to police believing that they’re here illegally, [even though] the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act says they should not be arrested but should be treated as victims. While detained, victims think everyone dislikes and judges them. Everything and everyone tells them they are to blame.

Another barrier is that people tend to not believe the victim. It’s usually such a hellish tale that people who haven’t heard it or seen it before find it hard to believe. This is especially true if the victim is a U.S. citizen. We’re [supposed to be] the “land of the free.” We’ve dealt with slavery in historical times, but have a hard time thinking that it exists today.

Another big barrier is that the justice system doesn’t always properly prosecute those involved in sex trafficking. [Former NFL player] Lawrence Taylor admitted in court to having sex with a 16-year-old who had been beaten by her trafficker just before she arrived, and he received no jail time. This sort of thing happens all the time, and it sends a very strong message to prostituted citizens that they will not be protected.

What needs to happen, then?

I think public awareness is increasing, and I’m encouraged by that, but I am still surprised by how many people don’t see human trafficking when it’s right in front of them.

Law enforcement and the FBI have human-trafficking programs throughout the nation, and there are some amazing folks who are doing good work, but it’s very small compared to the scope of the crime. Human trafficking is a $9.5 billion annual industry, and it’s being fought like drug crime, with a few agents. When you understand the scope, you understand we need more resources and dedicated people. As a nation, we need to make this heinous crime the highest priority.

What can the average person do?

Write an informational letter to your local newspaper; these can be very powerful.

Organize community “block walks” to hand out fliers and inform neighbors about human trafficking signs to look for.

Pass out posters. The Department of Health and Human Services has free posters with a hotline number, and you can take them to your police department, your hospital, local churches or your school and ask to post them.

If you’re in school, write a paper about human trafficking to educate students and professors. You can also start a blog about human trafficking. I’ve seen so many good ideas come from blogging.

My favorite type of activism is to do a five-minute patrol briefing at roll call for local police. The key is, don’t go over your time. In my briefing, I define human trafficking, then give signs to look for: someone not in control of their identification, any minor involved in commercial sex or anyone whose communication or transportation is controlled by another. I leave them with a card with these indicators, and it does seem to work.

Here are sites with more information and resources:

This post was originally published by Ms. Magazine Blog on April 11, 2011.

Battle:Los Angeles — Maybe the Aliens are Female?

Dear Producers, Directors, Writers and Editors of Battle:LA

Thank you! For the first time in a very long time, I was able to indulge my guilty pleasure of watching big-budget action flicks without being offended by limited or stereotypical racial representations. Of the 13 featured adult characters in the film, it was refreshing to see seven people of color, albeit led by a typical white, strong-silent-type man.  It was wonderful to see friendships across races and even a challenge to hypermasculinity near the end of this “dick flick,” when the lead actor comforts a Latino child and assures him “it’s okay to cry” as both of their cheeks get wet. 

And thank you for finally letting Los Angeles take the brunt of alien force instead of the predictable New York or D.C. I must admit, I am now a bit skiddish about driving on I-10 or going to the Santa Monica Pier… 

I would also like to thank you for not insulting your audience with the typical damsel-in-distress (DID) or half-clothed fighting fuck-toy (FFT) characters that have become a staple for action movies.  It’s too bad, though, that women are virtually invisible in  Battle:Los Angeles, with the exception of a bit-part civilian/possible love interest for the lead and a hard-ass technical sergeant (Michelle Rodriguez, in what should be shorthanded as The Michelle Rodriguez Role because she’s now played it in so many films) who is constantly reminded that she is female in the middle of frenzied fight scenes. 

I am sure that, given the thoughtful way you present a racially complex world, you didn’t mean to make me or other women feel erased.  But I can’t say I’m surprised since women comprise only 16% of the directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, or editors of top grossing films, and you didn’t hire A SINGLE WOMAN for any of these positions.  Male and female filmmakers have similar gross receipts when their budgets are similar, so money doesn’t explain the absence of women on your creative team. 

I wonder if you were afraid that you would lose some young, male audience members if you included more female characters.  Such an assumption underestimates men’s capacity to accept women on the big screen who are just as complicated and varied as the women they encounter in their daily lives.  And films with female protagonists or prominent female characters in ensemble casts garner similar box office numbers as movies featuring men when budget size is held constant, so this shouldn’t explain women’s virtual absence in your fictional world. 

And I’m sure that if you understood that your choices shape how little girls and boys imagine their possibilities in the world, you would have written a script with lots of active female characters.  When women comprise only 29.9% of the speaking roles in films, and far fewer play protagonists, girls learn early on that our lives, activities, and stories are simply less valuable.  From movies like Battle: Los Angeles, we learn that entire worlds exist around and for men, and that this is okay. 

Just think: Since revenue is your goal, you might have been able to generate even more profit from women who share my guilty pleasure but just can’t stand the nasty, sexist baggage that so often comes along with blockbuster action flicks.