Birbiglia recalls Janet*, a prostitute he recently interviewed in the psych ward at Nassau University Medical Center after she was found on Hempstead Turnpike near the hospital. He was called in after the heavyset, 20-year-old black woman, whom he describes as a “rambler,” told an officer she was a high-level member of a drug- and sex-trafficking ring.
“I think she jumped out of the pimp’s car,” he says. “She knows the pimps are out looking for her and want to beat the hell out of her.”
Janet gave only vague details and offered no names, so she was treated and released without being offered trafficking-victim protections, a tough call that Birbiglia says he has to make in these situations. Since she is homeless, she likely went back to the pimp, he adds. Although disheartening, unhappy endings are not out of the ordinary in his line of work.
The last time Birbiglia heard anything about Tracy, the teen who checked herself out of the group home, she was somewhere in New York City.
“She’s been used and abused in foster homes; this is all she knows,” he says. He estimates he’s seen at least two dozen cases like hers in the past four years since he began conducting trafficking investigations.
“At that young age, when they get involved with pimps, it gets to be Stockholm syndrome,” he says, referring to the psychological condition in which captives become sympathetic to their captors. After Tracy was arrested and jailed, her pimp paid her bail. “‘We just bailed you out, now you’re going to have to work twice as hard,’” she said they told her, according to Birbiglia. That’s when the syndrome apparently wore off.
“When they finally sit there and start opening up to you, it’s really sad,” he says. But that cooperation proved fleeting. After Tracy was checked out at a hospital and checked into a group home run by Catholic Charities, one of two nonprofits that help local trafficking victims, “she very politely told us to go scratch.”
Then she was gone, which is also not uncommon in this type of case.
“You have young girls and boys that are lured into this activity, oftentimes runaways, and you’ve got the pimps who intentionally get them addicted to drugs like meth or crack because that helps them to continue that trafficking,” says Andra Ackerman, director of human trafficking prevention and policy for the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services.
“Let’s say you have a perpetrator who has six girls that he has lured into this—forced them and drugged them up—now when he’s done with them or gets caught, you have six drug-addicted, oftentimes mentally ill, to a certain extent, and traumatized girls who, when they meet with law enforcement, have problems in their life much bigger than this case,” continues Ackerman, a former prosecutor for Schenectady’s special victims unit.
“It’s very hard for [police] to be able to not only get [victims] to talk initially, but when they do, to keep them on board for six months to a year when the trial comes. Because you can’t force the victims to stay local. You can’t force them to continue to cooperate,” she says.
And there are strong feelings on both sides of the law to overcome, Ackerman adds. “The law enforcement [officers] that are so buried with cases, it takes time to change their attitudes on this so they don’t take it so personally when that victim might be antagonistic toward them,” she says.
Experts liken the currently shifting attitude in law enforcement to a similar change in the approach to domestic violence cases over the last several decades. Whereas police may have told a physically abusive husband to “take a walk” three decades ago, now officers are trained in these types of cases, which are recognized as emotionally charged situations that require careful handling.
Similarly, now investigators are trained by the likes of Ackerman and Birbiglia so that some of those who are arrested for prostitution are properly identified as sex-trafficking victims, and not criminals.
Investigators say forced prostitution victims who have been smuggled into the United States—willingly or not—may be more inclined to cooperate because they can qualify for T-visas, a special residency status offered to human trafficking victims that may lead to citizenship. This is because a common occurrence in sex trafficking cases involving immigrants is that the coyotes will take victims’ passports and personal documents upon arrival and use the threat of deportation as one of their main coercive tactics.
“We’re basically committing them to what we call a victim-centered investigation, which focuses on the identification, rescue and the needs of victims,” says Lou Martinez, spokesman for the New York division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which plays a leading role in these types of cases. “They have equal value as the apprehension and prosecution of traffickers.”
Four victims in the Suffolk County federal sex trafficking case pending in the Eastern District of New York are likely acquiring visas after telling their stories to authorities. In that case, brother and sister bar owners and their bar manager who were arrested in August 2009 are accused of forcing Latin American women, some as young as 17, to perform sex acts on patrons for money and threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they refused. Those who still resisted were assaulted and raped, prosecutors say.
Antonio Rivera, 34, who was convicted of raping a 13-year-old in 1998, is one of the alleged ringleaders, along with his 31-year-old sister, Jasmin Rivera. Together they owned Sonidos de la Frontera in Lake Ronkonkoma and La Hijas del Mariachi in Farmingville, where investigators say manager John Whaley, 29, encouraged the women—who were originally hired as waitresses—to drink with and strip for patrons, let them touch their nude bodies and have sex with them in the bar. Undercover investigators witnessed waitresses performing oral sex on patrons out in the open, according to court documents.
ICE agents say that the trio also shuttled the women between bars in Hempstead, Huntington and Brentwood.
In the end, it was a case of following the money, investigators with the Internal Revenue Service say. “People don’t typically think about IRS criminal investigators being involved with a sex trafficking case,” Patricia Haynes, IRS special agent-in-charge of the New York Field office, said at the time of the arrest. “But what it all comes down to is greed.”