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Inside the Hidden World of Sex Trafficking on L.I.

Pounds of flesh

Another striking omission in the state law is the non-inclusion of the most addictive drugs predators use on their slaves in the sex trafficking trade. The law needs to be amended to include the full list of drugs that sex traffickers can be accused of using to manipulate prostitutes, Nassau County prosecutors say.

Carole Trottere, spokeswoman for Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, declined to elaborate on the one active sex-trafficking case the office has, but said there are only three drugs—marijuana, methadone and GHB, better known as the date-rape drug—that a sex trafficker can be charged with using to impair a victim’s judgment. However, the current state law excludes crack-cocaine, crystal meth and heroin—the three drugs experts say pimps often feed to prostitutes. Rice’s office says alcohol should be included as well.

Birbiglia says he is working with Rice’s office on their investigation, but notes that most of his cases will be tried federally. Ackerman, the state human trafficking prevention director, says trying sex trafficking cases federally is often best for the victim.


“In order to get the elements needed under the state law, that victim has to testify to her state of mind—that she felt threatened, that she was coerced, that she was given drugs—and she has to talk to 16 to 21 people in grand jury about what happened to her and that’s very traumatizing,” Ackerman says. “Federally, hearsay is admissible in grand jury, so a trusted investigator that’s built a rapport with that victim can testify as to what he or she felt and what happened.”

If the victim were to testify in grand jury before they’re ready, there is a possibility they could lie out of fear and wind up facing perjury charges, which not only further traumatizes the victim, but also damages the case, Ackerman adds.


Careful legal considerations aside, those who believe New York should follow Nevada’s lead and legalize prostitution say the war on human trafficking unfairly targets prostitutes who are not trafficked.

“Sex workers are human beings and they deserve basic human rights,” says Elizabeth Wood, a Nassau Community College professor of sociology who specializes in sexuality. “Trafficking violates their human rights, but the criminalization of their work also violates their human rights,” she says. Wood adds that coercion may stem from an economic situation, meaning prostitution “could be the best of a bunch of bad choices.”

Arrests for Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Offenses (Source: DCJS, Computerized Criminal History System, 01/2010)

Those who support prostitution with their wallets, regardless of its criminality, don’t perceive their visits as a simple roll in the hay, either. “It’s like an addiction,” one John—who asked that his name not be used—tells the Press. “There was like binges you’d go on, almost like cocaine—and I had a girlfriend at the time,” he says. At his peak he saw a prostitute twice weekly, spending at least $10,000 in his lifetime, he says.

He worries that he may have contributed to sex trafficking in at least one instance. “I feel like I might have victimized one,” he says, adding that in all of his encounters, “they didn’t seem like they were being forced.”

Regardless, reality is not always pretty for those in the sex trade by their own free will or not.

“When we talk about violence against women, we understand domestic violence, we understand rape, we understand assault…but all of a sudden when we talk about prostitution, it’s two consenting adults,” says Bien-Aimé. “The reality of being sold into the sex trade is the reality of violence, of not having any choices.”

To report a suspect human trafficking offense in Nassau County, contact Detective John Birbiglia at 516-573-3400

*The names of all sex trafficking victims in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

Past Federal Human Trafficking Cases on L.I.

Jose Ibanez and his wife, Mariluz Zavala, pleaded guilty to forced labor and extortion charges in November 2004 for helping smuggle 69 fellow Peruvians, including 13 children, beginning in 1999. The couple held the victims prisoners in several houses in Suffolk, only allowing them out to work off their smuggling fees. The case was among the largest human trafficking rings ever uncovered in the United States.

Glenn Marcus, 56, of North Woodmere, was convicted of sex trafficking and forced labor in March 2007 and sentenced to nine years in prison but is currently free on bail after the conviction was overturned. Prosecutors said Marcus dominated and abused his girlfriend who initially consented to a sadomasochistic relationship but later wanted out. The case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to issue its ruling in the near future.

Mahender Sabhnani and his wife, Varsha, were convicted in December 2007 of forced labor and peonage for forcing two Indonesian women to work in slave-like conditions for five years in the couple’s Muttontown home. The case came to light after one of the victims escaped and wandered into a Dunkin Donuts in Syosset. The couple has appealed the verdict, although a ruling has not yet been made.

Rise of the Virtual Brothel

The Internet has provided new marketplaces for sex traffickers to peddle their wares. Since their inception, sites like Craigslist and Backpage have become major hubs for the prostitution trade. One need only know a few simple codes to decipher such ads: “HH,” for instance, indicates a half-hour of service; “FH” is a full hour; “BBBJ” is a bareback blow job, i.e., fellatio sans condom; and so on. Indeed, in September 2007, Richard McGuire, Nassau County’s assistant chief of detectives told The New York Times, “Craigslist has become the high-tech 42nd Street, where much of the solicitation takes place now. Technology has worked its way into every profession, including the oldest.” (Naturally, there are also message boards where prostitutes found on Craigslist and Backpage are criticized, discussed and rated, so that potential clients can know what they’re getting.)

After mounting opposition and outrage—not to mention allegations by numerous states that their ads were being used for prostitution—in May 2009, Craigslist announced it would shutter its “Erotic Services” section, replacing it with a more heavily monitored “Adult Services” section.

Still, while the stricter protocol may have slightly curtailed activity, the site remains a viable marketing tool for prostitution. This past February, Rodney Hubert, of Brooklyn, along with three female associates, allegedly recruited a 15-year-old girl online, convincing her to travel to Maryland for what she was told was a modeling job. Once she arrived, the teenage girl was allegedly brought to a Comfort Inn in Montgomery County, Maryland, where she was photographed in suggestive poses. Those photographs wound up on Craigslist, where the girl was advertised for prostitution. According to the charging documents, the girl had sex with a man who paid $200, before the police busted the operation. —Michael Patrick Nelson

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