STOLEN LIVES: Authorities face challenges when investigating human trafficking

News13 Investigates

FLORENCE, S.C. (WBTW) — Some have called it ‘Hidden in Plain Sight.’

But human trafficking- a crime known to happen under the radar- happens across the country, including here in the Pee Dee.

“Florence County is blessed or cursed whichever way you want to look at it with incredible transportation capabilities,” Major Mike Nunn with the Florence County Sheriff’s Office said. “Obviously, the ability to move people freely and under the radar helps facilitate this activity.”

Florence County is home to the major exchange of Interstates 20 and 95. The latter cuts across the Pee Dee as it makes its way up the east coast.

“It could produce a breeding ground for human trafficking,” Dillon PD investigator Monroe Herring said. We met him at the Radford Boulevard interchange. “It allows for people with criminal intent to come in and do their business and get a quick getaway…And with six motels within a quarter of a mile, they can just take their pick.”

Herring explained that officers who patrol know signs that can indicate criminal activity like trafficking.

“The red flags, the nervousness, looking for a group of people living in one small cramped space,” he listed. He worries that this is an issue ‘growing more and more because we’re seeing unemployment rates skyrocketing, and people becoming more and more desperate.’

The National Human Trafficking Hotline says there were 139 cases reported for the Palmetto State in 2019. That statistic was 61 in 2015.

Meanwhile, Florence County deputies with a trained eye work to find potential trafficking victims and get them the help they need.

“Our narcotics division typically is involved in undercover vice type crimes,” Major Nunn explained. “There’s a clear connection between illegal narcotics, prostitution and human trafficking.”

Florence is in fact no stranger to human trafficking.

Jason Pope, sometimes known as ‘DJ Kidd,’ is sitting in jail after his arrest last year on child sex crime and trafficking charges- among others. He was indicted in January by a state grand jury on 14 charges in relation to his trafficking case.

Major Nunn said deputies constantly train for trafficking cases, but helping potential victims remains a challenge.

“When we encounter prostitutes on raids or stings, we always ask the prostitute, ‘Are you being trafficked? Do you want help out of this lifestyle? If you do, we’re here to help you,'” Major Nunn said. “It’s heartbreaking, but it’s very rare when any of these individuals will ask for help, whether that’s because they’re in fear of their life, if they attempt to leave this life, or this is the only life they’ve ever known.”

He said drug dependency may also play a role in some cases.

“These are very complex cases to investigate and to prosecute, for countless reasons,” Kathryn Moorehead said. She’s the director of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and Human Trafficking Programs as well as the coordinator of the SC Human Trafficking Task Force.

State authorities agree that getting victims to help is no easy feat.

“Rarely will they come out or seek help from, from law enforcement,” Moorehead said. “It does happen, but it’s not as common as, a victim not understanding that they’re being exploited.”

The state’s human trafficking task force works to incorporate not just law enforcement, but other entities like healthcare providers into training.

“We do have initiatives that we’ll be kicking off in January where we will be offering, different trainings per sector across the task force,” Moorehead explained. “Those that may interact with law enforcement, really to give everyone an idea of what the other sectors are doing and what their responsibility is.”

Authorities say it’s the most vulnerable who tend to be targeted by traffickers.

You’re encouraged to say something, if you see something suspicious. You can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888, or if you believe someone is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

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