Horry County, state leaders work to make human trafficking laws tougher

Stolen Lives

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — At one point, South Carolina was one of the worst states in the country when it came to prosecuting human trafficking cases, but over the course of nearly a decade, the state’s top attorneys and lawmakers have been working to change that.

Aiesha met her trafficker, Mark Spicer, when she was 16 and believed she was in a relationship with him.

“He would tell us that we could leave whenever you want, but once when you feel like that about somebody, if it makes it really hard and with them also being physical towards you, it makes it even harder because you’re scared,” Aiesha said.

“Did you fear for your life?”

“Yeah, I definitely did a lot,” Aisha said.

Aiesha was trafficked across five different states and ended up in Myrtle Beach. Once there, she says Spicer almost killed her, but Myrtle Beach police responded to their hotel for a girl possibly held against her will and got Aiesha out.

In 2019, Spicer was convicted in federal court. South Carolina’s new U.S. Attorney Peter McCoy is working to put traffickers behind bars.

“Human trafficking will not be tolerated in our state and is our first and foremost priority list of things to garget,” McCoy said.

“Can these cases be hard to prosecute? Hard to have enough evidence to get a conviction?”

“Absolutely,” McCoy said. “We structure our cases around a victim and these victims are crucial witnesses to a case. Not only when it goes to trial but in the initial investigation portion.”

Trafficking cases can often involve multiple jurisdictions and cross state lines, ending up in federal court.

In 2019, 35% of South Carolina’s human trafficking cases went to federal prosecutors. So did nearly half of Horry County’s cases.

In the federal system, traffickers can face 10 years to life, giving judges a broad range of time for sentencing, and if the case involves a minor, it’s a minimum of 15 years. McCoy said federal laws are excellent.

“I’d love to see some stricter laws on the state side when it comes to human trafficking issues,” McCoy said.

On the state level, Attorney General Alan Wilson said South Carolina has come a long way since he took office in 2010.

“Ten years ago, no one knew human trafficking was a problem,” Wilson said.

But in 2012, the state ramped up efforts forming the Human Trafficking Task Force and the state passed its first human trafficking law.

“South Carolina really is leading the country in how we address human trafficking, but even in the early days of addressing human trafficking, there were mistakes made in how the law was written,” Wilson said.

Wilson said a major turning point was in 2015 when the state Grand Jury was given jurisdiction for multi-county human trafficking cases.

“It also protects the victim from having to tell their story over and over and over and over and being revictimized by the very process designed to save them,” Wilson said.

In 2019, 29% of human trafficking cases were dismissed in state courts.

“Is there anything more you think could be done?”

“We have put a lot of teeth into this law,” Wilson said. “There’s always refinements that we can do along the way and my team is making recommendations almost every year on little things we can do to tighten the bolts. I will never be happy until it no longer exists in our state.”

Legislation by Rep. Russell Fry passed in 2018, increasing penalties for those charged with trafficking minors — making the state the most-improved by Shared Hope International, a group that monitors trafficking laws.

“This issue doesn’t go away,” Fry said. “We continue to have to evolve with it.”

Now Fry is pushing another piece of legislation addressing the remaining needs in the group’s report.

“It dealt with new potential charges on sex tourism, which we see as kind of an emerging field,” Fry said.

The proposed legislation could also help prosecutions.

“We allow wiretapping — as an example — with certain conditions that need to be met for drug rings, for all hosts of criminal activity,” Fry said. “This would expand that to also include human trafficking.”

Those on the local, state, and federal level say there could be more information sharing but they all agree the goal is making sure those who are rescued recover, like Aiesha.

“I had a lot of nightmares for a long time and I still do sometimes,” Aiesha said. “It’s just not as bad as they were in the beginning. There was also a suicide attempt, last year in April. It’s something that’s really hard, but I’ve started to overcome it. I’m definitely really proud of myself for how far I’ve come.”

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