Precious Cargo: Human Trafficking in Richmond, VA

The heater in the police car is set at 75 degrees, but outside the temperature has dropped to 22 degrees. Officer Mitch of the Richmond Police Department drives up and down Chamberlayne Avenue around the East End and through the projects of Richmond, Va. He is on the regular route for his 10-hour night shift.

As he passes his base, the Fourth Precinct, he points out the windows at the many cheap motels that line Chamberlayne Avenue. In four blocks there are seven.

“They like to hang around here,” he said, slowing down to give me a better look.

The Richmond Motel has a big sign that flashes “Vacancy” in red lights. There are four or five cars parked in the parking lot but no one is outside. The yellow stained curtains of the rooms, are closed tight and the lights above the hallways flicker. The same scene is quite similar for all the others.

Although there is no one around, Officer Mitch assures me that this is where people come to look for prostitutes.

“Sometimes in the summertime they’ll be 50 or 60 people out on the street, all on one block,” he said, “but black people hate the cold so it looks empty tonight, but they’ll be around.”

Officer Mitch is a tall African-American man with a shaved head and thick muscles hidden beneath his dark blue uniform. His combat boots are some of the largest shoes I’ve ever seen but he is friendly and talkative as he shows me around the Projects of the city.

In the three years that I have lived in Richmond, not once have I ventured past the point where North Belvidere Street merges to become Chamberlayne Avenue. The streetlights seem to appear less often, the traffic is sparse and the pedestrians are too. I arranged this ride-along to get more information on human trafficking in the city of Richmond. As the lines of sex trafficking and prostitution become blurred so does the city’s ability to combat the problem through law enforcement.

When I walked into the roll-call room of the Fourth Precinct of the Richmond Police Department, 14 men and two women turned to look at me. Half of the men were in their mid-twenties or thirties, fit and shaved bald. The other half had bellies that protruded almost as much as their hairlines receded. They were the next set of officers prepping to take their 10p.m. shift. After introducing myself I told them why I was there.

“I’m reporting and researching for an article about human and sex trafficking in Richmond,” I said. Their heads flew backwards in laughter.

“You won’t find any of that around here,” one of the officers said.

But just four months before, I had spoken to an intern at the Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI), a non-profit faith based organization trying to put an end to human trafficking in the city.

“There is a lot of sex trafficking and for the most part we know it’s happening on the Southside of the city,” Addie Rauschert said.

Rauschert started volunteering with the organization two years ago and is now an intern at the office in Richmond.

“They’ve been arrests on Broad Street, the Midlothian Turnpike, Jefferson Davis highway the West End and in the East End around areas like Church Hill,” she said. During our hour-long interview Rauschert checked her phone 30 times. She got continuous updates from her boss and the founder of RJI, Sarah Pomeroy. “We also know that wherever there is prostitution going on, there is bound to be sex trafficking.”

Until two years ago, Virginia fell behind on changing its laws and legislation with regards to prostitution and trafficking. While other states began to implement harsher policies to prevent and deal with the problem, Virginia did not.

“Virginia was terrible in terms of laws. All the states surrounding us were changing their laws which pushed traffickers into the state and the city,” Rauschert said.

In 2010 Virginia was known as one of the “Dirty Dozen” states because of the state’s lack of legislation surrounding the issue of sex trafficking.

“The entire Virginia coalition including RJI, the Polaris Project, the Gray Haven Project and others are pushing for this legislation to continue changing, and only now have we begun to see results.”

Only two months before my interview with Rauschert, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Neil H. MacBride, said in an article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, that he planned to make prosecuting sex trafficking and related crimes a major initiative.

“We have a zero-tolerance, one-strike policy toward juvenile sex trafficking in this district,” MacBride said. “Anyone we find who aids, entices or forces a young girl into the vile world of prostitution will pay a very heavy price for his or her actions,” he stated in the article.

But as those at the frontlines push for new legislation the people who will implement the laws into their work, such as police officers and other law enforcement, face a difficult challenge—finding the traffickers. I chose to ride-along with an officer from the Fourth Precinct because the routes toured by the officers on that side of the city correlated to the locations Rauschert had mentioned in our interview just four months before. As the ride-along pressed on into the early hours of the morning Officer Mitch could tell who was “looking for a John.”

“A ‘John’ is the guy looking for sex,” he said.

Five hours into the ride-along there had been a few traffic violations. Tickets were given, even some licenses were suspended but nothing else happened. At three o’clock in the morning, driving down a small road that ran four blocks east of Chamberlayne Avenue, Officer Mitch saw something. As he slowly went around the block, a woman appeared out of the fog walking with her hands deep in the pockets of her thick leather jacket. He passed her in the car as she walked the opposite way, he slowed the car and watched her fade in the side view mirror. I turned to look back at her and she continued on her way. Fifteen minutes later, he circled the car back around, but this time starting further down the block. We stayed on the straight road but he would look for her down every road that met with the one we were travelling on.

Then again, out of the fog she appeared.

“No woman wonders around these parts at three o’clock in the morning unless they looking for work,” he said, “she’s looking.”

The woman drew no attention to herself. She was fully clothed in jeans, flat boots and her leather jacket, with her curly hair slicked back in a ponytail. She was about 5 feet and 8 inches tall and probably weighed 170 or 180 pounds.

“I know she’s a prostitute,” Officer Mitch said, but “I can’t do anything about it.”

He informed me that officers can only make arrests if they catch the person in the act, or in the process of committing another crime.

“And even if I did see her do something suspicious and question her, I wouldn’t be able to search her, only female officers can search females,” he said.

As he continues down the block only five minutes later he spots another woman, but unlike the other one she is much younger. When he turns down another road to loop back around to get a better look, she is gone.

“It’s harder to tell in the winter time because they cover themselves up, but you can always tell if a woman is carrying lots of condoms and a toothbrush.”

In a café in downtown Richmond, Joshua Bailey agreed to meet with me to discuss his initiative, the Gray Haven Project. Although I asked to meet at the organization’s headquarters the location is totally confidential except to him, his wife and the three volunteers who work there.

“The privacy and safety of the survivors is our number one priority,” he said when I asked, “We want them to feel they have a safe haven.”

In the summer of 2010, he and his wife Andrea began the planning and preparation to form an organization that would help the survivors of human trafficking in the city of Richmond. After two years of planning, they started providing services in February of this year and since then have assisted 12 survivors.

“We wanted to have an approach that was well thought out and developed as best as we could,” he said.

Gray Haven, as he refers to it, provides survivors with whatever they may need to take the next step in their lives. Joshua and Andrea go farther than education and advocacy, to working with the survivors directly, personally providing counselling, medical attention, basic resources and even immigration help with internationals.

“I don’t necessarily think that Richmond has more of a trafficking issue than any other city in the U.S., but people just don’t know it’s happening,” Joshua said.

Until four months ago I had no idea that a five-minute car ride separated one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the city from the neighbourhood that Officer Mitch showed me around the night of my ride-along.

Monument Avenue is lined with beautiful brick houses that sit on cobble stone streets and lawns that seem to stay permanently green. At five o’clock in the evening, runners can be seen jogging up and down the road, iPods in tow. Well-dressed elderly women walk their toy poodles and terriers on rhinestone pink leashes. This is the image that many people have when they think about a southern capital city, but this struggle to abolish slavery seems to be an image that the city cannot shake.

About 150 years ago Richmond was known as the biggest African slave-trading city in the Western hemisphere. In 2007 the city erected the Slavery Reconciliation Statue, only a 10-minute drive from Chamberlayne Avenue. According to the Virginia tourism website, the 15-foot, half-ton statue was created as an initiative to raise awareness and increase informational accuracy about Richmond’s historical role in the slave trade. But ironically, the problem resurfaces as organizations like Gray Haven begin to spread their awareness of the present troubles the city is having with combating modern slavery.

Only days before meeting with me, Joshua had gone to Boston to give a speech and talk to a group of students about his initiative in Richmond and many others like it all over the U.S. According to a statistic on the Richmond Justice Initiative website, there are more slaves today, than there have ever been. Last year the sex slave industry profited more than $32 billion. After the illegal drug trade, human trafficking is the largest criminal industry.

“The more we get the word out is the better chance we have at abolishing modern slavery,” Joshua said.

Just a year after Gray Haven was founded Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell signed three pieces of legislation to prevent trafficking and provide assistance. In the 2012 general assembly session all three bills were passed. In September of this year, President Obama gave a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting. The President spoke of the many countries that are taking the stand—that the U.S. has done and will continue to do—to pass legislations to abolish human trafficking.

In 2012 and every year to follow, the Annual Trafficking Report collected by the Secretary of State from other countries, will now include the United States. Along with other legislations, the Obama administration will begin to work more closely with the FBI directly in response to this issue.

In Richmond, the FBI has already proven to be one of the most effective task forces in finding traffickers and their slaves. On July 3, of this year, Korey Jermaine Reynolds from Charlotte, N.C. pled guilty to transporting a 13 yr-old girl for sex trafficking in Richmond. The FBI found an Internet post from the girl that Reynolds had been trafficking on a website called Backpage—a website commonly used to find escort services because it’s easy accessibility and requires no age of consent. They responded to the post by way of an undercover officer, posing to be someone interested in meeting with the girl in the photo, whom the FBI suspected was underage.

After setting up a sting operation the FBI were able to arrest Reynolds and he was later charged with transporting a minor across state lines for purposes of prostitution. The Richmond Justice Initiative became aware of the story and found out that the 13 yr-old, girl had only been in Richmond for three days when Reynolds was arrested. In the course of those three day, she had been forced to perform sexual acts with 16 different men.

According to a statistic by the FBI, the average age that a girl enters prostitution is between 11 and 14 years old. In the cases that have been presented to the Gray Haven Project, Joshua and Andrea have encountered a wide range of age in the 11 women and the one man that they have attended to.

“The women we have seen have ranged from 13 to 42,” Joshua said.

Although the exact number is uncertain, it is estimated that 70 percent of the people trafficked for sex in the U.S. are citizens, and the majority that are internationals are from Latin America.

“We think that a lot of the trafficking takes place in lower-income, Hispanic communities in the city,” Rauschert said. “Although the majority of people think this is solely in women there are a significant number of males who are affected.”

On my police ride-along with Officer Mitch he mentioned how common it is to see transgender male prostitutes, almost as much as women.

“It’s harder to tell with women, but once there’s a man dressed like a woman in the Projects, you know they’re up to no good,” he said. No matter what any officer suspects, unless someone is caught in the act there is nothing, not even the FBI, can do.

“What will happen a lot of the time is we stop people for minor crimes like traffic violations and when we check their records, sometimes a warrant for an arrest or previous major crimes will allow us to be more thorough,” Officer Mitch said.

Although statistics indicate the number of men being trafficked globally is only 20 percent—the rest being women and children—the RJI believes many of them are passing through the foster care system and about 80 to 90 percent come from a history of sexual abuse. The children that enter the sex trafficking ring remain under the control of their traffickers or pimps, with the majority of women or girls starting before the age of 18.

In Virginia, if a person under 18 is caught selling sex to another and they are being trafficked in the process the case would be tried as a child trafficking case. This would hold the victim or survivor unaccountable for any of the crimes or things he or she may have been forced to do. However, even if that person is still under the control of another, but is 18 or older, the case is viewed as a prostitution case and the person will be held responsible for the crime.

“This is something we desperately want to change,” Rauschert said. “So many of these victims have no choice but to stay with their pimps and traffickers and if they are prosecuted as prostitutes, that will forever be a part of who they are.”

The RJI and other coalitions in the sate are trying to change the way the word “prostitute” is even used.

“We want the term child prostitute to instead be CSEC or child sexually exploited victim,” she said.

Joshua also agrees that by changing the name from having a negative connotation will allow victims to move on with their lives.

“It won’t change what happened, but without that label on a record it will help them find jobs and be more accepted into society that only has one view of the word prostitute,” Joshua said.

It is four’ o clock in the morning and Officer Mitch is on his way back to the Fourth Precinct to drop me back to my car. He has four hours left until the end of his 10-hour shift.

He advises that I take Monument Avenue back home at this hour of the night. It takes me 5 minutes with five red lights to get from the top of Chamberlayne Avenue to Monument Avenue. The juxtaposition between the two settings is a drastic reminder of how close human trafficking is to the fresh cut lawns of the suburban brick houses.