Local News

Prosecutor: Human trafficking a growing problem in NC

Posted December 8, 2016 6:29 p.m. EST

— Human trafficking used to be defined only as women being kidnapped from other countries and brought to the U.S. to be sex slaves, but the definition has been expanded in recent years to include anyone who is exploited and forced to perform a service against his or her will for the profit of another.

Over the last decade, nearly 30,000 cases of human trafficking have been investigated across the country. More than 3,000 calls have been made from North Carolina to a national hotline during that time, leading to more than 700 criminal cases against alleged human traffickers.

In 2016 alone, 140 cases of trafficking are under investigation.

A Zebulon man, for example, is now serving federal time for using the Internet to lure a woman to the U.S. from Germany and then holding her captive in a warehouse.

"They will isolate, terrorize and abuse the victim until the victim believes they have no other option," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin Blondel, the top federal prosecutor for human trafficking cases in eastern North Carolina.

Blondel spoke Thursday to the Governor's Crime Commission to educate members about the growing problem.

"It can occur totally locally here in North Carolina (with) somebody who was born and raised here," she said. "We often see those cases. If there's human exploitation, that's an indication of human trafficking, and it can happen, including here."

In February, a Cary man was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to federal human trafficking charges. Investigators said women were advertised online for sex in local hotels where they were held against their will.

"Human trafficking is an economic crime. It's about money," Blondel said.

It also can lead to death.

Five-year-old Shaniya Davis was killed in 2009 after her mother sold her to Mario Andrette McNeill to settle a drug debt. McNeill is now on death row, while Antoinette Nicole Davis is serving a 17-year prison sentence.

"This is a crime that preys on the weak and then hurts these people further," Blondel said.

The spike in the number of human trafficking cases is partly due to increased awareness, which leads to increased reporting, she said, adding people in the community need to help law enforcement by looking for signs of human trafficking and reporting it.

"I think the Department of Justice has made it a priority, and it has gotten increasing attention," she said. "Overall, we've seen an uptick in cases in the office, but it's an ongoing priority, and it's something people have been working on for a while now."