Uncovering Secret Brothels
(02/20/06 -- RALEIGH) (WTVD) -- An Eyewitness News investigation is taking you inside a hidden underground world of slavery right here in North Carolina.
"We're finding a relatively sophisticated organized network of illegal aliens that have been brought in for prostitution," said U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney.
He is prosecuting people charged with operating three local brothels - - on Poole Road in Raleigh, Fayetteville Road near Fuquay-Varina and in a Lillington trailer park. Prosecutors say brothels operated at these locations from 1997 through 2004. Slavery in the eyes of the law "They're being brought here and forced in basically a house that's serving as a prison," Whitney said. "There are armed guards out front, their rooms are locked and they're being forced into prostitution."
Whitney says the girls know that if they try to escape, they might be violently assaulted. He says it is slavery in the eyes of the law.
"It's being viewed by the U.S. Dept. of Justice as human trafficking or sex trafficking," Whitney said.
According to federal court papers obtained during our Eyewitness News investigation, the brothel operators also lure local girls who have run away from home. One of them was just 14 years old. According to a federal law enforcement source, there could be 80 brothels like these operating in our part of the state.
Life in the brothel "It's important for us to recognize that that's not just classic prostitution, that's much more consistent with sexual slavery," said Dr. Sharon Cooper, a UNC medical school professor and national expert on sex trafficking. She has written a book on the issue, which prosecutors use.
"In sexual slavery, you have women and young girls who are expected to perform sexual acts often every 15 to 30 minutes. They can have as many clients or perpetrators as 20 to 30 a day," Cooper said. "And you can imagine the impact that has on a person both physically and mentally."
During our Eyewitness News investigation, we discovered who's doing business at the brothels. We found a Web site men use to trade information about brothels - - how to find them, what they cost, what you'll find inside.
One blog entry from a man in North Carolina says: "On a scale of one to 10, the girls were a five or a six, but every once in a while you would get one of supreme quality! A real 10 of front page Maxim magazine quality!"
Prosecutors say the women never stay in one place for more than week. Vans take them from one city to the next, along the same routes used to traffic drugs.
"It's organized crime and organized crime frequently carries on several missions," U.S. Attorney Whitney said. "There's no reason to believe that Latino-based gangs aren't doing drugs and prostitution at the same time." Journey often begins in Tijuana During our investigation, we discovered the journey to brothels in the United States begins on the Mexican border, often in Tijuana. This is where young women, even young girls, enter a kind of prostitution boot camp.
"It's called grooming," said Marisa Ugarte, who works to rescue victims from the trafficking rings. She has created a group called the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition.
"A lot of the boys and girls get brought into brothels, or shady motels or massage parlors," she said. "Some of them get offers that if they do this, they will be able to come to the states to work as something else. You know, as a maid or something, so you know this is temporary. It's lying! It's luring them into lies and then of course when they cross over, it's something completely different."
Eyewitness News went driving through the streets of Tijuana with one of Ugarte's co-workers to see first-hand where the women and girls who end up in North Carolina often get their start. While they may be dressed to look older, many are young girls. Ugarte has seen 12- and 13-year-olds, and some are even younger.
"The children that I've managed to interview say, 'My family needs the money, so I have to do this' or some of them tell you, 'My parents sold me.' They were sold," Ugarte said.
She received federal funding to produce a training video for police, which dramatizes what a brothel looks like and how police can bust a sex trafficking ring. Changing lives, one child at a time Connie and Tyler Youngkin are working to save the children of Tijuana. They left a comfortable life in San Diego to open a shelter in Mexico called El Pozo de Agua de Vida - - "the well of the water of life." Every bed is full.
"If you look at it, you can go, 'Oh, we can't do anything,' but it's just one step at a time, one child at a time," Connie Youngkin said. "But there's many more out there. In fact, we're going to start renting a bigger place for 100 kids instead of 47 children."
All of the kids have either sold their bodies or are the children of prostitutes.
"After a couple of months, they're starting to have normal relationships with people and getting in school, and they're realizing that they're important and they've got a life and they can do something with it," Tyler Youngkin said.
Eyewitness News went inside another Tijuana shelter for children who were both prostitutes and drug addicts. The director of the shelter said he's trying to give the boys and girls medical and psychological help, as well as an education.
A 15-year-old boy told Eyewitness News that before he arrived at the shelter, he cried all the time and did anything for drugs. He was living on the street, selling his body to buy the drugs. All of the children in the shelter told Eyewitness News that they've broken free from the sex traffickers and they can dream again.
They are the lucky ones. They have been rescued before getting smuggled into the U.S. to work at brothels like the ones in our area.
"They have no freedom whatsoever and are actually kept in captivity," Dr. Cooper said. "Chained and kept in a place where they cannot escape is going to be the ultimate outcome for them." How you can help You can help rescue the women and children held in local brothels by becoming the eyes of your local police department. Back in North Carolina, Dr. Cooper says we all need to do our part to help rescue the girls and women held in sexual slavery.
"Being aware of the fact that this type of abuse occurs would cause us as citizens to look closely when we see, for example, buildings that have fences around them with guards that are guarding the buildings and lots of male traffic that goes in and out at odd hours in the day and night," she said. "That should be a red flag."
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