Police: Human trafficking happens in every RI community

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Audrey Morrissey had just turned 17. She was in love.

She didn’t know it, but her boyfriend was about to become her pimp.

“My mother always taught me to stay away from strangers,” Morrissey recalled in a recent interview. “But pimps aren’t always strangers.”

Her then-boyfriend told her what to do. He told her to do it for him. And she did.

“The first night that I was put on a corner, it wasn’t until then, until that first car pulled over and I got in … to be in that position where, ‘Oh my God — I have to have sex with a bunch of strange men,’” she said.

Authorities in Southern New England say Morrissey’s story is not uncommon. Cranston Police Special Victims Unit Detective Sgt. Lori Sweeney said young girls are almost always coerced into a life of prostitution by people they know and trust. Brainwashing and manipulation, usually accompanied by violence, are the main ways traffickers, or “pimps,” keep their girls in line.

“We’ve come in contact with numerous people that have told us that pimps have used pictures of their families, their children,” Sweeney said, adding that traffickers sometimes threaten those nearest and dearest to their victims. “So I would be afraid too.”

Sweeney says it’s tough to prosecute traffickers because victims are often too afraid to cooperate with police.

“We’ve come in contact with hundreds of girls,” she said. “And we only have a handful that will actually talk to us.”

Detectives like Sweeney say they are trying to crack down on what she calls a growing epidemic of trafficking, one that’s soon expected to outpace the drug trade.

“Gangs have found out that, OK, we can sell drugs, we can sell guns, but you can only sell a bag of dope once; you can only sell a gun once,” Morrissey said. “But we can sell girls over and over again.”

Just under the surface

The ads are posted on the internet, on sites like Backpage.com, under the “dating” tab. Some are subtly disguised. Others are obvious.

“OK, it’s got their rates,” said Cranston Police Det. Michael Iacone, skimming through a website one afternoon in March. “Sixty minutes: $300.”

Detectives like Sweeney and Iacone are sometimes the ones who publish those posts, posing as young women selling themselves for money in an effort to crack down on the men paying for them.

“The minute we put a post up, I would say within 30 seconds our phones will go crazy,” Sweeney said. “As fast as we can answer them, is as fast as they’re coming in. So there is no lack of a demand.”

That demand is fueling an industry that Sweeney and Iacone say is ruining lives – often, young lives. Sweeney said nationwide, the average age of a victim being trafficked for sex is just 12 years old.

“In Rhode Island we’re seeing more 14-, 15-year-olds,” she said.

Sweeney said it’s not just an urban or low-income problem, but one that’s permeating every community. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports hundreds of people are being trafficked through Rhode Island every year.

“We’ve had pimps show up at schools trying to recruit girls,” said Iacone. “They’re showing up at group homes, they show up wherever.”

The pimps are trained to coerce girls by making them feel loved, police said. Some pimps, known as “Romeos,” use gifts, affection and emotional manipulation to keep their girls in line. Others, the “gorilla” pimps, use violence. Often they get the girls addicted to drugs, and while pimps will pay for things like the girls’ food, lodging and clothes, they take the rest of the money the women are making on the streets.

Morrissey worked the streets until she was 30. She said she was addicted to heroin, stripping, and turning between 10 and 20 tricks a day, every day. It went on for 13 years.

“You do not come out of a life like that happy, joyous and free,” Morrissey said. “There is a consequence to pay.”

Doing the time

Curtis Maxie was convicted last year of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old runaway, telling her he “needed to try her out to see if she could make him lots of money,” according to investigators. His co-conspirator, 22-year-old Marquis Melia, brought the girl to Maxie, telling him he had a “fresh catch.”

When Maxie was tried last April, the jury needed only two hours to deliberate. He was sentenced to 100 years.

Troy Footman also targeted a runaway. The Rhode Island attorney general’s office says Footman encouraged the 14-year-old girl to take a job stripping at Cheater’s in Providence, where she also began prostituting. Footman pocketed the money. He received a sentence of 85 years.

“He found a runaway kid, befriended the person, brought them into his confidence,” Attorney General Peter Kilmartin told Eyewitness News. “And then the next thing you know this child is on Backpage.”

In 2015, Rhode Island lawmakers passed legislation to increase prison time for those convicted of human trafficking. Now Sweeney and Iacone want to see increased penalties for the “Johns,” the men who pay for sex.

Currently, Iacone and Sweeney said, most of the suspects convicted of paying for elicit acts receive probation; they want harsher sentences.

“We have to go after the demand,” Iacone argued. “If there’s no demand there’s not going to be this epidemic.”

Sweeney and Iacone said most of the time the Johns come from upper- or middle-class homes. They have families. They have disposable income. The victims come from various communities.

“We’ve seen victims that are from every walk of life,” said Sweeney. “It’s everyone. It doesn’t discriminate at all.”

Morrissey said she came from a good home with good parents. She was embarrassed by the large size of her house. It was a life she was forced to abandon.

Now, as an advocate for victims of human trafficking, she sees young women like herself being recruited from cities and towns across New England.

“All of our children are at risk,” she said. “And if the suburban mom thinks this is not happening, let me be clear: in a lot of cases, if your child isn’t being sold, a lot of times that upper-middle-class white male might just be buying them.”