When Moon police got a call from staff at America's Best Value Inn last month, reporting an argument among shady guests, they swooped in and separated a 17-year-old girl from the group of five.
With her help, they found two of the others listed as prostitutes on an Internet site.
They'd seen human trafficking before, as a flow of out-of-state and foreign women drove 241 prostitution arrests since 2008. This looked like another example.
Now Ivory Williams, 34, from Huron, S.D.; April Holloway, 24, from Columbus, Ohio; Sarrha Herman, 22, from East Point, Mich.; and Harley Fournier, 20, from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., all face charges of promoting prostitution, conspiracy and possession of instruments of crime. The girl, who had been away from her family for a year but was never reported as missing, has been returned to her grandmother in Detroit.
Chief Leo McCarthy of the Moon police said he hoped the FBI would take the case and consider a human trafficking charge -- something almost unheard of in this region's courts until last year.
"I think there is a perception that human trafficking is something that happens in large, urban centers or on the coast," said Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
But she often sees girls and women with mental health issues, like post-traumatic stress disorder, along with those who need treatment for physical issues like sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition and other health consequences of trafficking. "This is really uncomfortable stuff, to think that there are young people in our community where adults who should be taking care of them are exploiting them -- using them sexually."
Dr. Miller and other local experts will be discussing the issue in depth tomorrow at an open house, sponsored by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Coalition at the Andy Warhol Museum. The event comes just weeks after a federal grand jury indicted a man and a woman for sex trafficking of a 16-year-old, and a month after Moon police plucked the 17-year-old girl from the multistate group of four adults who now face charges of promoting prostitution.
There's a reason human trafficking is now considered to be the second-most-lucrative criminal enterprise, behind drugs. It's estimated to be a $32 billion worldwide industry, with more than 12 million victims.
"You can sell drugs, you can sell guns [once]. You can sell a human being more than once," FBI special agent Kelly Kochamba told some two dozen members of the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh's Center for Race & Gender Equity last month.
Legally, human trafficking is compelling a person by force, fraud or deception into forced labor, domestic servitude or sexual commerce, or enlisting a minor in the sex trade.
"We call this modern-day slavery," said U.S. Attorney David Hickton. "There are many people here who are not here voluntarily, who are being oppressed, who are being subjected to substandard housing, substandard labor conditions, and often are being used for sexual purposes."
Last month, his office indicted former drug dealer Rasul Abernathy, 32, and Poshauntamarin Walker, 33, a former state corrections officer, for child sex trafficking. The two taught a 16-year-old Western Pennsylvania girl prostitution and controlled her with drugs and alcohol, transporting her from North Versailles to Coatesville, 39 miles west of Philadelphia, according to an FBI affidavit.
While that girl was allegedly prostituted in hotel rooms, human trafficking on a larger scale is happening in our business districts, experts said.
Subtle clues include unnecessary bars on windows, people frequently coming and going in residential areas, businesses -- such as massage parlors -- open in the middle of the night, said Mary C. Burke, executive director of the 10-year-old coalition and director of training for the doctoral program in counseling psychology at Carlow University. Victims are often non-English-speaking foreign nationals, perhaps in the U.S. illegally or those who have little understanding of the justice system. She said she has assisted 35 to 40 local trafficking victims during the past several years.
"If a new business pops up, and it just says 'Massage' up front, and there's no phone number and you can't see in the windows, that may be an indication" of illicit activity, said Brad Orsini, FBI supervisory special agent. When the FBI gets a credible tip, he added, it conducts undercover investigations, attempts to interview the workers and sometimes executes search warrants.
Why haven't more parlors been shuttered, and their owners prosecuted federally? "A lot of victims of human trafficking are very reluctant to talk with law enforcement," he said. "Are they going to get deported? Are they going to get arrested? If I talk, where will I live?"
In Pittsburgh recently, two teenage Russian girls were found locked in a home, forced to prostitute themselves to repay an immigration fee to a fraudulent business, Ms. Burke said. They were basically living as indentured servants and they feared police because of their previous experience with Russian law enforcement.
"They are scared for their lives," Ms. Burke said in a phone interview from Liberia, where she was on a mission to end such abuse. "Their survival instincts kick in."
The FBI, Mr. Orsini said, has a specialist whose job is to take an initial assessment and reach out to coalition members and social service providers so that victims can be connected to services.
Mr. Orsini and Ms. Burke will be presenters at Monday's open house. It is open to the public, though it is designed to inform police, educators and health care workers.
In October, Mr. Hickton's office secured a guilty plea, and a likely 12-year prison sentence, against William C. Miller, 38, of the Hill District for trafficking a 15-year-old girl, the first prosecution in Pittsburgh on a federal human trafficking charge in years.
The city is seeing both sexual and labor trafficking, said Pittsburgh police narcotics and vice Cmdr. Linda Barone. "We see the restaurants, the Vietnamese, Chinese restaurants, where they bring people over to work in these restaurants and they have to pay their debt for getting over," she said.
In 2008, federal prosecutors indicted six men from Russia and Ukraine who brought some 400 aliens, mostly from those countries, to the region to clean hotel rooms. They rented the out-of-status visitors to hotels for $10 an hour, and paid them $6 an hour, but deducted money for housing, food and transportation.
When trafficking victims are rescued, they need places to stay. Elizabeth Echevarria from Gibsonia founded the group Living in Liberty that provides a safe house in the Pittsburgh area where up to four women can stay until they get back on their feet.
Most of the women who have been helped since the safe house opened in August are foreigners who speak little English, though Ms. Echevarria said it's just as likely that she will provide housing for domestic victims as well.
"They never expected to be by themselves in this situation," said Ms. Echevarria, whose group also provides counseling, job training, English lessons and other programs for women and families in need. The group is now seeking to find a safe house where children could also stay, and plans a May fundraiser to help with the cost.
The Denver-based group Truckers Against Trafficking, enlists drivers to keep a watchful eye out in truck stops and other locations frequented by prostitutes as young as 11.
"Victims literally come knocking on their doors. We feel like we're really going to make a difference and we already have," said executive director Kendis Paris, who said the group was responsible for the recent arrest of a man with a criminal record who kidnapped a 14-year-old girl and forced her to work as a prostitute at a truck stop.
A trucker noticed that the girl seemed young, and she was accompanied by the man -- also a sign of sexual trafficking -- so the driver used a wallet card given to him by the truckers group to call police and the national hotline.
Truckers have made 790 calls to the hotline since it was established in 2007 by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based group that fights global issues involving human trafficking and pushes for legislative changes.
Legislative changes are sorely needed in Pennsylvania, according to the nonprofit group Shared Hope, which recently completed a comprehensive study of existing state laws to combat domestic minor sex trafficking.
Pennsylvania received an F grade from the group, and at least one state senator is aiming to change that.
"There has only been one conviction under Pennsylvania's current statute," said state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery. "The law's definition of 'human trafficking' is vague, and lacks the teeth needed to effectively prosecute these criminals."
Mr. Greenleaf has proposed legislation to aid prosecutors that redefines trafficking and provides increased criminal penalties. It passed the Senate and has moved to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.
"It is an absolute crisis that victims of trafficking are being charged with crimes they committed while under threat of force, while traffickers get off on lesser charges," said Mr. Greenleaf, whose bill includes a provision that provides a legal defense for prostitution as a result of trafficking.
Studies show that one in three children who are runaways find themselves snared by a pimp within the first 48 hours, Mr. Greenleaf said. The pimps, he said, "are habitual child molesters and they should be treated that way."
The FBI accepts tips on human trafficking through its hotline at 412-432-4122. For more information on helping the agencies devoted to stamping out human trafficking, visit www.swpaahtc.org/ or http://livinginliberty.org/.
Janice Crompton: email@example.com or 412-263-1159. Rich Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1542. Twitter @richelord.