On May 17, 2017, then-Suffolk County police officer James Johnson was in his patrol car on Hoffman Avenue in Lindenhurst. “I’m driving at 7 a.m. and a male driver in a vehicle heading west was flailing his arms at me,” he said. “I stopped the car. He stopped his and came out running. In the passenger seat was a completely nude woman who had flagged him down for help. The male driver who helped her already called 9-11.” The woman had escaped the house of a sex trafficker, where she had been held hostage.
Johnson, now a Suffolk County police detective with the Human Trafficking Investigations Unit, Kidnap Investigation Team and FBI Child Exploitation/Human Trafficking Task Force, addressed a Sayville Congregational Church Social Justice Action Committee gathering recently with this true scenario, as over 40 county, nonprofit, state, library, and pastoral officials sat riveted in the church vestry listening to accounts and statistics. Pastor Ray Bagnuolo kicked off the discussion; Jean Newcombe is the chairperson of the committee, which selects topics.
He imparted this sobering statistic: 90 percent of human trafficking cases in Suffolk County occur in Bay Shore, Brookhaven, East Islip, Huntington, Patchogue, Smithtown, Stony Brook, West Islip, Port Jefferson and Brentwood. “The point we try to reinforce is that this is not some problem in some far-off corner that people hear about or see online, but it’s a systematic issue right here in our own neighborhoods.”
The epiphany for Johnson was the Lindenhurst incident. “I initially thought of this as a public nuisance. I never had looked at this through a lens as a victim.” He now educates other police officers.
“[The woman] was an easy mark,” he said. “The trafficker had provided her with drugs for a weekend. At the end of the weekend, he told her, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ Then he posted her in ads for sex work and left her and other women locked in the house, naked, without clothes. She had endured so much and thought, I’m going to leave.”
The Human Trafficking Investigations Unit was started March 8, 2018. “We started working as a task force in the fall of 2017,” Johnson said. “When we started, we were staffed with three police officers and three detectives. Today we have five detectives including myself, who operate as both a county entity and a federal augment.
“Prior to 2017, there were only two arrests for sex trafficking, in Amityville and Lindenhurst. Then, we took notice of this issue. We isolated to one separate unit to work on nothing but these cases.”
Johnson said arrests have totaled over 75 with indictments numbering over 50, and over 320 counts or separate charges of those 100 counts are from statutory sex trafficking offenses, with other crimes ranging from narcotics related, to assaults, rapes, etc.
“We have also seen over 165 convictions and interviewed over 400 victims,” he added. “Sometimes the indictment numbers confuse people at 50 when the other numbers are much higher. It is important to remember that people can be convicted pre-indictment and many indictments contain multiple counts and charges. So, you can have higher numbers in the other categories with a lower indictment number.”
He listed the commonality of what lures women, and some men, into this situation, including a flattering come-on as well as the person’s vulnerability. Poor emphasis on education, issues with families including a mom or dad not around, usually an undiagnosed or diagnosed mental issue all play a part. “Put it together and it comes [to] substance abuse,” Johnson said.
“It’s a little mixture of everything,” Johnson said of the entrapment. “A trafficker can read a woman’s body language. One approached a woman who came off the train telling her she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.” The woman fell for it and within 24 hours, he was advertising her for sex.
The average age range is high school to 30, he said.
“Sex trafficking is about control,” he said. “This is about modern-day slavery for economic gain.”
James Murphy, retired Human Trafficking Investigations Unit detective sergeant, related some of the challenges in building a case.
“Everyone in this room has experience with someone they know with drug abuse and mental issues,” Murphy said. “The challenge the victim has is explaining it to a police officer, so they understand.” He went on to detail the dilemmas. “[Some] have a sense of loyalty to the trafficker; it’s a level of stability for them and they’re living in a different spectrum. It’s a constant they know. [So they’re thinking of things like] where will we put them in a shelter, who will be friends with them? It’s important to remember that.” Those preyed upon get food, clothing, sometimes jewelry. But there is violence and threats. “The victims I’m talking about are walking about this week; they’re out there,” he said.
Johnson said victims can also be so traumatized, it’s hard for them to focus and piece together incidents and details to the police.
“We get our referrals from the community,” Murphy said, looking at the group. “Some from patrols. You play a role.”
Johnson said, “We do as much as we can to help those trafficked without strings attached. We have a Human Trafficking Intervention Court, where they can get court-mandated treatment and services. That’s unique. We have a great relationship with the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office and partner with the FBI, NYPD, the Eastern and Southern District of New York and the Nassau County Police Department.”
Johnson brought up the recent Sayville Motel Lodge incident, where the owners and co-conspirators were arrested for a sex trafficking conspiracy as well with managing a drug premises in November 2022. Passports were held in a safe of those preyed upon, he said.
“It’s no longer operating,” Johnson said. The investigation, he said, started in 2018.
Attendees included officials from the Suffolk County Legal Aid Society, Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, SEPA Mujer, State Sen. Monica Martinez’s Office, Suffolk County Department of Social Services, League of Women Voters, Bayport-Blue Point School District, Congregational Church of Patchogue, Blue Point Bible Church, South Country Library and Suffolk County Police Department.
Johnson was asked how many schools he’s spoken to about the issue.
It wasn’t many.
“Suffolk County Community College, Ward Melville High School, and Locust Valley,” he said. “Sgt. Murphy did Connetquot and Sayville high schools for staff.”
The gathering was a lively session of information and commenting over a three-hour span that included a half-hour break for lunch. Most stayed to the end.
SEPA Mujer case manager Yari DeLeon brought up the dilemma of reporting labor trafficking that included a 14-year-old working 40 hours a week.
“I would suggest contacting the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor,” said Johnson. “They have criminal resources and civil, too.”
DeLeon also brought up the need for education about sex trafficking. “Even in hospitals, they don’t have policies for human trafficking,” she said. “They have it for elder abuse, child abuse. These are educational things we have to do.”
Both Johnson and Murphy suggested calling CrimeStoppers if a person wants to report suspicious activity, 1-800-220-TIPS. “We get it and within minutes, assign the case to a police officer,” Murphy said.
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