The Trafficking Truth: Authorities investigate human trafficking on local waterways

Source: ABC News 4

Date: 5/26/2021

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in our two part series following human trafficking in South Carolina and the Lowcountry.

Young women and children, ferried across the Lowcountry, forced into a life of sex and drugs.

This week ABC News 4 rode along with federal investigators on a land, sea and air mission that started Wednesday May 19. In this first part of a two-part series, Anne Emerson and photojournalist Jason Tighe find out why agents are zeroing in on our waterways.

Leaning on the resources from our state and local law enforcement, Homeland Security investigators launched “Operation Lighthouse.”

Agents are trying to find victims of human trafficking, a crime considered to be "modern-day slavery," according to the SC attorney general Alan Wilson.

An undercover federal agent told ABC News 4 the young human trafficking victims are typically brought out to the party boats for entertainment.

Wilson has said South Carolina sits between two of the top 20 human trafficking hubs, Charlotte and Atlanta.

Agents point out that there is some kind of event going on every weekend from spring to summer.

Our waterways provide the perfect place to hide in full sight, investigators said, because there is less police presence on the water. Investigators say they believe maritime trafficking is going on every day in Charleston.

Department of Natural Resources officers like Griffin Allison do safety checks, but they keep their eyes out for much more. Today they’ve partnered with Homeland Security to patrol the waters.

“You know it could be a safety check that ends up having some other different consequences like wanted suspects and trafficking as well," Griffin said. "You never know what you are going to find.”

As the sun starts to set over the Charleston harbor, the party boats start to come out and that’s what the feds said they are worried about.

Homeland Security Special Agent Abbey Kepf said her undercover agents are watching for signs of trouble.

“I was looking to different individuals, particularly the women, any large age disparity or any indications that the women are under any duress or harm.”

The feds say three big red flags stay in the forefront of their investigation for human trafficking: Force, fraud or coercion. If minors are being trafficked, those standards do not need to apply to be a crime. The agents scour the boats, the marinas and docks, shining a light on anything suspicious.

“We are looking to see if the girls appear to be intimidated, silenced, shielded or concealed. Are they free to move around on their own accord or is someone asking questions on their behalf?” said Kepf.

But at the end of this day, the search is far from over.

“We’ve been out here for hours, hours upon hours, but not enough, it’s never enough. Until we find someone and help them, we will keep at it,” said Kepf.

During the first phase of Operation Lighthouse, HSI and participating agencies say they seized $10,000 in cash, three firearms and arrested seven individuals for human trafficking or other serious crimes including:

A 27-year-old male from North Charleston was arrested for trafficking cocaine and possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime.

A 38-year-old male from Barnwell was arrested for human trafficking, impersonating a police officer and extortion.

A 23-year-old female from California was arrested for unlawful conduct towards a minor and being a fugitive from justice.

Four victims were identified or rescued during the operation: Two are minor children and one is an adolescent juvenile. Victim services have been rendered.

The following law enforcement agencies participated in the operation:

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, City of Charleston Police Department, North Charleston Police Department, Mount Pleasant Police Department, Horry County Police Department, SC Department of Public Safety- Highway Patrol, Charleston County Aviation Authority, Transportation Security Administration (TSA), United States Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection

But investigators say community awareness is a huge part of this operation. If you believe that someone you saw may be involved in human trafficking, you are asked to report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline:

1 (888) 373-7888 or text "be free" to chat with a live person.

Coming up Thursday at 6pm, the second part of our series, “The Trafficking Truth,” our team hits the streets here in the Lowcountry, where investigators say human lives are a hot commodity for criminals.

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