A detective’s journey

North Charleston Police Detective Charlie Benton Jr. talks with members of a Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children work group at the Lowcountry Children’s Center recently.

North Charleston Police Detective Charlie Benton Jr., who specializes in victims of abuse and sex trafficking, got a good idea of his calling when he was a boy, but it took him years to realize it.

Benton was 11 years old and living in Columbia when Dail Dinwiddie, a student at the University of South Carolina, went out to eat at Five Points after a U2 concert Sept. 24, 1992, and was never seen again.

“That really grabbed my attention as a young kid,” said Benton, now 33. “I followed the coverage on that and read about it every chance I could and just became fascinated with the process of the investigation.”

Many theories of her disappearance were thrown out, including the possibility that she was abducted for sex trafficking.

“That was my first introduction to the idea that it’s alive and well in the United States,” Benton said.

But when it came time to choose a career, Benton had a lot of other interests that competed for his attention.

“The process of figuring out what I wanted to do for a living was a pretty long one,” he said.

His father, Charlie Benton, majored in criminal justice but ended up in radio broadcasting and then motivational speaking.

The younger Benton was a disc jockey himself at USC, where he majored in experimental psychology. When asked what one thing he might be doing if he were not a cop, he said, “I’d love to have a radio station.”

After graduation, Benton moved to Folly Beach, took up surfing and became a surf instructor on the side.

His first job after college was with the Institute of Psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina. He figured he would end up in marriage and family therapy and took a few master’s classes in clinical counseling at The Citadel.

His next job was adjudicating disability claims for the Social Security office in North Charleston.

Then he worked for the Preservation Society of Charleston, handling their fall tour of homes and special event planning.

“That’s just another eclectic interest of mine,” he said. “I’m in love with the history and architecture of the city.”

His initial interest in investigations caught up with him, though, and he enrolled in the master’s program in criminal justice at Charleston Southern University.

“I just loved it,” he said. “It makes a difference when you’ve finally found the thing you want to do.”

He joined the North Charleston Police Department in December 2010. He started as a patrolman but made it clear from the start that his goal was investigations. He made detective in April 2012.

He credits his field training officer for his quick advancement. “He emphasized thoroughness,” he said. “I learned to be very detail-oriented, to look for things that other people might not see.”

Deputy Chief David Cheatle agreed that Benton earned his detective badge remarkably quickly.

“He’s a very quick study,” he said. “Charlie has a passion for investigative work, and I have no doubt that whatever he is assigned to, he is going to be successful.”

With his background in psychology, he was a natural fit for the Special Victims Unit.

About the time Benton made detective, a seismic shift was taking place in how prosecutors view victims of sex trafficking. Sweeping changes in state law included defining any minor involved in sex for money as a victim of trafficking, rather than just a young hooker. Adults also were defined as trafficking victims if force, coercion or fraud was involved and somebody else was financially benefiting.

“It’s incumbent on law enforcement to ask the appropriate questions,” Benton said. “We certainly don’t want to dismiss a victim as a prostitute.”

Benton started making busts, including a man named Damon Jackson, who is accused of trafficking young girls in several states, including South Carolina. Jackson was taken into custody at a local motel last August after one of the girls escaped and told her story to officers after she was arrested on a marijuana charge. He’s being held in the Charleston County jail on $1 million bail on three counts of human trafficking.

Jackson wouldn’t let the girls sleep until they each made him $500 a night through customers he lined up from the website Backpage, S.C. Assistant Attorney General Kinli Abee told a judge at a bail hearing.

“These guys are absolute masterminds at psychological manipulation,” Benton said.

Several other cases are being investigated, which means Benton can’t talk about the details yet.

“These investigations are very long and protracted,” he said.

He was asked to speak earlier this month at a press conference S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson organized to call for more changes in the law to fight human trafficking.

“I’m here to tell you we absolutely have this problem in South Carolina,” Benton told the group.

Benton also was asked to speak at a film on sex trafficking at Cinebarre a couple of months ago. The film, “Playground: The Child Sex Trade in America,” is streaming on Netflix.

Benton will be speaking again next month at a forum on human trafficking at the Jewish Community Center.

Benton is married, with two children. When asked what’s the hardest part of his job, he was quick to answer.

“The hardest part of my job is turning it off, trying to strike the balance, because there are people who are out there who are in dire need of service, and that need doesn’t stop magically when it’s 5 o’clock,” he said. “So there are things that will stick in my mind that I have to try and turn off, to fight to get to the present moment when I am with my family.”

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.