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Human trafficking new focus for federal prosecutors under new US Attorney Peter McCoy

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South Carolina’s new lead federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Peter McCoy, is making human trafficking the highest priority of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

In hindsight, Ayeshah Smith wishes she had seen the red flags.

The explosions of anger over trivial annoyances. The physical abuse that began two weeks into their relationship and slowly became more common.

But Smith was a 16-year-old high school dropout from Davenport, Iowa, who had battled depression, suffered the wrath of bullies and grown up in a broken home with few positive role models. She didn’t know what a functional relationship was supposed to look like. And she was enamored with the 23-year-old man she met on a dating app.

She continued to love him even after the first time he persuaded her to have sex with another man for money. And the second time, and the third — until she lost count. She says she loved him even when police raided their Myrtle Beach hotel room, hauling Mark Spicer off on human trafficking charges and ending a nightmare August 2018 road trip in which he sold her in five states.

The case was a textbook example of human trafficking, a form of modern day slavery in which a perpetrator seduces a victim with promises of a romantic relationship or a better life, then uses psychological manipulation, drugs or physical force to coerce the victim into a life of forced servitude, usually prostitution.

Victims can be anyone, from any background, but traffickers tend to seek vulnerable runaways, dropouts and minors who they can easily manipulate.

South Carolina’s new lead federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Peter McCoy, learned about these types of cases when he was a state prosecutor in Charleston County between 2005 and 2010. He then heard testimony about human trafficking from local law enforcement and survivors during his eight years in the S.C. House of Representatives.

Now, McCoy is making human trafficking the highest priority of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina, he told The Post and Courier in an exclusive interview. The James Island Republican said he wants to make an example out of traffickers by seeking lengthy sentences and financial restitution for their crimes. He also plans to expand housing and rehabilitation services for victims who are rescued in those cases.

“Children are being exploited here,” said McCoy, who became South Carolina’s interim U.S. Attorney in March and was confirmed to the job in June. “That’s one of the sickest things we see.”

McCoy's efforts will build on his office's prior work against human trafficking. The U.S. Attorney's Office for South Carolina has prosecuted some 50 trafficking cases and rescued more than 100 victims in the past year alone.

For the first time, the office also is prosecuting the patrons of human trafficking in addition to the traffickers themselves — part of a strategy to make the act of buying sex more risky.

McCoy’s commitment comes after several years of progress in battling human trafficking, an illicit business that generates some $150 billion in annual profits worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization.

S.C. lawmakers have passed a series of bills since 2012 aimed at prosecuting the crime and lengthening penalties for traffickers. They created a human trafficking task force of more than 300 police departments, nonprofits and state agencies that has investigated trafficking rings and coordinated services for victims.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Lexington Republican who leads that task force, has also made human trafficking one his priorities. Last month alone, Wilson’s office brought charges against 11 men accused of sexually exploiting minors.

But South Carolina still has a long way to go. The National Human Trafficking Hotline identified more than 22,000 trafficking victims in the United States in 2019 and received more than 600 calls, texts and emails from South Carolina alone. Still, the true number of trafficking victims is likely far more than statistics indicate.

A helping hand

McCoy thinks the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which boasts partnerships with both local and federal law enforcement, can help.

His office is working with the U.S. Department of Justice to expand services to trafficking victims who are rescued by law enforcement. In August, McCoy announced a $500,000 Justice Department grant to a Summerville-based nonprofit, Doors to Freedom, that will provide victims with transitional housing and connect them with counseling and job opportunities as they learn to become independent of their traffickers.

McCoy hopes to capitalize on a growing awareness of human trafficking among both law enforcement and the general population. In recent years, survivor groups have worked to raise awareness that human trafficking isn't just a crime that happens in third-world countries. It is rampant in America, too. People have learned that sex work isn't always as simple as prostitutes working under the protection of pimps. They are often captives, ensnared by traffickers in psychological, physical or financial bondage.

“You’ve got a public now that is much more aware of the problem,” McCoy said. “They’re hearing about it. They’re reading about it."

Police officers also are more aware than ever. Officers now are trained to identify cases of human trafficking, which can be hidden in plain sight. They are taught to ask questions that can determine whether a young woman who was arrested for prostitution might be a trafficking victim who was working against her will.

Heather Pounds, a 43-year-old trafficking survivor who lives in Columbia, remembers how law enforcement missed a chance to rescue her back in 1997.

Pounds had run away from home as a 14-year-old to be with a man she thought loved her. But he soon plied her with cocaine and forced her into addiction as a means of controlling her. He began selling her body even before she turned 16, assigning her a quota to earn each night.

On nights she couldn't meet that quota with sex, Pounds had to come up with the cash other ways. She was arrested on forgery and fraud charges when she was 19. But the detective interrogating her never asked why she committed those crimes, whether she was under someone else’s control, or if she was a victim herself.

“I was labeled as an addict, as a criminal, a thief, a liar, a troubled child,” Pounds said. “But there were so many underlying issues. … There could have been a question that changed the whole trajectory of what happened next.”

Instead, Pounds returned to the street. She was trafficked all over South Carolina for 18 years until she  got herself arrested on purpose so that a two-year prison stint could separate her from her trafficker for good. More than 10 years after her release, she now works at Lighthouse for Life in Columbia, a nonprofit that serves trafficking victims.

“I think about all the times I was in front of people and nobody knew what was going on with me,” Pounds said. “Nobody knew what to ask.”

Building expertise

McCoy and his assistant prosecutors are determined to avoid a repeat of that mistake.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has human trafficking prosecutors stationed across the state to help local investigators who think they might have stumbled onto a trafficking operation. Prosecuting human trafficking cases is complex, especially since victims are often reluctant to testify, and prosecutors regularly must walk police officers through how to ask the right questions and collect the necessary evidence.

“These are not he-said, she-said cases," said Carrie Fisher Sherard, an assistant U.S. attorney in Greenville who specializes in human trafficking cases. "We are trying to develop other evidence to show the trafficking, to show the paper trail, the trail of the money, what hotels, cellphones, historical cell site data, search warrants for email accounts — just a whole host of investigative techniques."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elliott Daniels, a Columbia-based prosecutor, has worked with other federal officials over the past year to develop a curriculum that can be used to train local law enforcement on how to identify and investigate trafficking cases. That project should be finished by the end of the year, Daniels said.

Victims of these crimes are left with a lifetime of trauma. Ayesha Smith said she had nightmares and struggled to sleep for more than a year after she was rescued from Spicer. She said the experience has damaged her ability to trust, making personal and romantic relationships harder.

Pounds said it took her years before she could look at her 14-year-old daughter without thinking of her first trafficker, the girl's father.

Those kinds of stories have resonated with McCoy.

That's why he says his office is committed to pushing for lengthy prison sentences for traffickers and financial restitution for victims.

“It’s going to be a re-energized focus on human trafficking,” McCoy said.

Reach Avery Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter at @AveryGWilks.

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