Jamie Mitchell's gaunt frame swayed behind a glass window at the Charleston County jail as she explained why, after years of being busted and serving time, she still chooses to work as a prostitute in North Charleston.
It turns out it wasn't always a choice.
The 29-year-old said others forced her to sell sex for money from age 10 until 17, while she was in the foster care system. She recounted beatings, starvation, forced cocaine and heroin use and seeing the disappearance of other girls who stepped out of line with their traffickers.
The experience left her hooked on crack cocaine and dependent on turning tricks to feed her habit. Yet she still refers to herself as “one of the lucky ones.”
“I was caught and pulled out,” she said. “If it wasn't for an officer here, I think I'd be dead today.”
This is the dark reality of sex trafficking in the Holy City and across South Carolina. Vulnerable children and young adults are forced to sell their bodies and held against their will, deprived of food and sleep and sometimes beaten until they meet a quota of men to service.
No one knows exactly how widespread the problem is, but officials are beginning to realize it's a greater issue than previously thought. Clemson University researchers recently reviewed three years worth of kidnapping and prostitution
cases in Greenville County and determined that 20 percent contained signs of human trafficking.
On any given day, backpage.com carries upward of 200 or more advertisements for sexual services in the Charleston region — as many as major cities such as Seattle or Atlanta. Classified sites such as backpage are hotbeds for trafficking because they allow sex traders to reach a wide audience while remaining anonymous.
The difficulty of making a trafficking arrest and getting a conviction makes it an arduous problem to tackle. Police agencies don't have the resources to gather the evidence needed to make many arrests and it's difficult or impossible in many cases to get victims to testify against their abusers.
“I'm here to tell you we absolutely have this problem in South Carolina. It's rampant,” said North Charleston Police Detective Charlie Benton, who specializes in trafficking. “It spans every socioeconomic class. It's poor, affluent, middle class — everybody.”
Sex trafficking came into the national spotlight in 2000, when the federal government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act. The law defined commercial sex as trafficking, a felony, when it involves a boy or girl under 18 or an adult performing sex acts through force, fraud or coercion. It became clear soon after that the problem was too widespread for federal agents to undertake alone.
In 2004, the Department of Justice called on local law enforcement agencies to “be the eyes and ears for recognizing, uncovering and responding to circumstances that may appear to be routine street crime, but may ultimately turn out to be a human trafficking case.” But little in the way of training or resources was provided to help local departments accomplish this task.
Sex trafficking made a blip on the radar in South Carolina in 2007, when a 14-year-old was rescued outside Columbia after she called a relative for help and federal agents raided the trailer where she was held. She told authorities she had been smuggled in from Mexico and forced to service dozens of men a day. The bust was hailed as the state's first sex-trafficking case.
Then, in November 2010, a disoriented young Mexican woman was found wandering the streets of the Pepperhill subdivision off Ashley Phosphate Road in North Charleston. She told officers she had been lured to America by a promise of work as a housekeeper but instead was held captive and forced to sell her body.
Soon, it became apparent the problem extended beyond girls being smuggled in from other countries and sold. Trafficking busts here and around the country started turning up American teens as well.
States around the nation began passing their own comprehensive human trafficking laws as early as 2007. South Carolina lagged behind until passing its own law five years later.
Since then, 99 potential sex trafficking cases in the state have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center through phone calls, emails or online tips. Just over a dozen sex trafficking arrests have been reported in South Carolina during that same time period.
It's hard to say just how accurate those numbers are because no central agency in the state tracks trafficking complaints and arrests. But experts insist the reported data doesn't scratch the surface of what's really going on.
Eliza Reock, director of programs at the nonprofit Shared Hope International, said cases are under-reported across the nation because police and other officials fail to recognize trafficking cases as such. She said a serious need exists for more training to help officials spot telltale signs of trafficking and identify victims.
It's very difficult to get accurate national statistics on the problem because of that, she added.
The Clemson study found this to be the case in South Carolina. Researchers said failure to spot trafficking signs led police to misclassify the crime on reports as a lesser offense, such as prostitution or delinquency, which carry far less jail time.
The smattering of known trafficking arrests across the state have occurred in Charleston, North Charleston, Columbia, Spartanburg and Greenville. Some South Carolinians also have been arrested on trafficking charges in other states.
For example, Demetrius James Hayward of Summerville was arrested May 11 in Jersey City. The 19-year-old is accused of helping three men force a 14-year-old girl and an 18-year-old woman to have sex for money in hotels with dates lined up through backpage.
It's not clear when Hayward relocated to Jersey City, but investigators say it's typical for traffickers to move around; sometimes taking their victims with them, sometimes setting up shop and finding new prey.
Charleston detective Doug Galluccio made the second known arrest in the Lowcountry after a chance encounter with a man outside a motel in West Ashley on Aug. 11, 2012, four months before the state's law took effect.
Around 2:30 a.m., officers spotted Daniel Burton, 28, talking to a woman standing outside his car in the parking lot of the Motel 6 on Savannah Highway. They said they became suspicious when Burton couldn't produce identification and appeared to be giving them a fake name. They later found that Burton had $15,000 in cash, several bags of women's clothing and shoes of different sizes, and a blue notebook that appeared to be a ledger, according to the incident report.
Burton, a Maryland resident, posted bail on a prostitution charge and returned to his home state, where a previous warrant for sex trafficking caught up with him.
Prosecutors there say he had made friends with a 13-year-old girl walking by his house and eventually recruited her for commercial sex. He's now serving a 21-year prison sentence in a federal penitentiary in Bennettsville.
Despite such successes, The Polaris Project, which monitors the sex industry nationally, calls sex trafficking a “low-risk, high-reward” industry because traffickers are rarely caught.
Girls forced into prostitution are often expected to fill quotas of $500 to $1,000 a night, seven days a week under penalty of physical retaliation, according to a Polaris study. And, the study states, an average pimp controlling four girls could make $632,000 annually.
Two men recently arrested in North Charleston were said to have imposed such quotas on young women under their control.
Damon Jackson, 22, of Columbia was arrested Aug. 22, 2014, after a woman who was busted by police on a pot charge said she had just escaped from a trafficker. Police say Jackson, who has a tattoo on his neck that says “Money Motivated,” held three women at the Quality Inn on North Arco Lane in North Charleston and forced them to bring in $500 a night through customers lined up on backpage.
A prosecutor told a judge at one court hearing that Jackson had kidnapped girls for sex in North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia before coming to North Charleston in search of prey.
He's being held in the Charleston County jail in lieu of $1 million bail on three counts of human trafficking.
In an interview at the jail, Jackson said the women were willingly in business with him, and his former girlfriend turned against him to save her skin at the urging of police. He declined to identify the women who allegedly worked with him.
Tall, skinny and looking very young in his jail jumpsuit, Jackson spoke in hushed tones, seeming almost shy — very different from the charismatic manipulators that traffickers often are portrayed to be.
“I just know people lied on me,” he said. “I was never no pimp, never, never was. I'm going to take it to trial. I'm not pleading to nothing because I didn't do nothing they say I did.”
S.C. Assistant Attorney General Kinli Abee said investigators expect to find more victims and that Jackson's Facebook page showed he was actively recruiting more girls. He is also accused of writing letters from the jail to a 15-year-old, telling her he planned to impregnate her when he was released. He denied that allegation during the jail interview.
Held at the same jail is Daewon Warren, 25, of Summerville — the most recent man to face trafficking charges in the Lowcountry. He was arrested March 2, after police said he held a 17-year-old girl for a month at the Motel 6 on Ashley Phosphate Road and forced to her turn tricks for johns from backpage or face being beaten.
He and a 22-year-old woman, Monique Lewis, also of Summerville, have since been indicted on federal charges that include transporting a minor across state lines for prostitution and sexual exploitation of a child.
Warren declined a request for an interview.
Investigators have declined to release any details about what led them to Warren and Lewis.
Benton, the North Charleston detective, arrested both Jackson and Warren. He said he's working on other cases as well, but the investigations are time-consuming and it's difficult to maintain the cooperation of victims from the time of arrest through trial.
“These guys are absolute masterminds of psychological manipulation,” he said of traffickers.
Galluccio agreed and said winning a conviction often requires a victim to testify against her trafficker.
“Most of them don't want to speak to law enforcement,” he said. “They're trained by their pimps not to say anything. That's what makes this so difficult. They're either afraid of him or in love with him.”
South Carolina's 2012 trafficking law was amended in May to give the state grand jury the power to investigate cases and traffickers across county lines.
Attorney General Alan Wilson said the change will result in a significant number of new arrests, but he gave no clue as to when the arrests might happen or how many there might be.
“These things take a long time, and they can be extremely complicated,” Wilson said. “We're not allowed to talk about it until such time as there has been an indictment.”
He used the analogy of a duck, which appears to be gliding along with no effort but actually is hard at work out of sight.
“We're the little feet beneath the surface of the water, moving at a frantic, fast pace,” he said.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has spoken publicly on the need for training to recognize and prosecute sex trafficking crimes. She, too, noted the difficulty of prosecuting such cases due to a lack of victim cooperation.
“Many times, victims have been betrayed by every person they have ever trusted, so it is not uncommon that they are reluctant to trust law enforcement and prosecutors,” she said.
Such was the case for North Charleston's Mitchell, who served 30 days in jail in June on a charge of soliciting prostitution. Despite frequent dealings with police, she never told anyone she was being forced into sexual slavery. She doubts if it would have made much difference if she had.
Mitchell said she was brought to Colorado when she was a child from San Juan, Puerto Rico, after her mother gave her up for drugs. She said she ended up in foster care and was forced into prostitution by her host family.
The Colorado Department of Social Services declined to comment about the case or even confirm if Mitchell was in the system.
Mitchell said she traveled frequently to meet customers for sex, but no one ever caught on because it was always with her foster family. She tried to drop hints to police on occasion, but the officers didn't pick up on her plight and she was too scared to say more because her handler was very controlling and often beat her. It's that way for many victims, she said.
“Over and over, you hear, 'If you talk, I'll hurt you; if you talk, I'll beat you,'” she said. “If you cry out, you go missing.”
Mitchell recently walked through the North Charleston neighborhood she frequents and described her life. She didn't make direct eye contact as she shuffled through the vacant, burned house where she said she smokes crack and turns tricks. The floors are covered in dirt, mattresses, old clothes and trash. “I feel like (being trafficked) ruined a lot of my perspective in a lot of my life,” she said. “I wouldn't be in the situation I am now.”
Mitchell took long drags from her cigarette and fidgeted with her too-big pants as she pointed out her scars and spoke about the dangers of prostitution.
“I've been robbed at gunpoint; I've had a knife to my throat — I've been through so much,” she said. “I wish I was born into a totally different life. One day, maybe I can use what I've learned to help other girls out there.”
Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594. Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.