Politics & Government

Stronger punishment sought for those who sell and buy girls for sex in Ky.

FRANKFORT — When Warren County Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Cohron talked to lawmakers in October about the need for changes to Kentucky's 2007 human trafficking law, he had never prosecuted the crime.

His wait ended less than 48 hours later.

On Oct. 25, Rose Marie Woolbright, 30, of Bowling Green was charged with human trafficking — using force, fraud or coercion to make people work for no or minimal pay — after allegedly allowing two men to have sex with a 13-year-old family member in exchange for cash. Also charged with sex offenses were 37-year-old Chad Wayne Simmons and 28-year-old Pedro Lopez Diaz, both of Bowling Green.

The Woolbright case is the 16th human trafficking case prosecuted under state law since Kentucky made it a crime, but advocates say the law doesn't go far enough to protect victims and does not do enough to punish men who buy young girls for sex.

Kentucky recently received a "D" for its weak human trafficking laws by a national anti-trafficking organization which ranked states based on 41 different criteria. Penalties for buyers of sex with minors are low in Kentucky and the state law does little to protect victims from prosecution, according to Shared Hope International, a Vancouver, Wash.-based nonprofit.

The state needs to do more to identify cases of human trafficking and prosecute them, said Cohron, the former head of the state prosecutor's association.

"I think there are a lot more that we just don't know about," he said.

Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, sponsored legislation during the 2012 legislative session that would increase training for law enforcement on human trafficking, allow prosecutors to seize assets of those involved in human trafficking and earmark money from the seized assets to pay for victim services. The bill overwhelmingly passed the Democratic-led House but stalled in the Republican-led Senate.

Overly said she plans to propose a similar bill in the legislative session that begins Tuesday.

"We know that victims need additional protections and we also know that we need a system in place to fund those services," said Marissa Castellanos, human trafficking program manager with Catholic Charities in Louisville. "The current statute that we have is pretty basic and ultimately just defines what human trafficking is."

Rep. John Tilley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, agreed that changes to the 2007 law are needed.

"It still doesn't have all of the components necessary to combat the problem," said Tilley, D-Hopkinsville. "It needs more teeth."

Kentucky's 16 human trafficking cases are "a drop in the bucket" compared to what's actually happening, said Castellanos, the only full-time human trafficking advocate in Kentucky. Since 2008, Catholic Charities has identified 91 instances it considers human trafficking in Kentucky. About 60 percent of those cases involve sex trafficking and more than 50 percent of the victims were under the age of 18.

The average age of girls entering prostitution is between 12 and 14, according to statistics from Shared Hope International.

"We know that it's widely under reported and under prosecuted," Castellanos said. "So much of trafficking-related activities have moved indoors and online."

A review by the Herald-Leader of the 16 known Kentucky human trafficking cases shows that most of the incidents involved Kentucky teen girls being sold for sex by someone they know.

For example, Anthony Hart and his wife Kathy Hart of Madison County were charged in December 2010 with human trafficking after investigators alleged that they tried to sell their teenage daughters to men for sex. The Harts were both indicted on additional charges in December and are awaiting trial.

In Louisville, Rebecca Goodwin pleaded guilty in July to facilitating human trafficking and unlawful transaction with a minor after she tried to sell a 17-year-old girl to a Louisville undercover police officer in exchange for heroin in August 2011. Justin Ritter, Goodwin's cousin, also was charged in that case. His trial is set for March.

Some of the human trafficking cases identified in Kentucky have involved domestic servitude. Dr. Javier Julio Arce and his former wife Cristina Mier Arce of Elizabethtown pleaded guilty to federal charges related to human trafficking in December for keeping an undocumented worker from Bolivia in their home and paying her less than $20,000 over a decade, according to court documents. The Arces received probation and had to repay $100,000 to the woman in back wages.

The Arces held the woman's passport and told her that if she tried to leave their employment she would be deported, according to court records.

Sex trafficking in particular is big business. Some estimates put profits from sex trafficking at $32 billion a year — the most lucrative crime after drug trafficking, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international group based in Paris that tracks key economic indicators.

Police still aren't sure how much money a Lexington prostitution ring busted in November 2011 generated during the five years it operated.

Lexington police and the FBI found a brothel with "johns" coming and going in a Cross Keys Drive apartment. Hispanic women were driven there from an apartment on Delaware Avenue. Some of the prostitutes were willing to participate for a cut of the $30 fee, but others, including a key witness for federal prosecutors, were forced into prostitution.

"It looked like a doctor's office with six, eight, 10 chairs and even magazines on the tables," said David Marye, an assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case in federal court. "There were two mattresses in a bedroom. One on the floor, one leaning against a wall. ... There would be eight, nine or 10 (johns) lined up sometimes."

Marco Antonio Flores-Benitez, Roxana Serna-Olea, Adrian Lezama-Ruiz and Roberto Salinas-Rivera were all arrested on federal trafficking-related charges. All three have pleaded guilty and were sentenced in July. Flores-Benitez, the alleged leader of the ring, is serving a 15-year sentence for his role, the longest sentence of the four. The convictions were the first in Kentucky under federal trafficking laws.

Marye said the prostitution ring — which stretched over multiple states — moved women from city to city. They also operated a prostitution delivery service to homes in Fayette, Woodford, Oldham and Jefferson counties.

"There were a number of people who were like a boss in charge in various towns — sort of a loose-knit organization," Marye said. "Basically these guys would circulate female prostitutes from here to Cincinnati, to Chicago, to Indianapolis, to Knoxville, to Greenville, South Carolina, all over the place."

One of the prostitutes told police she was in the United States working as a maid and did not want to prostitute herself. She agreed after leaders of the organization threatened her family in Mexico.

Although advocates point to the Lexington case as a success, the federal government can only do so much. States must beef up their laws, advocates contend.

"What we are finding is that about 60 percent of all human trafficking cases are declined for federal prosecution," said Taryn Mastrean, a spokeswoman for Shared Hope International. "That's why it's so important that states have strong laws so law enforcement has more tools to go after this crime."

To help protect victims, advocates want lawmakers to create a "safe harbor" provision to ensure that a minor who has been purchased for sex does not get prosecuted and is treated as a victim who is eligible for services.

Overly said she plans to pursue a "safe harbor" provision, but is still trying to determine if it will be part of the main human trafficking bill she will propose this year.