Deputies used victim-centered approach in local sex trafficking sting

ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. — In March, undercover detectives with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office led a sex trafficking sting that they allowed Channel 9′s Hannah Goetz to be a part of.

As part of the operation, deputies found dozens of local prostitution advertisements online. Many of the women in the ads agreed to meet them at the hotel, thinking they would be performing sex acts for money.

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Instead, deputies interviewed them to gather information about possible trafficking situations. Afterward, each woman was offered help and was free to leave with no charges filed.

“It’s designed to be research-based, and victim-centered. This is not something that we were looking to make a bunch of arrests out of,” Lt. Ryan Barkley said.

“Do we have a trafficking issue and can we help some people?” said Sheriff Travis Allen.

‘Couldn’t believe that it was this easy’

In one instance, two women from one ad and one more from another all arrived at the hotel at the same time.

“I just couldn’t believe that it was this easy,” Chief Deputy Jason Owens said. “You get online and you’re chatting and within a few minutes, you have communication with someone just on a random site. And then in an hour, they’re showing up to your location.”

In that situation, Owens told the three women that law enforcement was there to offer help if they chose, especially if they were being forced into their line of work. But he told Goetz the three did not appear to be victims of trafficking.

“So none of these three appear to be being trafficked by anybody, they just appear to be doing it because they want to do it,” Owens said.

Some women, though they weren’t being trafficked, asked deputies to connect them with resources that could help them.

“You kind of can see that some of this isn’t by their choice. They’re in a position or in a situation where this is -- for them -- they see this as the only way to make a mean or have income or just survive,” Det. Christopher “Rooster” Greer said. “And the whole picture, it is sad. Because many of these women, they only see this as ‘I have to do this to get [by], day by day.’”

Det. Amber Weaver told Goetz the deputies were very careful in the way they approached the conversations they had with the women.

“I’ve experienced some things throughout life and encountered some great law enforcement officers and some not-so-great. And so at times, I feel like it’s necessary for there to be officers out there that can respect you, and you can trust in them and kind of reflect on the same level, at times, of things that they may be going through,” Weaver said. “And you can kind of communicate with them effectively in a different way, knowing that you’ve experienced some of the things that they may have experienced.”

‘It was a way to make money’

One of the women told detectives she struggles with drug addiction and that prostitution helps to support her habit. She agreed to tell Goetz her story.

The woman said she has been doing it for a year and her friend has been for six years.

“Is that how you got into it, was with your friend?” Goetz asked.

“No,” she said. “A guy made me -- introduced me to it.”

“He made the page for me, this certain person said it was a way to make money. And if I didn’t do it, I would get hit,” she added.

“If you could leave here today and do something that you wanted to do, what would that be?” Goetz asked.

“Go get clean ... get my kids back,” she said.

>> Learn more about who detectives were able to rescue by clicking here.

Hannah Goetz

Hannah Goetz, wsoctv.com

Hannah is a reporter for WSOC-TV.