In March of this year, Joshua Dumas pleaded guilty to running a commercial sex business with underage girls.
That same month, Susan Lee Gross was sentenced to 30 months in prison for transporting Korean women to work as prostitutes at her massage parlor.
But these cases of human trafficking aren't in cities far away, or even restricted to Washington D.C. proper. Rather, these cases took place right in Northern Virginia, including Loudoun County.
Gross's massage studio was in Annandale; Dumas ran his operation out of local hotels in Herndon, Aloft in Ashburn and Homestead Studio Suites in Sterling.
These cases helped prompt a town hall forum, hosted by Dels. Barbara Comstock (R-34) and Tim Hugo (R-40), on May 4 in McLean.
Also at the forum were Congressman Frank Wolf (R-10), founder and director of the Richmond Justice Initiative; Sara Pomeroy, director of the case analysis division for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; Staca Shehan, director of program services at Youth For Tomorrow; Courtney Gaskins and detective Bill Woolf with the Fairfax County Police Department.
Wolf noted that while working with a church group to curb trafficking in Thailand, he informed them of the epidemic of sex trafficking stateside.
“I was happy to lend my support to the legislation they were advocating for, but quickly pointed out that sex trafficking wasn’t just occurring in faraway places but right here in Virginia,” Wolf said. “The group was stunned. Frankly, most people have a similar reaction, which underscores the importance of today’s forum.”
During the three-hour presentation, experts presented to the 60 person crowd different facets of sex trafficking today, including new legislation, signs of trafficking, susceptible people and staggering statistics.
In the U.S., humans are the third most illegally traded commodity, behind only drugs and guns. Nearly 100,000 American children are being exploited for pornography and prostitution every year.
Hugo admitted he was unaware of these facts until recently.
“Two years ago, if you had talked to me about sex trafficking, I would have thought, 'that's something that happens in Thailand,'” Hugo said.
Hugo noted that while Virginia historically has had weak laws on trafficking this will change July 1 when new laws take effect.
Previously, soliciting a minor for sex was just a misdemeanor; now, it will be a felony. Hugo sponsored the new law.
Detective Woolf discussed some of the nuances of trafficking. Women and girls who are trafficked are rarely kidnapped and thrown into the back of a truck, he said; rather, they are coerced, drugged into submission and made to believe the johns pimping them out are their boyfriends.
“The majority are coerced. They are being told and made to believe that they want to be there,” Woolf said. “Those who say these girls want to do this – that's ridiculous.”
With the advent of the Internet, many predators find vulnerable girls via social media. Many are coerced by gang members, including the Crips, who have a presence in Northern Virginia. The average age of induction is just 12 to 14 years old.
Woolf warned that all races, genders and classes can be susceptible and showed a picture (with no faces) of two teenage victims, who with their backpacks walking from the bus stop, looked like average high school students. But these average students may look out of place at a hotel on a school night.
The panel advised people to speak out if you see something suspicious.
“This is why the public education effort is so important,” Comstock said. “If you're just sitting in a hotel and you see something strange and think, 'I don't want to intrude on someone.' We have a hotline.”
“When you see something strange, we want people to be aware it could be a criminal situation.”