Brittany Herren is Assistant Executive Director of Crime Stoppers of Savannah-Chatham County.
A FEW years ago, I read a particularly horrifying account of three girls who had been living in a Chatham County motel room and engaging in prostitution activities and drug use under the leadership of a man who was their purported pimp.
One of the girls, 13 at the time, had been made to have sex, on average, about ten times per day.
She was a United States citizen and did not come from an impoverished household. At that time, she was just like any other teenage girl in Savannah who tended to spar with her mom from time to time.
It was one particular verbal altercation with her mom at a mall that grabbed the attention of Timothy Lewis.
Lewis, an attractive man in terms of conventional measures, was in his late twenties and, unknown to the young girl at the time, was known on the streets as “Maintain.” Prior to being found guilty of 19 of the 20 counts listed in a 2015 indictment connecting him to the sex trafficking of six underage girls whom he sold for sex throughout Savannah, he had been arrested no less than 14 times for charges ranging from battery to cruelty of children.
While anyone with the ability to run a background check would know that this man had a particular fanaticism towards violence and control, to an unassuming girl, he was just a nice guy offering a place to live and some money for a hair appointment.
In speaking with Captain Gene Harley, Criminal Investigations Division Commander for the Chatham County Police Department and former Assistant Deputy Director of the Chatham-Savannah Narcotics Team (CNT), this sort of scenario is not uncommon.
“During my CNT days, there were countless interviews with young girls who would meet up with a guy who would eventually get them hooked on drugs,” said Harley. “These girls would just get stuck in this cycle of drugs and prostitution that they could not get out of.”
When talking about sex trafficking, this scenario is typically the one that may play out in your head, in large part thanks to Hollywood blockbusters such as Taken, where Liam Neeson plays a bruting, ex-government operative whose daughter and friend are kidnapped and shuffled into the sex trade while on a visit to Paris.
Unlike Neeson’s memorable “I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you,” line in the franchise’s first movie, many of these cases do not look like this, do not have a single person hunting perpetrators and don’t usually resolve with a happy ending.
As Harley points out, the child sex trafficking pandemic of the 21st century (coined as such by Forbes as far back as 2018) is a global issue as well as a local one that has multiple facets.
“Trafficking for the child sex trade can be children smuggled into the country illegally for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation; it can be young drug addicts who become dependent on a supplier who then uses drugs as a way to control them and prostitute them out for money; it can be a drug addicted mother who is pimping out her own children for money and drugs; and in some cases, it is minors as young as infants to 5-years-old who are being viewed digitally through photos or sexually assaulted in person,” explained Harley.
Child sex trafficking and the overarching human trafficking is a profitable business. In Georgia alone, it brings in an estimated $290 million to the industry annually, according to Georgia Cares, the single, statewide coordinating agency for child victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
So, reading this as a parent, what can you do to combat this mammoth problem? According to Harley, the answer starts at home.
“Parents are the frontline defense,” said Harley. “Be overly involved in your child’s life and be engaged.”
Harley can recount countless times where parents or authorities discover secret social media pages that victims of sexual exploitation used to post risqué pictures and communicate with strangers.
“A lot of this starts on social media,” explained Harley. “A minor starts talking to a would-be predator and that leads to a relationship, which eventually leads to a meetup, which usually ends with a sexual assault of some type or an abduction.”
In addition to monitoring your child’s internet and social media usage, Harley also stresses the importance of education for children and for parents.
“You have to know the potential dangers so that you can make informed decisions about your behavior and your approach,” said Harley.
However, as Harley pointed out, some of these local cases start the old-fashioned way with incidents like a predator abducting a child right out of their parent’s car in a busy parking lot.
“It’s tempting to just run inside the store for a quick errand and leave your child in the car, but make your children come inside with you,” explained Harley. “All too often, we see an abduction or an attempted abduction that occurred because a child was deep in their cell phone and sitting in an unattended, running car.”
In addition to a vigilance that boils down to accountability and awareness, Crime Stoppers of Savannah-Chatham County provides a service that makes it easy for all citizens to report even the suspicion of these types of crimes anonymously. By calling the 24/7 crime tip line, you can submit an anonymous tip regarding a suspicion of human trafficking or you can go online to SavannahChathamCrimeStoppers.org and click “Submit Online Tip.”
While dedicated law enforcement officers continue to tirelessly work to expel entire human trafficking operations locally and around the world, it somehow feels like it is never enough. Lewis, for example, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison in 2017. When he is released in 2037, he will be 54; a presumably light sentence for a man whose infernal subsistence will haunt his victims for the rest of their lives.