Task force head: Columbus hosts 'horrible abuses'
The bus arrived in Columbus on a Monday morning, and among those getting off were two young girls from South America.
They thought they were coming to this country with their boyfriends to start a better life, but before the plane even touched down, they were told it's not going to be like that. They were going to do exactly what they were told to do. If they contacted the authorities, they would just be deported, and the "boyfriends" know where their relatives are back in a Brazilian slum, a Chilean village, a Peruvian town.
After getting off the bus, the girls were taken to an apartment off East Dublin-Granville Road. Over the course of the next six days, upwards of 80 men would line up to pay for sex with them. On Sunday, the girls were put on a bus bound for Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Chicago.
The following morning, two more girls got off a bus that pulled into Columbus, and the whole ghastly scenario began all over again.
If Mark E. Lang had been asked 10 years ago what human trafficking was, he'd have guessed it was some thugs rounding up a group of Mexicans, forcing them into a van and driving them across the border to work in the fields.
Today, Lt. Lang, of the Columbus Division of Police vice section and head of the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force, knows better.
"I realize that's completely not true," he said last week while addressing a group of Block Watch coordinators in the Northland area.
He knows human trafficking is much closer to the case of the girls on the bus, which actually was taking place prior to the creation of the task force in September 2011.
"It's not true to say that we don't have that problem in Columbus," Lang told the Block Watch representatives. "We are definitely on the national circuit."
The existence of the task force, formed under the Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission, remained a secret until Aug. 2 when investigators from various agencies obtained their first indictments against four Chillicothe residents, three men and a woman. The victim, a 24-year-old woman, also from Chillicothe, thought she was coming to a party in Columbus, Lang said.
Instead, she found herself "subjected to horrible abuses," Lang said, forced into prostitution at hotels and motels on East Dublin-Granville Road, Zumstein Drive, Groves Road and International Gateway.
Last month, the task forced bagged its second alleged human trafficker when a 39-year-old Northland man was indicted on 17 counts by a Delaware County grand jury.
He is accused of coercing perhaps as many as a dozen women to become prostitutes, using their addictions to drugs as his leverage.
"The cases are hard," Lang said. "They are different from every other case I ever worked ... basically because the victims often say they aren't victims.
"There is someone behind the scenes compelling these girls to work," he said. "They control every aspect of their lives. When that happens, it becomes human trafficking."
The members of the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force employ two laws to make cases, the lieutenant said. The first is compelling prostitution, which is a third-degree felony. The second, trafficking in persons, is a first-degree felony that carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence.
The FBI reports the average age at which a girl is forced into sex trafficking is 12, Lang said. He said no one that young has come to the attention of local authorities -- so far.
"I have seen 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, 17-year-olds," Lang said. "I have seen women in their 40s. It's that wide an age range. They do start young, much younger that I had imagined. It's unfortunately true."
The victims come from all backgrounds, he added, including from the best private schools and the poorest parts of the state.
"It knows no boundaries," Lang said.
Most of the sex-for-money arrangements are now made over the Internet. A single website featured ads for 30 different prostitutes one evening last week, and Lang said his "gut tells me" 90 percent of them are victims of human trafficking.
He also said he knows of dozens of such websites.
The average price charged for a girl or woman is $200 an hour, he said.
"And she doesn't see a dime of that," Lang said. "He takes every last dime. If you can imagine a life like that -- not only do you have to do these horrible things, but you get nothing for it."
The number to call if someone suspects they've observed human trafficking taking place is 285-HELP (4357).