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Long IslandCrime

Opioid crisis fueling sex trafficking on Long Island, officials say

Det. Lt. Frank Messana, left, commands the Suffolk

Det. Lt. Frank Messana, left, commands the Suffolk County Police Department's Human Trafficking Investigations Unit, Emily Waters, director of human trafficking programs at the Safe Center, center, and Undersheriff Kevin Catalina, right. Credit: Randee Daddona; Barry Sloan; Randee Daddona

The opioid crisis is fueling sex trafficking on Long Island, leaving addicts vulnerable to exploitation by gang members and drug dealers who increasingly view prostitution as a low-risk, high-profit activity, law-enforcement officials say.

The Island's diverse population and access to highways, railroads and airports also make it a desirable place for sex traffickers in New York City to target and move victims — most of them women, the officials said.

Prosecutors and police departments across the Island have responded by assigning more investigators and dedicating more resources to the problem — and by changing the way they approach prostitution. Many defendants arrested on prostitution charges are treated not as criminals but as victims forced to surrender their freedom and earnings to criminals who exploit them.

“You can only sell a bag of coke once,” said Emily Waters, director of human trafficking programs at the Safe Center, a social service agency that works with the Nassau County Human Trafficking Intervention Court. “You can sell a person numerous times.”

In February, Suffolk police teamed up with the NYPD and federal authorities to indict 11 people they charged with participating in a human trafficking ring that used violence and threats to force at least 10 women into prostitution. Sources told Newsday after the indictment that two of the women died of drug overdoses.

The primary factor driving sex trafficking on Long Island is the opioid epidemic that claimed nearly 3,700 lives in Nassau and Suffolk from 2010 to 2018. Traffickers use drug dependency to force victims into sex work, experts say. 

"The opioid crisis has exacerbated human trafficking on Long Island," said Anthony Zenkus, the senior director of communications at Victims Information Bureau Service of Long Island, an agency that provides counseling and other support to trafficking victims. "Pimps lure the victims with drugs and keep them with drugs. If they want to leave, they are told the drugs will be cut off." 

Many trafficking victims take heroin, prescription pills, fentanyl and other powerful opioids, police and victim advocates say. “People who are addicted to drugs are vulnerable. Traffickers will exploit and target those addicted to drugs,” said victim advocate Keith Scott. “Get them more addicted and then essentially force them or convince them to sell their bodies to pay back their drug debt or get to their drugs.”

Authorities cited a Sound Beach man accused of running a prostitution ring involving 22 women out of the basement of his parents’ home as an example. Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini said the suspect allegedly gave the women drugs, and then withheld the narcotics unless they agreed to work as prostitutes. The man, Raymond Rodio III, 47, pleaded not guilty to the charges and his case is pending.

Most victims are in their 20s or 30s, authorities said, but some are much younger. Suffolk County police arrested two Central Islip men in December on trafficking-related charges after they tried to persuade a 12-year-old girl who had run away from a group home with a 17-year-old girl to become a prostitute. The same men, authorities said, turned the 17-year-old friend into a sex worker when she was just 13.

A Suffolk County mother who asked not to be identified, said her 32-year-old crack-addicted daughter was forced into prostitution by her drug-dealing boyfriend. “We are at the point where he is feeding her drugs and sends her out to prostitute herself,” the mother said. “Then he takes her money and beats her up.”

Polaris, a Washington anti-trafficking organization that runs a national hotline, said it received more than 40,000 reports of sex-trafficking cases between 2007 and 2017. Det. Tina Napolitano-Ferro of the Nassau County Police Department’s Special Victims Unit said her team has made six cases involving prostitution-related charges this year, while the six investigators on the newly-created Suffolk County Police Department’s Human Trafficking Investigations Unit identified and interviewed 120 sex trafficking victims in 2018 alone.

“Both Nassau and Suffolk are taking this issue seriously,” said Bradley Myles, Polaris’ executive director. But the lure of the drug and money is strong.

“Long Island is one of the top 20 spots for sex trafficking,” said Det. Lt. Frank Messana, who commands Suffolk's Human Trafficking Investigations Unit and runs training sessions for cops on how to handle the problem.

Gang members and drug dealers, officials said, are embracing sex trafficking because it is easier to evade law enforcement and can be much more profitable than the drug trade and other criminal activity. 

Prosecutors and police departments across Long Island have responded by dedicating personnel and resources to the problem. The Suffolk County Police Department's Human Trafficking Investigations Unit, which was created in July 2018 and includes supervisors and six investigators, is the first law-enforcement unit in New York state solely dedicated to combating sex trafficking, according to officials.

Law-enforcement officials are also working with social service agencies to provide counseling, drug treatment, vocational training and other programs designed to help sex workers break free from pimps who exploit them. Human trafficking victims need help, not jails, experts say.

"They say prostitution is a victimless crime, but these girls are victims,” said Napolitano-Ferro. “They are not prostitutes, they are being prostituted. I’m there to help them, not arrest them.”

Attitudes have changed.

“We’re shifting the paradigm in Suffolk County,” said Sini, who created his office’s human trafficking unit and helped form the SCPD team when he was the police commissioner. “We’re treating the victims like victims.”

That shift benefits police and prosecutors, law-enforcement officials said, because the girls and women they have assisted have become important sources of information about Long Island's gang members, drug dealers and other criminals. 

“We’re always looking for information to build cases and these women know a lot about who the players are, they know who is moving girls, who is moving guns, who is moving drugs,” Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said.

Local police began to look at sex workers as victims, not criminals, after the 2000 passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which authorized the federal government to boost efforts to prosecute traffickers and provide support to victims. The discovery of the bodies of eight women and a man wearing women’s clothing — all suspected sex workers in the Gilgo Beach area nearly a decade ago — also sparked the change in thinking, according to Laura Ahearn, executive director of the Crime Victims Center in Ronkonkoma.

“These women were seen as outcasts of society, but when their families started to cry out for help, they began to be seen as daughters and sisters,” Ahearn said. “The community started to look at them differently and law enforcement started to see them as victims of abuse and assault.”

Sex trafficking victims in Nassau and Suffolk counties come from a wide range of economic and ethnic backgrounds, officials said, but the majority are longtime Long Island residents.

“Ninety percent of the victims we have dealt with were born and raised in Suffolk County,” said Det. Sgt. James Murphy of the Suffolk Trafficking Investigations Unit. “They are actually our girls. They are our neighbors, our daughters, our nieces. These are girls our kids grew up with. This is our problem.”

Many sex trafficking victims, authorities said, have one important trait in common: deep-rooted and devastating trauma. Many carry scars from sexual assaults, physical abuse or childhood neglect. Victim advocates say many traffickers seek out runaways and homeless teens because kids who crave love and affection are vulnerable and easily manipulated. “Romeo pimps” groom their targets for sex work by taking advantage of their emotional wounds and lavishing them with gifts and affection. Anti-trafficking courts in Nassau and Suffolk work to connect them to programs to address that trauma through agencies like the Safe Center. 

“We are doing what we can to help these people,” said Undersheriff Kevin Catalina, who also oversees the human trafficking unit created by the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office last year. “We are getting these women when they are at rock bottom.”

Waters, of the Safe Center, was a victim herself.

Raised in an affluent Houston suburb, Waters said she was abused as a child by her mother and raped when she was 17 years old. She was young, broke and vulnerable, she said, when she began working as a bartender in a Texas hotel and met a dope dealer. That man pushed her into having sex with other men in exchange for the drugs, she said.

When new management took over the hotel, Waters said she began performing sex acts for guests at her new bosses’ direction. When she told her traffickers she wanted out in 2001, she was raped and beaten for hours in a hotel room. One man put a knife to her throat. Another put a gun to her head. By the time the assault was over, Waters had been stabbed twice and her right arm had been yanked out of her shoulder. She also suffered two broken vertebrae in her neck.

“When I was finally able to escape, I had nothing,” said Waters, who now has a master's degree in public administration from Penn State, a master's in social work from Azusa Pacific University and is working on a doctorate in philosophy at Walden University. She has been working as an anti-trafficking advocate for a dozen years.

Serena Liguori of New Hour for Women and Children — Long Island, a Brentwood agency that works with the Suffolk sheriff’s office to provide counseling and services to victims of human trafficking, said even women who are ready to leave traffickers find it difficult because housing, transportation and other necessities are expensive on Long Island.

“If a woman has to choose between living in a tiny room somewhere versus returning to her abuser, that is a challenge,” Liguori said. “It’s important we give them a plan when they leave the jail so they don’t go back.”

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