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Human bondage focus of forum

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In 1865, slavery was abolished in the United States. But human trafficking is still happening wherever people are vulnerable following a disaster or are in poverty. William S. Hall, a federal police officer at Fort Drum and an instructor on human trafficking at the police academy at SUNY Canton, spoke at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse on Sunday in a forum called “Human Trafficking in the North Country.”

“It’s a worldwide issue but people don’t realize that it’s a local issue,” Mr. Hall said. “It’s an issue in Watertown, Fort Drum and Northern New York.”

Nearly 700,000 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked annually within or across international borders. Human trafficking has been identified as the second-highest volume crime in the country, second only to illegal drug sales and followed by illegal weapons sales, Mr. Hall said.

New York State Police have been teaching about it for only the past six years. He said he barely knew anything about the subject when he began teaching about it four years ago. For the first time, he said, cadets at the police academy were hearing about what exploited people look like and were told to look twice at a prostitute or a possible immigrant and evaluate if they are a criminal or victim.

“Whether you realize it or not there are people closer than you think who are being exploited,” Mr. Hall said. “Victims of human trafficking don’t come out and say they need help. They are scared. The people who brought them here may have coerced them into thinking if they seek help, someone will hurt them or their families.”

In 2012, a Lowville farmer, Moises Velazquez-Jacobo, was arrested for providing phony identification to illegal migrant workers. At least 40 illegal immigrants paid $250 apiece to get a fake Social Security document and a fake green card that they could show to prospective employers. Mr. Hall said sometimes law enforcement turns a blind eye to migrant workers because they are a “dime a dozen” in the agriculture business. Those workers, though, are at risk of exploitation.

“There is a difference between human trafficking and human smuggling,” Mr. Hall said. “When people are smuggled into the country they often pay someone to get them across the border and they are then free to go on their way. Human trafficking is essentially taking ownership of that person and human smuggling can easily turn into human trafficking.”

People trafficked for labor primarily work in areas of agriculture, restaurants, hotels, construction, landscaping, domestic work and sweat shops.

In another local case, in 2012 a brother and sister duo from Utica used a web service called BackPage.com to advertise the sale of a minor online for sex. Mr. Hall said the 16-year-old girl was a runaway who was picked up by a taxi driver, Jakeem E. Penn Sr., who delivered her to a woman, Alexandria Davall, who bought her clothes and gave her a place to sleep. Ms. Davall delivered the girl to the sibling duo 25-year-old Lynette Tilden of Utica and 30-year-old Edward Tilden of Orwell.

“Ms. Davall and the Tildens coerced this girl in engaging in prostitution acts under the premise that she owed them money for shelter, food and clothing,” Mr. Hall said. “Then they introduced her to addictive narcotics and started selling her online.”

Even closer to home, in 2007, a woman was observed running barefoot down the street late one night on Fort Drum. Mr. Hall said police stopped and she wouldn’t tell them anything so she was brought to the house she had been living at.

“A second night she was observed we caught up with her and she finally told us what was going on,” he said.

According to a Times article from July 2, 2007 — beginning in late April or early May — Lenisha L. Artis, 21, had been beaten almost daily with the buckle end of a belt, a frying pan and, at times, a hammer and knife, state police said. She also was tied to a chair with her mouth taped shut and had boiling water poured over her, leaving extreme scarring. She suffered the daily abuse from her boyfriend, his mother and another housemate for not doing housework to their standards.

“She had moved from out of the area to live with her boyfriend,” Mr. Hall said. “She didn’t leave because she didn’t have any money or anywhere else to go.”

Police charged Trina M. Strait, 40, with first-degree and second-degree assault; Crystal A. Johnson, 37, with two counts of second-degree assault, and Mickel D. Johnson, 24, with second-degree assault and second-degree unlawful imprisonment.

There are many holes in the legal system, Mr. Hall said, most from policemen being poorly informed about human trafficking.

“At the academy they get two hours of training about human trafficking at the beginning of their instruction. That’s not enough,” Mr. Hall said.

The forum, attended by nearly 75 people, was a way to get the message out and get people involved in their community efforts.

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