ABC4 exclusive: Exposing human trafficking in Utah

News

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – Human trafficking is an estimated $150-billion dollar global business that is booming in the state of Utah. 

ABC4 News went on an exclusive ride along with the Attorney General’s Office SECURE Strike Force team as agents took down a trafficking ring that was operating in Salt Lake City.

During the operation, ABC4’s Brittany Johnson was able to bring Utah’s deep, dark secret into the light, as well as learn more about the problem, which law enforcement refers to as modern-day slavery, plaguing the state.

Background on human trafficking 

“It’s happening every day all throughout the state,” explained Leo Lucey, Chief of Investigations, Utah Attorney General’s Office. “Our strike-force, that that’s their main focus 24-7-365 days a year.”

“Where is the trafficking taking place?” asked Brittany Johnson.

“It can look like anything,” replied Lucey. “It can be being run from the street corner to a sophisticated business front. We’ve had everything from doctors, lawyers, cops, salesman, you name it, that have been caught up in it.”

“It can be boys, girls, men, women, but in certain cases, a lot of the times it starts on the internet or it starts through social media or smartphones.”

Regardless of how it starts, research shows that human trafficking is reaching epidemic proportions. 

In 2019, The Polaris Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting modern-day slavery, according to its website, identified 22,326 victims and survivors. 

  • Sex trafficking 14,597
  • Labor trafficking 4,934
  • Sex and labor 1,048
  • Not specified 1,747

“They’re forced against their will,” explained Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes. “Often with very severe, almost terroristic tactics by the perpetrators. They’re threatening the victim’s parents or families, siblings, forcing them into the sex trade.”

Reyes said the traffickers don’t discriminate. Although he warned that “anyone can be a victim,” he also said that perpetrators often target the undocumented, and they intimidate and use physical force to break the will of their victims.

“You’ll have someone who’s undocumented and they’re so afraid of coming forward even to authorities,” Reyes said. “But secondly, they’re extremely afraid they’re going to get deported lose their status so they don’t report, and they’re exploited, sometimes to the point of death or being raped, abused, and enslaved.”

“How hard can it be for victims to walk away from this lifestyle?” asked Johnson.

“The psychological torture tactics, the terrorist tactics, plays such a devastating role and has such a devastating effect on the victims, that they really aren’t free to just walk away,” Reyes answered. 

Human trafficking bust

Brittany Johnson and photographer AJ Lucero sat inside of a black SUV with Chief Lucey and AG Reyes, right around the corner from the Salt City Inn Motel. 

The group waited for the “all-clear” to move in for the bust.

“OK, we have Brittany with us and their camera man, so just call me on the phone,” Lucey said over the police radio system.

As the team approached the motel, Lucey said the SECURE Task Force received a tip which lead them to believe that drug trafficking, human trafficking, and prostitution, were taking place within the walls of the motel.

“This motel has been around a long time and has had issues for years and years,” said Brendan Call, Section Chief of the Investigations Division, Utah Attorney General’s Office.

“We had information that that payments were also going into that area (front office), and they may have been involved with some of the prostitution and drug trafficking.”

With help from Salt Lake City Police Officers, agents ripped apart motel rooms used by the alleged perpetrators and victims. According to the officers, they recovered drugs, drug paraphernalia, and weapons, inside the seedy motel. 

Five suspects were arrested and hauled off the jail, and victims received help.  

“We had someone complaining of some chest pains, we know that some of them are high on heroin having issues because of that. We’ve got them medical attention and are helping them out the best that we can.”

While Attorney General Sean Reyes said access to the state makes Utah a crossroads for human trafficking activity, and Salt Lake City a hot spot for the trade, he wants perpetrators who take advantage of Utahns to know that law enforcement will catch them and lock them up for the illegal acts. 

“For all the predators out there, we’re coming. It doesn’t matter if it’s the AG’s office, if it’s Salt Lake PD, or any of the agencies. We’re all one law enforcement family and we all have the same mission, and that’s to protect Utahns and help protect families. You can’t run. You can’t hide. We’re coming.” 

If you or someone you know if a victim of human trafficking, or to submit a tip, call the National Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. You can also text 233733.

Click here to download the ABC4 Utah News app for the first alerts on your phone. Sign up for the ABC4 Utah breaking news and daily newsletters.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.