Fox 45 Investigates: Statewide search for human traffickers, what you need to know
MIAMI VALLEY. Ohio (WKEF/WRGT) - Activist, educator, survivor.
Evelyn Chumbow has this warning.
"You might think, 'Oh, it's not going to happen to my child.' You don't know that," Chumow said.
For nearly a decade, Chumbow was part of the human trafficking trade. She now travels the globe, sharing her story. A recent stop took her to Cedarville University, where Fox 45's Shavon Anderson sat down to talk with her.
"I was so sold by my uncle for $2000 to come to the U.S.," she said.
At age 9, she was brought from Cameroon, then beaten, worked and raped until age 17.
"I have scars that will forever remain in me," she said. "I have bruises right here. I had bruises all over my body. Physically and mentally, the words that were used on me, you know."
Chumbow is only one of thousands of victims nationwide. Last year, more than 10,000 potential victims were identified across the states, nearly 400 cases in Ohio.
In the Miami Valley, the Ohio State Highway Patrol is increasing training and awareness.
"This is a fairly busy part of I-75, truck stop," said Agent Adam Johnson, with the Ohio Investigative Unit.
Fox 45 rode along with Johnson to see what he sees on the job. The first stop was a travel center near Franklin, and the site of a recent December sting.
"We brought ladies over to this area, we were set up with an undercover agent, and then we'd move in and make the arrest," Johnson described. "What was eye opening to me was how much traffic flowed in and out of this truck stop over just one given evening."
Agents in plain clothes sit and watch, picking up on patterns, building evidence.
"Everyone's had the basics of here's human trafficking 101."
It's paying off statewide.
In April, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Warren Police Chief Eric Merkel announced that an undercover operation aimed at reducing demand for sex trafficking led to the arrests of 8 men, including one suspect who investigators believe was allegedly attempting to recruit an undercover officer into the sex trade.
In March, the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force arrested four people accused of trafficking nearly a dozen women in the Columbus area. The investigation found that the individuals allegedly trafficked women over a two year period through the use of online sex advertising. The group allegedly targeted women who were addicted to heroin.
In September 2017, multiple agencies including the Ohio Investigative Unit and Montgomery County R.A.N.G.E. Task Force raided three Dayton-area businesses: The Harem, The Living Room and Sharkey's. While agents tell Fox 45 that raid did not involve evidence of human trafficking, there's a fine line where drugs and prostitution can turn into something more criminal. Ultimately, 11 people were indicted on drug and prostitution charges in the Harem case. Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck said his office filed a restraining order that will keep The Harem on North Dixie Drive in Harrison Township closed until a hearing can be held that could shut it down for good.
Other area businesses are still being monitored for the same reasons, including New York, New York Cabaret in Franklin.
After a year-long investigation, the establishment was slapped with a 23-count indictment in 2017. That case also saw charges of drug trafficking and previous prostitution by employees.
Today, New York, New York is still open.
"They're looking for those violations," Johnson said about eyeing the businesses moving forward.
With arrests becoming routine, what's changed?
"We're looking for it more than we were, say 5 or 8 years ago," Johnson said.
According to so are regular people, helping in the fight.
In 2012, 459 calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline came from Ohio. In 2015, numbers increased to more than 1000.
By 2016, Ohio identified at least 151 victims of trafficking, and at least 70 minors. Johnson told Fox 45 that awareness and arrests are only part of the solution.
"You need that cooperation from the victim to help to pursue the human trafficking criminal charges," he said.
It's a complicated, often emotional situation for victims.
"They've been treated this way for so long, it almost feels normal to them."
Johnson recalled a recent case, where counselors tried talking with the victim.
"When it was all said and done, we couldn't get her to testify against him."
Chumbow wants others to speak up.
"It's not something that's going to end today," she told Fox 45's Shavon Anderson.
Awareness from the public, however, can save lives.