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Western Pa. prosecutors zero in on human trafficking; legislation pending

Brian Bowling
| Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

A Clairton man recruited four underage girls in Ohio, pimped them out in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, then used the money to buy heroin that he planned to sell, a Dauphin County prosecutor said.

“This is your classic human trafficking case, where these girls were taken advantage of,” said Assistant District Attorney Stephen R. Zawisky.

Robert Middlebrook's plans fell apart when a state trooper in Lower Paxton pulled him over in February for a vehicle registration violation, he said.

In addition to Middlebrook, an adult female and the four girls, state police found about 8,000 stamp bags of heroin, he said. At first it looked like a straightforward drug case, he said.

“Once they started asking them questions, started talking to the girls, they put two and two together,” Zawisky said.

Putting two and two together in child sex trafficking and human trafficking in general is a relatively new phenomenon, said Mary C. Burke, a Carlow University psychology professor and founder of the Project to End Human Trafficking.

In the 12 years she has worked on the issue, researchers and law enforcement have made a lot of progress in identifying victims and prosecuting traffickers. But, she said, “The work is really underfunded.”

One result of that underfunding is that data collection is erratic and often dropped, so there are no good numbers on how many human traffickers or child sex traffickers are operating, she said.

The Western Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Coalition has helped seven to 10 minors this year and several more who were in their late teens or early 20s, she said. “We've been working with more and more minors,” she said.

One reason for the increase is the growing awareness by society and law enforcement that minors are victims, rather than criminals, when it comes to sex and other types of trafficking, Burke said.

“There are more out there that we're not identifying,” she said.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton emphasized that point at a July 22 news conference when he said there are no “child prostitutes,” just children who are victims of sex traffickers. He said the number of people in Western Pennsylvania selling children for sex is “more than a dozen and maybe dozens.”

In a subsequent interview, Hickton said he knows this from ongoing investigations but refused to elaborate.

In the past two years, federal prosecutors have brought child sex trafficking charges against five people. Four were convicted.

Middlebrook is likely to become the sixth person charged with federal trafficking. Zawisky said the FBI is investigating the case. FBI spokesman Greg Heeb confirmed the agency is working with state police but declined comment.

One complication is that Middlebrook disappeared after his release on $50,000 bond on state charges of drug trafficking and trafficking in minors, Zawisky said.

“To say that I was frustrated about the bail situation is putting it mildly,” he said.

In more than a decade as a prosecutor, he recalls few trafficking cases — mainly because Pennsylvania had such weak laws until a year ago, Zawisky said.

Act 105 of 2014 provided the state's first comprehensive definition of human trafficking and enhanced penalties for trafficking in minors.

One provision of the law is training police officers to spot signs of human trafficking, said Shea Rhodes, director of the Villanova Law School Institute to address Commercial Sexual Exploitation.A pending bill would have Pennsylvania join states that protect victims of child sex trafficking from prosecution for prostitution and related crimes, such as trespassing and loitering, she said.

Sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, S.B. 851 would set up a fund to provide services to victims. Money would come from fines imposed on people convicted of trafficking and related violations.

Figuring out the number of minors being trafficked, much less the number of traffickers, is difficult for several reasons, Rhodes said. A key problem is that many of the traffickers are adept at grooming their victims so that the victims see them as boyfriends and protectors.

“The man tells them that he loves them, buys them food, takes them to the beauty salon,” she said. “That's become your new normal. Why on earth would you sell out your boyfriend?”

When it comes to identifying and helping the victims, “We've barely scratched the surface,” Rhodes said.

Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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