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Collaboration, Cooperation, Commitment: Working Together to End Human Trafficking

Judy McKee, NAGTRI Deputy Director

The challenge of accurately estimating the number of human trafficking victims, both world-wide and in the United States, is daunting because, in its very nature, modern slavery is a hidden crime. A few years ago, The Washington Post in its “Fact Checker” column gave four “Pinocchios” to the Global Slavery Index,[1] sponsored by the Walk Free Foundation, which had estimated the number of victims in 2013 at 29.8 million and then, in 2014, raised that number to a “more precise estimate” of 35.8 million.

A new report, issued in September by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (which included new data from the Walk Free Foundation), estimated that, at any given time in 2016, an estimated 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery world-wide.[2] According to the report, one out of four of these victims were children, and women and girls were disproportionately affected, comprising 99 percent of the victims in the commercial sex industry and 58 percent in other sectors.

Estimating the human trafficking crime rate and the number of victims in the United States is no less daunting. This is especially true in sex trafficking where victims often don’t self-identify as victims, sometimes because they are told by the traffickers that law enforcement will see them as offenders, not victims, or because they consider themselves to be in a romantic relationship with their traffickers. The number of federal human trafficking prosecutions in 2016 – 241 - provides only a snapshot view of the problem since it does not reflect the cases that state and local prosecutors have prosecuted. It is also important to remember that, even though investigations reveal that there is sufficient evidence to charge human trafficking, in some cases, victims are uncooperative, disappear, or refuse to testify, making prosecution extremely difficult. Another incomplete snapshot of what is happening in the United States is provided through looking at the number of individuals and family members that received assistance from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In 2016, grantees of U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) grants reported 5,655 open client cases that included 3,195 new clients. Sixty-six percent of clients served during the reporting period were U.S. citizens; 34 percent were foreign nationals.[3] Finally, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) also provides a source for partially understanding the scope of the problem in this country.[4] That data demonstrate that state and local law enforcement identified 1007 offenses involving sexual servitude and 189 involving labor trafficking. Of these investigations, 595 involving sex trafficking and 59 involving labor trafficking were deemed “cleared,” defined by having met three conditions: there has been an arrest, a charge with a commission of the offense, and a case turned over to the court for prosecution.

Trying to get an accurate counting and relying on statistics to see the face of the problem, however, is an issue for social scientists and policy makers, not for law enforcement and prosecutors. They are focused on identifying victims, rescuing them from their servitude, and ensuring that the traffickers are held accountable for their crimes. Successful investigation and prosecution of human trafficking often involves various jurisdictions, including foreign countries, the need for surveillance and wiretaps, and a combined federal and state response. The Bureau of Justice Administration at DOJ has promoted the Enhanced Collaborative Model for states and the federal government to use in countering this crime. An example from Chicago, which has utilized this type of task force, demonstrates how effective such a model can be when local, state, and federal law enforcement work together to hold traffickers responsible for their crimes.

People v. Tyrelle Lockett, Myrelle Lockett, and Nathan Nicholson

This case involves a different type of crime family: Nathan Nicholson and his twin sons, Tyrelle and Myrelle Lockett, specialized in pimping out both teenagers and adult women. The twins first came to the attention of Cook County authorities after the State’s Attorney Office began its human trafficking initiative in January 2010. After identifying the Salvation Army’s STOP IT program as an advocacy ally for the task force, prosecutors in the State’s Attorney Office reached out to local vice sergeants in the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the Cook County Sheriff’s Police (CCSP). They explained the charges that could be brought in a sex trafficking case and asked these experienced officers to begin looking for appropriate cases to bring to prosecutors. In response, the CCSP began searching Backpage.com ads, looking for individuals who appeared young.

In May, the CCSP vice team found a possible victim advertised on Backpage and answered the ad. Through a series of calls that facilitated counter-surveillance for law enforcement, the undercover officer was led to a motel in Lansing, Ill. The surveillance team saw a male and a female arguing in the parking lot before the undercover officer arrived. The female entered the motel room and, when met by the undercover officer, began to cry. She said that she had been coerced into “doing this.” She had red marks like a hand print on her neck and a bruise on her arm and leg. She also reported that her ID and belongings were in a duffle bag in the car and that her computer had been smashed. The undercover radioed the team outside who arrested the man in the car, Tyrelle Lockett. A search of the car confirmed the 18-year-old’s statements and the hotel registry and video confirmed the room rental.

Later investigation revealed that the girl (victim #1) had met Tyrelle and his brother in a class mandated by the juvenile probation office. After they began dating, Tyrelle asked her to start making money for him, telling her that Myrelle’s girlfriend was doing the same and that she could show her how easy it was. She resisted, but he roughed her up so she went on several “dates” over a period of days. The day that she encountered police, she had told Tyrelle she wanted to stop and wanted to go home. That was when he choked her and smashed her computer.

Police located Myrelle and his girlfriend. She was 17. This young girl (victim #2) gave a similar account to victim #1 of how she had met Myrelle. She corroborated the first victim’s account of how she was trained into “the game,” but insisted (at that time) that she, herself, had never been forced or coerced to prostitute herself. However, she admitted that she had turned over all of her earnings to Myrelle. She also had Myrelle’s name recently tattooed on her chest. Both Myrelle and Tyrelle were arrested and charged with human trafficking.

Months later, the brothers (who were just turning 18) eventually pled guilty to a minimum sentence of four years in prison with a recommendation of a boot camp program which could earn them early release. They were paroled after two years in custody. Prosecutors and law enforcement were notified of their parole and kept an eye on their contacts with police by monitoring the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System (LEADS). Tyrelle was arrested for domestic battery against a new girlfriend who insisted that police had made a mistake with their report, so charges were dropped. Both Tyrelle and Myrelle subsequently were arrested for marijuana possession in Indiana and were also arrested in Phoenix, Ariz., but these arrests did not amount to charges being filed.

Subsequently, CPD ran into Myrelle coming out of a parking lot of a motel in Chicago with a 16-year-old female from rural Indiana. There was no evidence of commercial sex and the young girl denied having sex with him at the motel. However, days later, police began to notice ads on Backpage that featured the girl. Both CPD and the CCSP made it a point to recover her every time they spotted an ad, but there was no evident connection with Myrelle. One time a 19-year-old female was spotted driving her to her “date.” She was arrested and charged with trafficking a minor. In the meantime, the boys’ father, Nathan Nicholson, was caught pimping out an adult female. With no evidence of force, prosecutors charged him with promoting prostitution. He pled guilty to that felony and was sentenced to a year in jail.

A year after the twins’ parole expired, prosecutors received a call from a human trafficking task force member in Minnesota. He reported that they received a 911 call from a man in his 20s saying his girlfriend had texted him that she was being kidnapped by pimps and taken to Chicago. Myrelle had found her on Facebook and contacted her under false pretenses. That night, the Locketts took her to their dad’s house in Chicago. Nicholson told the boys to give her a new name, one they could use to advertise her on the Internet. When nobody was watching, the victim (victim #3) saw an opportunity to escape. She found the front door locked, but discovered the back door open. When she got into the yard, she encountered a high fence around the back yard with a locked gate. Pushing trash cans against the fence, she climbed over, ran, and found a police car, reporting the crime. Myrelle was arrested by CPD and charged with involuntary servitude and kidnapping. Since neither Tyrelle nor his father had been present when she objected to going to Chicago, they were not charged with the kidnapping.

While the state was continuing pursuing the kidnapping indictment against Myrelle, the interstate kidnapping charge attracted the attention of the FBI and it began investigating the historical cases of the Locketts and Nicholson. Two FBI agents and the CCSP vice team from the original 2010 arrest worked together on the investigation. The 16-year-old Indiana girl was uncooperative as to what happened to her, but the investigators found other girls from her hometown that had been recruited with her help. During the course of the investigation, it was learned that the 19-year-old that had earlier been charged with trafficking a minor was actually Myrelle’s “bottom,” not a pimp. Once her underlying facts and circumstances were known, she was identified as a victim, and the state dropped the indictment against her. She became an important witness in the federal case against all three.

After joint evaluation of the sex trafficking and kidnapping charges, which spanned multiple states, it was decided that federal court would be the best venue for the case, and the state kidnapping and sex trafficking indictment was superseded by a federal indictment covering a much broader scope of illegal conduct committed by all three traffickers. Myrelle was transferred to federal custody, and the other two were arrested by FBI and CCSP. The defendants were detained without bail and pled guilty to the federal indictment. The evidence gathered by the joint investigation showed that Nicholson groomed his sons to become pimps and taught them to recruit minor girls from Chicago-area malls by promising them money for going on dates. Once the girls expressed interest, Nicholson photographed them partially clothed, and then “tested” them by requiring them to have sex with the twins. Thereafter, Nicholson and his sons caused the girls to perform commercial sex acts with Nicholson keeping the proceeds. The twins then began to recruit their own women and expanded their search areas to neighboring states.[5] A three-day contested sentencing hearing resulted in the twins being sentenced to 17 years, 8 months in federal prison and the father to 16 years. Tyrelle was ordered to pay $9,050 to three victims and Myrelle was ordered to pay $75,600 to one victim.

Conclusion

The successful federal conviction of this crime family was based on the early investigative work of local law enforcement, the State’s Attorney Office’s commitment to prosecuting human traffickers and protecting victims, and following up on the twins’ activities after their release from prison. The cooperation and immediate response to a message from the Minnesota task force and the close working relationship between Chicago police and prosecutors and their federal counterparts, developed from working together on a task force against human trafficking, ensured that all parties were committed to working towards the goal: protecting the victims and ensuring that these three traffickers paid the price for their crimes.

Not every locality, however, has the benefit of a federally-funded task force which has worked together for more than six years to investigate and prosecute human trafficking. Often relationships between local and state law enforcement and prosecutors and their federal counterparts become strained due to personality clashes, political differences, or other issues that do not promote cooperative behavior. However, especially in fighting human trafficking crime, it is essential that these differences be put aside and police and their federal counterparts from the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security and local prosecutors and their counterparts in the local U.S. Attorney’s Office reach out to one another in a collaborative manner. Where states or localities have set up ad hoc meeting groups discussing human trafficking issues, invitations should always be issued to their federal counterparts and, equally, federal law enforcement and attorneys working on human trafficking investigations and cases should be reaching out to their state and local counterparts. Establishing personal relationships among professionals prior to having cases that would benefit from a collaborative effort helps to establish an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect so that these professionals can work together to investigate offenses, save victims, and prosecute traffickers.


[1] Glenn Kessler, Why You Should be Wary of Statistics on ‘Modern Slavery’ and ‘Trafficking,’ Wash. Post, April 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/04/24/why-you-should-be-wary-of-statistics-on-modern-slavery-and-trafficking/?utm_term=.b9fc2005ce50.

[2] Int’l Lab. Org., Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage,http://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_575479/lang--en/index.htm.

[3] U.S. Dep’t of State, Off. to Monitor & Combat Trafficking in Persons, Trafficking in Persons Report 2017, https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2017/index.htm.

[4] However, it is very important to remember that, as the UCR report itself states, many of these crimes are never reported to police and not all local law enforcement agencies have the capacity or actually contribute data to the UCR. For instance, the 2016 UCR shows no cases in Massachusetts. However, newspaper reports from 2016 indicate that Massachusetts law enforcement investigated and cleared at least 11 sex trafficking cases. U.S. Dep’t of Just., FBI, 2016 Crime in the United States (Human Trafficking, Table 1)), https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/crime-in-the-u.s.-2016/cius-2016/additional-publications/human-trafficking.

[5] Press Release, Dep’t of Just., US AGO, N.D. Ill, Chicago Father and His Twin Boys Sentenced to Prison for Sex Trafficking of Minors (March 24, 2017), https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndil/pr/chicago-father-and-his- twin-boys-sentenced-prison-sex-trafficking-minors-0.

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