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A surge in human trafficking in New York City the focus of NYPD unit

Long-standing effort by department detectives and federal investigators aims to prevent mostly teenage girls and young women from being forced into sex work.

NYPD Insp. James Klein, commander of the department's

NYPD Insp. James Klein, commander of the department's vice division, seen outside NYPD headquarters in lower Manhattan Thursday. The division is tasked with stopping human trafficking. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

During confidential Compstat briefings at NYPD headquarters, department commanders wanted to know more about what was happening with “Snow.”

They weren’t talking about drugs or the weather.  

Instead, top police brass were referencing a violent, loosely organized Queens group known as the "Snow Gang,” infamous for shootings, murders, drug dealing, credit card fraud and, more recently, a burgeoning trade in humans.

After a probe last year by a special task force composed of NYPD vice detectives and federal agents, several members of the Snow Gang were convicted, including reputed leader David “Haze” Hightower, 25, and sent to federal prison for the crime of human trafficking. The group is believed to have ensnared numerous teenage girls for prostitution.

The Snow Gang case was one of the latest in a long-standing effort by police and federal investigators aimed at tackling a seemingly intractable crime, where people are coerced, tricked or otherwise forced into prostitution as well as domestic or restaurant work. Investigations are underway in all five boroughs and on Long Island, officials said.

Human trafficking, a federal crime in 2000 and illegal in New York State since 2007, extends back to the early 20th century. At that time, officials were aware of New York City women — usually immigrants — under the control of political ward bosses and working as prostitutes in the various ethnic enclaves. 

With the new laws and the advent of an international awareness of the crime, which some have called modern slavery, police departments are teaming up with local prosecutors and federal agencies to go after the traffickers. The NYPD is part of a special public task force with the federal Department of Homeland Security.

“New York is the epicenter of everything, legitimate and illegitimate,” said Akil Baldwin, Homeland Security's assistant special agent in charge, of the city's hub as a transit area and destination for trafficking victims.

In recent years, Long island has had its share of labor trafficking cases such as that of Varsha and Mahender Sabhnani. The couple was convicted in 2007 for keeping their Indonesian maids in deplorable conditions of servitude at their Muttontown home. However, most of the big cases are now focusing on sex trafficking involving teenage girls.

“I think it is recognized by law enforcement and prosecutors that trafficking is a heinous crime,” said Insp. James P. Klein, commander of the NYPD vice division, the unit that is part of the special joint task force. “It is more common than you think."

Klein and Capt. Thomas Milano, who also works in the unit, said they have come across girls working as prostitutes as young as 12, and women as old as 35. A controlling pimp in upper Manhattan threatened one woman with confinement in a dog kennel cage, Klein said, and in some cases, girls are made to have sex 25 to 30 times a day.

Once considered the scourge of Asian, Russian and Mexican immigrant communities, sex traffickers in New York City are now luring large numbers of local teenagers, as well as those from out of state, to work as prostitutes. To lure customers, their images have been posted on the internet in places like the now-closed Backpage.com. 

“Most of our victims come from New York,” Klein said. “These kids are being recruited out of their living rooms and bedrooms over the internet.”

That may have been the case for Corinna Slusser, a pretty, aspiring 19-year-old makeup artist from Pennsylvania who authorities believe began working for a pimp — nicknamed “Daddy” — in the Bronx and Queens. Once an obsessive social media user, Slusser dropped out of sight in September 2017 and has not been heard from since, police said.

It is easy to entice the girls, Klein said, because many of them are vulnerable or come from troubled backgrounds. To control them, pimps tell them not to look customers in the eye or speak to anyone. Often the girls are strip-searched by pimps for their money.

“It is all about the Benjamins,” Klein said ruefully, referring to the image on a $100 bill

“A lot of victims have come from poor backgrounds, who have been displaced and put in [treatment] homes,” he said.

In December, 19 people were hit with federal human trafficking charges, accused of recruiting some of their prostitutes from residential treatment facilities in Westchester for at-risk girls. In the Snow Gang case, one teenager said she began working with her pimp to get away from supervision of the Administration for Childrens Services.  An ACS spokeswoman said the agency has “zero tolerance” for trafficking and works with law enforcement to stop it.

Forced to have sex with customers in hotels and motels, the girls often find themselves begging for cash from their pimps. It’s a world with its own language where “toe” is slang for a prostitute, “telly” means a hotel or motel and “band’ is $1,000 in cash.

While federal and state laws are tough, it is not easy to make such cases. The problem is often that the vulnerable victims, while protected by police and social service organizations, have a hard time fully cooperating. Some even go back to prostitution.

City prosecutors, who have disposed of most of the state trafficking cases from 2008 to 2010, maintain a conviction rate of more than 73 percent of 363 prosecutions but the vast majority of those involved convictions for non-trafficking offenses as a result of plea bargaining. Over 21 percent were dismissed, records show. 

On Long Island in that period, 50 trafficking cases have been prosecuted. But officials believe that will change as investigations ramp up.

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