The Hidden Epidemic: Human Trafficking - Northern Michigan's News Leader

The Hidden Epidemic: Human Trafficking

Posted: Updated:

A very real problem is happening right here in Northern Michigan, and most don't even realize it.

Human trafficking doesn't just go on overseas, in third world countries.

It's happening all across the U.S., and right here in Northern Michigan.

9&10's Lynsey Mukomel looked into the reality of human trafficking, in this special report.

“I don't know of any other crime or situation that's as horrific as being trafficked.”

Teresa Flores would know.

She was 15.

Her family had recently moved to a new school in Birmingham, Michigan.

A boy she liked offered her a ride home from school.

“But that led though unfortunately to being raped, and then being blackmailed with photos that they had taken, and essentially for two years being their sex slave,” says Teresa.  

 “Human life is for sale in a modern day civilized society and that should be disturbing to any of us,” says Benjamin Nolot.  

Filmmaker Benjamin Nolot was one of the panelists at a recent human trafficking summit in Cadillac.

He finds it shocking that people ignore the problem.

"I think what's shocking to me more than anything, is how many people ignore the issue of human trafficking."

“As long as people believe that she's there, she chose this, wants this, likes this and is making money off this, they're not going to take action to stop it from happening,” says Benjamin.

Possibly one of the most terrifying things about human trafficking is it often goes unnoticed. It could be happening to a neighbor, your colleague, even someone who goes to your church. They might seem completely normal, but their reality could be much different.

“We've had girls in the U.P. that have been found down in the Detroit area, down in the Grand Rapids area as well, so I can tell you that it is happening here in Michigan.”

Detective Sgt. Edward Price works on the Southeast Michigan Crimes Against Children Task Force.

You're looking at footage taken during an undercover sting.

Their latest operation was with the FBI in October.

“We recovered 19 juvenile victims involved with sex trafficking, which ranked us for that operation second in the nation. We arrested 12 pimps, which made us first in the nation for arrested pimps that week,” says Sgt. Price.  

Understandably, it's hard to fathom how someone can get involved in trafficking in the first place.

“If pimps are anything, they're highly relational. They know how to connect to a person, male, female, child, adult, it doesn't matter,” explains human trafficking therapist Amber Herlein.

Once they gain that trust, they change, threatening victims who don't cooperate.

After escaping from a hotel room one morning, Teresa's family dog went missing.

Then she got a phone call.

“I didn't hear anything on the other end, and as I went to hang it up I heard a dog bark and I heard a gunshot go off,” explains Teresa.  

Because of the terror these men created, Teresa was sneaking out every single night for nearly two years, somehow hiding her horrific reality from her family.

“You don't want to disappoint them. You feel guilty, you feel horrible about it, and I don' know, I guess I just didn't trust that they would still love me,” says Teresa.

Michigan lawmakers are starting to pass laws to help survivors.

Like changing the statute of limitations for prosecuting pimps.

“Six years was way too brief, if you talk to any survivor they will tell you that. It was very important to us, we really wanted to get to the point of no statute of limitations, but we've made great progress to get it up to 25 years,” says Senator Judy Emmons, 33rd District.  

Senator Emmons says she's working towards getting more legislation passed in Lansing, constantly reminded that trafficking is a very real problem.

“The most surprising thing to me was, regardless of the size of the group 12, 20, 150, there's always someone who comes to me afterward in private and tells me about themselves, someone in their family or someone they know that has experienced trafficking,” says Senator Emmons.

Teresa says, “I was lucky, I can stand here and tell you my horrific story, but I can also tell you I was very lucky because I escaped. I got out. Most don't.”