Human trafficking ring busted

A man and woman accused of running a forced prostitution ring in the area for more than a week were arrested Thursday in Marietta. The arrests mark what is possibly the first human trafficking case ever seen in Washington County, according to investigators.

The man, who identified himself as 37-year-old Xavier Freeman, of 502 Marcy Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., is accused of using extreme violence and drug dependency to coerce multiple women into performing sexual acts against their will.

“These girls are threatened. They are beaten. They are stomped on. During some of these incidents, a handgun was used to get them to commit sexual acts for money,” said Major Brian Schuck with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

Investigators believe Freeman gave a false identity. He has been uncooperative since his arrest by the Major Crimes Task Force and investigators have not yet been able to positively identify him, said Schuck.

Earlier this week, the task force was alerted to suspicious behavior at a hotel in the 700 block of Pike Street in Marietta. Following surveillance, a traffic stop was conducted Thursday in a vehicle in which Freeman was a passenger.

A drug dog alerted on the vehicle and an object which police initially thought could be a weapon concealed in Freeman’s pants was discovered to be nearly $7,000 in tightly bound cash and 181 Hydromorphone pills.

Through its investigation, the task force has learned Freeman-with the help of 23-year-old Shaasia Jones, of 2487 Davidson Ave., Bronx, N.Y.-has reportedly been operating the sex ring out of the Marietta and Parkersburg area for approximately 12 days. It is not believed to be their first time in the area, said Schuck.

“We’re still gathering information. But we believe they’ve also been in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia,” he said.

According to an affidavit of facts, Jones reportedly helped Freeman photograph the girls and post them on a mobile site as prostitutes for hire.

They set fees for the women-$200 for an hour and $150 for a half hour-at least half of which Freeman kept.

“Jones and Freeman also purchased the rooms the girls were to stay in. Freeman held a debt over the girls’ heads for room and board and kept a ledger,” said the affidavit.

A human trafficking task force, which includes state and federal investigators, has been called in to assist with the interviews and investigation.

As part of that group, a victim’s advocate came to meet with the victims.

Such situations are very difficult for the victims to escape, explained Jackie Hussey, who serves as victim advocate for the Marietta City Law Director’s Office.

Pimps, such as Freeman, often prey on girls who have drug dependency problems and no support system, she said.

“A lot of these girls are runaways or drug addicts and they need the money and they get trapped because they have to have their drugs,” said Hussey.

Schuck said there is evidence Freeman was providing the girls with drugs and purposely keeping them drug dependent.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine praised the informant and investigators for helping put an end to the operation.

“Human trafficking is a very serious problem throughout the state of Ohio, and it is often a crime that is hard to identify. I applaud the person who contacted authorities after noticing something that didn’t seem right. That tip allowed task force members to quickly look into the situation and get these women to safety,” said DeWine in a statement released by his office Friday.

Further investigation, both by the local task force and by the state and federal investigators, will be ongoing and more arrests are possible, said Schuck.

Three of the six victims of the drug trafficking ring were not arrested on drug and obstruction charges. They will be free to return to their homes, said Schuck.

Three who were arrested will be subject to court proceedings, he added.

A woman later discovered to be 38-year-old Tamisha Lowe, of 2940 W 31st St., Brooklyn, N.Y., initially gave a false name to investigators. Lowe later told agents she believed she was wanted in Pennsylvania for violating her parole on a heroin possession charge. She is being held on a $750 bond on a second-degree misdemeanor count of obstructing official business.

Tiffany Pendergrass, 25, of 303 White Oak Valley, Princeton, W.Va., is also being held on a $750 bond on a second-degree misdemeanor count of obstructing official business. Highly intoxicated during the vehicle stop, she yelled at officers and ignored instructions.

Reba Grahovac, 23, of 448 Jenkinjones Mountain Road, Anawalt, W.Va., admitted to officers she had syringes in her purse that had recently been used to inject prescription drugs. She is being held on a $750 bond for possession of drug abuse instruments, a second-degree misdemeanor.

Freeman is being held without bond on a first-degree felony count of human trafficking, a second-degree felony count of drug possession, a third-degree felony count of compelling prostitution and a fourth-degree felony count of promoting prostitution.

Jones is also being held without bond. She is charged with complicity in human trafficking, complicity in compelling prostitution, and complicity in promoting prostitution, first-, third- and fourth-degree felonies, respectively.