AP NEWS

Fort Bend County officials ramping up anti-human trafficking efforts

March 19, 2019

In the two weeks that the recently established human trafficking tip hotline has been active, Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office investigators say they’ve received only two calls reporting such activity.

Neither call led investigators to human traffickers or victims, said Maj. David Marcaurele, the agency’s chief deputy, noting the hotline, which Sheriff Troy Nehls established late last month, is just an additional resource Fort Bend County residents can use alongside the National Human Trafficking hotline that’s been around for years.

“We thought let’s just put one more avenue out there, so they can call us and we will investigate it,” he said. “I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I’m saying we haven’t found it.”

While the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office continues pursuing human trafficking activity through caller tips, County Judge KP George, Fort Bend Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers and U.S. Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) met with the FBI on Monday to address how the seedy practice is affecting the local community.

“I recognize that human trafficking is (a) serious and widespread threat that must be tackled by every level of government,” George said in statement, adding that he will work with state representatives and local officials, such as newly-elected District Attorney Brian Middleton, who is asking the governor’s office for more than $630,000 in grant funds to implement a human trafficking division in his office within the year.

The division, which would focus on the trafficking of people under the age of 24, would include up to four investigators and a prosecutor. The district attorney currently has only one investigator assigned to all human trafficking cases.

“We have been involved in multiple investigations regarding human trafficking and we want to take an aggressive stance against it,” Middleton said, adding that his office already has more than $600,000 in computer equipment for use in investigations. “We put in for the grant to try to beef up and leverage some of the resources that we have.”

Data from the faith-based nonprofit Free the Captives, which considers Houston to be “a hub for human trafficking,” estimates the average age of trafficked girls to be between 12 and 14 years old.

The resolution for the grant went up for a vote at a recent Fort Bend County commissioner’s court meeting and was approved unanimously. At a separate meeting, the amount of funds requested by the district attorney went up from $378,964 to $635,928.

Assistant District Attorney Chad Bridges drafted the application and said the amount was adjusted to more accurately reflect what the district attorney’s office plans to do with the funds.

About 82 percent of the requested funds would be used for the salaries of the three new positions, including $137,000 for a dedicated felony-level assistant district attorney and $385,928 for two “very highly trained investigators that can forensically search phones and computers,” according to the grant application. The district attorney’s office will also use funds to train investigators to find pimps looking to recruit young prostitutes by posing as traffickers and browsing online chatrooms looking for trafficked victims.

Middleton said the creation of the new division is not contingent on whether the grant is approved by the state and should the grant be denied, he will request funding through the commissioner’s court.

“We need more resources to have a maximum impact on the problem,” Middleton said.

Marcaurele said he’s hasn’t been made aware of the details regarding the new unit the DA is planning to establish but noted the sheriff’s office doesn’t have its own dedicated human trafficking division.

“We don’t have the cases to support it, but we do have a complete criminal investigation division,” Marcaurele said. “Any cases that we get and that meet those criteria are investigated.”

In 2018, the district attorney’s office investigated 20 human trafficking cases, many of which stemmed from agencies other than the sheriff’s office.

“The (sheriff’s office) is not the only law enforcement office who is doing investigations in Fort Bend County,” Middleton said, referring to a federally-funded human trafficking task force based in Houston that has made national headlines for its innovative model. “They are most likely to get the lead, but I know Rosenberg, Stafford and other agencies will investigate those, as well as our investigators here in the district attorney’s office.”

Last Tuesday, officials from more than 10 cities across the country met in Houston for a two-day conference to learn about the city’s successes in fighting human trafficking and last October, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recognized Houston as a national model for its anti-trafficking infrastructure.

But during the first two weeks, the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office’s human trafficking tip hotline received multiple calls from media “checking it out” and only two tips, Marcaurele said.

One of the tips led investigators to massage parlors outside the sheriff’s office jurisdiction. Those cases were referred to other agencies, Marcaurele said.

Nehls on Tuesday referenced one of the calls at a Katy Area Chamber of Commerce business leaders breakfast, where he also challenged the audience to name a street in Fort Bend County that is as synonymous to prostitution as Bissonnet Street in southwest Houston.

“You can see (prostitutes) all day long,” Nehls told a crowd of about three dozen. “but I will challenge you to name a street in Fort Bend County where you see that. I know we live next to the big gorilla. Harris County has all sorts of problems. And people just say that it’s got to be happening in Fort Bend. I think we’re blessed to say that we’re not seeing the issues that Harris County is seeing each and every day in the city of Houston.”

The majority of “human trafficking tips,” such as cases arising from massage parlors, are not classified as such and instead filed as prostitution, Marcaurele said.

The debate about whether a case is prostitution versus human trafficking “is semantics,” Middleton said.

A lot of the human trafficking cases that make their way to the district attorney’s office are initially filed by law enforcement as prostitution, child abuse or domestic violence. That’s because human trafficking requires a higher burden of proof and additional expertise and resources to “drill down into the cases,” Middleton said.

“The investigation doesn’t end when it reaches the district attorney’s office,” he said. “In most cases, it continues through the referring agency or through our investigators.”

Ed Gordon, who has been in the office for five years and was recently appointed to chief investigator, said elements of other types of crimes can be found in human trafficking cases and knowing the difference takes a trained eye.

Gordon, whose job involves overseeing district attorney investigators, said he pushed the new DA to expand its human trafficking investigations to keep up with the growth of Fort Bend County, which has roughly 760,000 people.

The grant, he said, would help the county gain a foothold in its fight against human traffickers.

As for the sheriff’s hotline, Middleton said its redundant and unnecessary.

“I don’t feel the need for it,” he said. “I just want the public to know that this is not the first number that has been available. There has always been a hotline.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

michelle.iracheta@chron.com