12 Investigates: Sex trafficking in Virginia
RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's a $37 billion industry - human trafficking. And this is not just happening a world away.
In Virginia, 12-year-old girls are the biggest target, often picked up off the streets and sold.
As night falls, it's no longer just hookers walking the streets in Richmond.
In the age of technology, women sit in warm hotel rooms waiting for the phone to ring. That's exactly what happened inside room 202.
According to court documents, managers at a pretty nice hotel on Paragon Place in Henrico County got suspicious and called police.
Detectives Googled the phone number used to register the room, and sure enough - it was linked to dozens of escort ads online.
They were advertising on backpage.com. On the site, we found countless ads selling sex in Richmond.
Inside room 202 - a man and two women were prostituting a 13-year-old runaway from Miami. In just 5 days, she'd seen 15 clients in Richmond.
"The average age of a girl being forced into prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old," said Sara Pomeroy for Richmond Justice Initiative.
Over the last year, there were 19 cases prosecuted at the federal courthouse in Richmond. All but 2 of the 29 victims were teens or children. Often times, they are coerced or forced.
Holly Smith was 14 when she met a man at the mall who promised to make her part of the "in" crowd.
"Within 12 hours of him picking me up from the mall, I was trafficked. They forced men on me. I didn't realize what was going on at first. I thought that we were going to a club," said Smith.
Pomeroy says the traffickers are good at exploiting a teen's vulnerability.
"Traffickers will identify if the girl is not happy at home. If she's fighting with her father. If it's a single family home. If she doesn't feel pretty," said Pomeroy.
Her non-profit is trying to push through new and tougher laws against sex trafficking in Virginia.
The 13-year-old from Miami is back home with her family and the last person involved in her trafficking will be sentenced Wednesday in federal court. Five bills creating tougher laws and penalties against trafficking are making their way through the General Assembly now and are gaining support.
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