Arrests highlight 'prevalent' problem of human trafficking in Utah

Published: Tuesday, April 1 2014 5:15 p.m. MDT

Jean Joseph, 26, of New York (left) and Tara L. Pinnock, 24, of Albany, N.Y (right), were booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of aggravated human trafficking and kidnapping.

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office

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SALT LAKE CITY — Tara Pinnock was supposed to be in court Tuesday in Connecticut, requesting to be put in a program generally reserved for low-risk offenders.

Instead, she remained in the Salt Lake County Jail accused of forcing a kidnapped Manhattan woman into a cross-country trek of prostitution before the 23-year-old finally escaped in Salt Lake City.

Tammie Garcia Atkin, the victim witness coordinator for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said human trafficking is more prevalent than most people realize.

"I think people would be very surprised to learn that it's very prevalent here in Utah — and not just sex trafficking, that's not the only kind of trafficking," she said, noting that domestic servitude and "agriculture trafficking" — forcing immigrants to work from farm to farm — also exist.

In January, University of Utah students gathered to listen to several people talk about human trafficking problems in the U.S. today, including a 14-year-old girl who ended up in a sex trafficking ring.

Recently, the Utah Attorney General's Office arrested Victor Rax, accused of dealing drugs and trafficking teenage boys in Utah for years. Last week, the number of charges against him was increased to 63, including aggravated sexual abuse of a child, aggravated human trafficking for forced labor involving a child, forcible sodomy, child endangerment, witness tampering and drug possession with intent to distribute. Authorities have identified 16 victims whom they believe Rax abused.

"(Human trafficking) is more prevalent than we'd like to believe. Human trafficking is second only to drug trafficking in profitability … and it is the fastest growing criminal enterprise right now," Atkin said. "Modern-day slavery does exist."

Human trafficking is growing because it's a low-risk, high-return criminal enterprise, she said. Young girls and women forced into prostitution are often very vulnerable and don't have a lot of resources. They don't have strong family ties who would immediately recognize if they went missing, Atkin said, and they're generally too afraid to try to escape or are untrusting of police.

"Just because somebody has bars around them isn't the only way of being imprisoned," she said.

Atkin believes the number of cases being seen in Utah is due to Salt Lake City being a crossroads to other areas where human trafficking is a bigger problem, such as Las Vegas. Pinnock and Jean Joseph were reportedly heading farther west when they were arrested.

In the latest episode of human trafficking to make headlines in Salt Lake City, Pinnock, 24, of Albany, N.Y., was arrested Monday for investigation of human trafficking. U.S. marshals also placed a detainer on her. Joseph, 26, of Valley Stream, N.Y., was also booked into the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of human trafficking, kidnapping, aggravated assault and rape.

Police believe Joseph kidnapped a 23-year-old woman in New York about two or three weeks ago near the Port Authority.

"Joseph reportedly struck the victim three times, causing the victim to lose consciousness," a Salt Lake County Jail report states. "The victim sustained a very large distended swollen eye/facial area and a half-inch scar."

When she woke up after being beaten to unconsciousness, she was in Pennsylvania, according to police. The group continued moving west, and she told police she was sexually assaulted twice in Chicago. The group also made stops in Denver, Grand Junction, Colo., and Salt Lake City, where the woman was "forced to engage in prostitution" in each of those cities, the report states.

The woman told police she tried to escape while in Denver but was unsuccessful. In Salt Lake City on Sunday, the woman tried to escape again and call 911 with a cellphone she had, and then hid until officers arrived.

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