‘Designed to be hidden’: Conviction puts local spotlight on sex trafficking

A home in the Wilton Farm Apartments in Albemarle was used as a brothel, according to testimony in the case against Elin Coello-Ordonez (pictured), sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring to commit human sex trafficking. Staff photo; mugshot via Virginia VINELink A home in the Wilton Farm Apartments in Albemarle was used as a brothel, according to testimony in the case against Elin Coello-Ordonez (pictured), sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring to commit human sex trafficking. Staff photo; mugshot via Virginia VINELink

Modern day slavery: It’s here

When the 17-year-old girl left Honduras with her older boyfriend in 2010 and crossed the border into the United States, she was told a waitressing job and legal immigration papers awaited her in a place she’d never heard of: Harrisonburg, Virginia. But instead of finding the American dream, she was beaten until she agreed to have sex—with as many as 30 men a day, including stints at a Charlottesville brothel.

On October 15, according to court records, the boyfriend, Elin Coello-Ordonez, 32, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on one count of conspiring to commit human sex trafficking. He’ll serve another five years for an immigration charge, and then immediately be deported to Honduras.

While numbers on how many people are victims of human sex trafficking are hard to come by, “it’s a problem that’s definitely growing in our community,” said Albemarle Police Chief Steve Sellers.

Although the General Assembly has passed laws making it easier to prosecute trafficking, and a shelter for victims of human trafficking is set to open in Charlottesville, it’s an issue that locally has remained largely in the shadows—until Coello-Ordonez’s recent conviction for forced prostitution, some of which took place here.

“It certainly is happening in our area—in the state of Virginia, in the region, in Charlottesville,” said Joanna Jennings, director of the Arbor, the shelter that will open here in January. “This victim at one point was working in Charlottesville. It confirms the existence of trafficking in this area.”

Forced into sex slavery

The victim, known as Jane Doe #1 in court documents, soon realized that her beau was operating a prostitution ring in a trailer in Harrisonburg and out of an apartment at Wilton Farm Apartments in Albemarle County. After slapping, punching, and kicking her, Coello-Ordonez drove the bruised teen to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, sometime around January 2011, where co-defendant “Tacha” De-Los Santos taught the girl everything she needed to know to have sex with men, including how to use a condom—despite the girl’s protests that she was being forced into prostitution, according to court records.

The women working for Coello-Ordonez were regularly rotated between Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., working for a week in a location, and occasionally loaned out to other brothels, according to court documents. A doorman collected money from clients—$30 for 15 minutes—while the defendants passed out fake business cards that read, “Call for the chicas.” Typically the money was split between the prostitute and the pimp, but in Jane Doe #1’s case, all the money went to Coello-Ordonez.

“She was moved from brothel to brothel” said U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy, who set up a human trafficking task force last year and whose office prosecuted the case. The frequent movement was because “they wanted fresh girls at each place,” explained Heaphy.

Coello-Ordonez told Jane Doe #1 never to say his name or that she was being forced into prostitution if she was arrested, or she would be in trouble, said court documents. So when she was picked up in Hyattsville, Maryland, in April 2011, Doe said nothing about her circumstances and was bailed out by Coello-Ordonez.

By July, she called 911 several times because Coello-Ordonez was drunk and beating her, but hung up each time. Police responded to the last location of her call at Coello-Ordonez’s residence in Harrisonburg and found her with her left eye swollen shut. Even then, she initially didn’t tell police she’d been forced into prostitution for fear of deportation and her pimp’s wrath. After he was arrested for public intoxication, court documents said that she began to shake uncontrollably and told police he had punched her in the face and slapped her on the back. That’s when the details of her story started to come out.

Looking below the surface

Officers are being trained to look harder at possible trafficking when investigating runaways or prostitution, Sellers said. “It requires the capacity to look beyond the crust. Regular operations in Albemarle to look at prostitution and drugs occasionally lead to human trafficking.”

He compares human trafficking to the way police used to respond to domestic violence, when investigators would just break up fights and leave. “Now they talk to people and get deeper into the situation,” he said.

The Arbor’s board of directors conducted a needs assessment in 2012 that reached out to police, emergency rooms, homeless and domestic violence shelters, social services, and rape crisis centers in Virginia, Washington, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and asked, are you seeing trafficking? Eighty-three percent of the agencies responded yes, and 30 percent had seen more than 20 cases in the past year, said Jennings.

“It’s always hard to quantify because trafficking is designed to be hidden,” she said. “It’s very profitable, and unlike drugs, trafficking a woman has multiple points of sale over the years, unlike drugs, which have one point of sale.”

While a lot of the victims are Latino, Jennings said there’s been an uptick in Korean and Chinese victims working in massage parlors. And there are domestic victims as well, she added.

Interstates like I-95, I-81, and I-64 are popular corridors for traffickers, said Jennings. And that movement across state lines requires multiple agencies to investigate and prosecute.

The Arbor will provide a safe haven and aftercare for seven victims and one live-in coordinator. “These women need to be stabilized to cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute traffickers,” said Jennings. With access to long-term housing, medical care, and psychological care for trauma, legal support, education, and job training, the women, who are often uneducated, will have time to heal and build job skills. “They could emerge from trafficking but without these skills, they could revert to that because that’s what they know,” she said.

Heaphy said trafficking is not limited to forced prostitution. “In the [Shenandoah] Valley, we’ve seen forced labor,” he said, for example, at poultry processing facilities.

“Any time someone is beaten or coerced to perform work, that’s what we call trafficking,” he said. “Forced labor or forced prostitution or forced to do something they don’t want to do, that’s modern day slavery.”

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