Opioids fueling rise in countywide sex trafficking

The Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside has been bathed in blue light throughout the month of January to mark National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. (Courtesy photo)

They’re runaways, foster kids, homeless teens, impoverished single mothers, drug addicts: disadvantaged and vulnerable young women in desperate need of a helping hand. Each one is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother — and most of them were born and raised right here in Suffolk County. 

These women are the key currency in local sex trafficking rings that law enforcement officials say are active throughout the county. Traffickers operate on the principal that a bag of drugs sells once, but a person’s body can be sold over and over again. 

“If you’re on the street, you’re vulnerable. If you don’t have a place to live, if you have to support a child, if you do not have a job — sometimes, unfortunately, these women take on desperate measures just to live,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., who in 2018 launched the nation’s first anti-trafficking unit operating inside a correctional facility. 

The unit identifies victims who come through the Riverside-based county jail and helps them get services and support. Since its inception, Mr. Toulon said in an interview last week, the unit has conducted more than 5,000 interviews, and identified 327 victims and 205 traffickers.

The sheriff said that the recruiters are often the targeted women’s “boyfriends, at first — and then it goes on from there.”

“It could be a boyfriend. It could be, you know, they’re looking for love in all the wrong places,” he said. “But it’s always just someone that could say, ‘I can give you money, I can give you the drugs that you want.’ And unfortunately, if it’s a drug-related initiation into the relationship, the male will then say, ‘Well, now you have to pay me for my drugs.’ ”

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon

According to a 2020 video produced by the Suffolk County Anti-Trafficking Initiative — a coalition of local, county and federal law enforcement, county and nonprofit service agencies and community groups — human sex trafficking is happening in “every hotel and motel in Suffolk County” and that 95% of the victims were born and raised here. The video does not cite the sourcing of that data, nor is it clear whether law enforcement officials are distinguishing between sex workers and victims of trafficking. The organization did not immediately respond to a request for the source of the statistics.

But the crisis is clearly pervasive.

Last fall, a Shirley man was indicted on charges that he lured a homeless woman into sexual servitude by offering her a place to stay. In 2019, a Sound Beach man was charged with and ultimately convicted of running a human trafficking operation out of his parents’ basement — for years. Also in 2019, 11 Suffolk County residents, including four from Shirley, were charged with trafficking at least 10 young women, most of whom, investigators said at the time, were addicted to narcotics. In 2020, a Bloods gang member from Kings Park was sentenced to 25 years in prison following a conviction for running a sex trafficking operation in Suffolk County from 2014 to 2018.

Law enforcement officials said that while sex trafficking has long been a problem in the region, the opioid epidemic of the past decade sent the illicit industry into overdrive. 

“People have a picture in their mind of a box truck filled with young people being brought to a certain area to be trafficked,” former Suffolk County Police commissioner Geraldine Hart said at a 2020 press conference. “That is not the reality across the nation and it is not the reality here in Suffolk County. Traffickers are targeting females who are addicted to narcotics or getting them addicted to drugs and these drug cravings fuel a pathway into prostitution.”

The former commissioner also cited the statistic that 95% of women and girls being trafficked in Suffolk County were born and raised here.

Law enforcement officials and victims’ families say that opioids are now a key component of nearly every local sex trafficking operation.

“They keep you high. They keep you chained up. They take your clothes away,” said Brookhaven mother Maria Francavilla, whose drug-addicted daughter, Tori, got caught up in a local sex trafficking ring. “They lower you in any possible way. They search out girls that are drug addicts. That is how they get you: They look for someone who looks troubled, you know, who just looks desperate.

“That’s how they have control over them — is with the drugs, but this drug has such a hold on people,” Ms. Francavilla said in an interview this week.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before. This drug will make you do anything.” 

Ms. Francavilla knew that her daughter was abusing hard drugs. She saw how heroin was changing Tori, who hoped to become a hairdresser. But she had no idea how far from home the addiction had taken her daughter.

On a May morning in 2013, Tori escaped the Lindenhurst home of a sex trafficker, where she and other women had been fed drugs and then held hostage, deprived of even their clothes. 

Bound to a bed, her mother said, Tori somehow managed to escape, fleeing naked into the street and flagging down a motorist who contacted police. 

The Suffolk County police officer who responded was James “Jimmy” Johnson, who later became a detective. 

The motorist “called the police and Jimmy Johnson showed up,” Ms. Francavilla said. “He actually started the whole SCATI because of my daughter.”

Det. Johnson could not immediately be reached for comment, but last spring, at a church committee meeting in Sayville, he recalled that day. 

“[The woman] was an easy mark,” he said, according to a Suffolk County News report. “The trafficker had provided her with drugs for a weekend. At the end of the weekend, he told her, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ Then he posted her in ads for sex work and left her and other women locked in the house, naked, without clothes.”

That incident, he said at the meeting, opened his eyes to the scope and severity of the problem in Suffolk County and on Long Island. 

“Sex trafficking is about control,” he said. “This is about modern-day slavery for economic gain.”

Ms. Francavilla said that even after the Lindenhurst incident, addiction drew her daughter back into a cycle of one bad decision after the next. 

Still, during the final weeks of her life, it had seemed that Tori had maybe, finally, outrun her demons. 

“She was sober and clean for a year, and I’ve never seen her so motivated in all her life … First time I saw in a long time with her that she really was ready to just start a new life for herself and get away from everything bad in her life.”

Following months in the hospital and months after that in jail, Tori was heading into an inpatient halfway house program that works with recovering addicts to help them find jobs, return to school and rebuild their lives, her mother said. She had secured a bed but wanted to spend a few days with her family after a long separation, before heading to the program.

“She wanted to spend some time with me and her brothers,” Ms. Francavilla said.

That decision cost her. She lost her spot in the program to another recovering addict. Soon, her mother said, Tori fell back in with some old friends and contacts — and some old habits, too. 

One night in January 2019, at a house in Coram, she took a fatal shot of opioids. The people with her at the time threw her limp body over a fence into the yard of an abandoned home next door, according to her mother. Somehow, Tori managed to make it to the side of the road, where she died. She was just 24 years old. 

Ms. Francavilla was home in Farmingville when she got a call from one of Tori’s troubled friends, who told her of a “rumor that Tori was on the side of the road” in Coram.

“So I immediately hung up the phone and started calling hospitals, police stations. Finally, when I got the Sixth Precinct, they told me that they would call me back. An hour later they called me back and my whole life changed.”

Less than two years after Tori’s death, Ms. Francavilla lost her son Trent Michael Sanita — who died of an opioid overdose in a hot tub at the Hollywood motel in Farmingdale.

She urged Suffolk County parents to keep a close eye on their kids.

“Be very careful if your kids are doing [narcotics], especially if your girls are doing drugs. That’s the main thing. That’s how they recruit the girls. 

“They’ll befriend them, they’ll say that they love them, and they’ll keep them high. And that kind of just hooks them right into the whole life. My daughter … I didn’t even know any or most of the stuff she went through until after she died.”

Sheriff Toulon agreed.

“We’ve learned so many things about the trafficking industry, especially when it comes to social media, because that’s where a lot of recruitment occurs,” he said. “Before, it was at the bus terminal. Now it’s through social media. So it’s very incumbent upon parents to understand what social media platforms their children are using, and who they are communicating with.”

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. If you are a victim or suspect you know a victim of sex trafficking, call the Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888 — or text them to 233733, or email them. Victims can also get help through the Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island’s (ECLI-VIBES) Hopeline at 631-360-3806.