A quick glimpse on Backpage.com reveals dozens of women from the Augusta area offering men a guaranteed good time.
“Hey, I’m Brandy,” one classified ad on the website reads, claiming to be from a 20-year-old woman from Augusta with a “round booty.” “Only looking for gentlemen in the area looking for a true experience with me. Great with first timers and always aim to please.”
“Brandy” insists her ad is completely legitimate and the photos of her on the website are 100 percent accurate. She even provides a YouTube video flaunting her assets.
“I’m ready if you are,” she writes. “Don’t be shy.”
Such ads appear to be much like the bad phone sex commercials that were so popular in the 1990s.
The ads seem pathetic, but harmless.
However, when it comes to prostitution, there is nothing harmless about it, said Brian Ozden, a special agent in the FBI’s Augusta office.
“Tony and I did an interview with a girl not too long ago,” said Ozden, sitting next to Richmond County sheriff’s Investigator Tony Hyatt. “She ran away from home with her boyfriend. They got into a fight and she was left on the streets. Eventually, this new guy wines and dines her for a couple of days and the next thing you know she is enslaved by the guy.”
She was trapped. Caught far away from home in a lifestyle of prostitution, drugs and violence with no end in sight.
Until the unthinkable happened.
“This guy had taken her to a nail salon and the place was so dirty and disgusting that they gave her some kind of fungus on her nail,” Ozden said. “It was to the point that it needed serious medical attention and the pimp was like, ‘I’m not going to pay for that.’ So he dumped her off at a bus station because, at that point, she was no longer useful to him.”
Someone noticed the girl, who was in complete agony, and offered to help her get back home.
“Her finger was so bad, she had to have it amputated,” Ozden said, shaking his head. “It’s hard to envision a fingernail getting that bad. It was awful. But that’s how she got away, because she needed medical care and he dumped her like trash.”
As Ozden and Hyatt walked away from the interview with the girl, both said they couldn’t help but think there was little hope for her future.
“People don’t understand,” Ozden said. “They ask us all the time, ‘How does a girl get stuck in this lifestyle?’ Well, if you take a runaway that is 15, 16 or 17 years old, you take away their driver’s license, you take away their money, you take away their keys, you take away their credit cards, you beat them and you give them drugs and you make them dependent on you, there is no place for them to go.”
They have become a victim of prostitution, Ozden said.
“It’s not as easy as, ‘Oh, why don’t these women go tell somebody and get help?’” he said. “Because if that doesn’t work, they are going to get their butt kicked by their pimp or even worse, and they are not willing to risk it.”
Over the past decade, there has been a huge change in how prostitutes are viewed by law enforcement.
These women are now understood to be trafficked objects: slaves to a pimp.
In 2011, Georgia received national attention after passing legislation that was hailed as being one of toughest crackdowns on human trafficking in the country.
This legislation barred prosecutors from charging people with sex crimes if the offense occurred while the person was a victim of trafficking. The new law also added harsher criminal penalties for human traffickers.
Ann Woolner, a columnist for Bloomberg News, wrote in 2011 that Georgia’s legislation was a “giant step forward” and an enormous “cultural shift” led by the South.
“For traffickers, pimps and johns, the bill imposes higher fines and longer sentences, which get even longer if their victims are young,” Woolner wrote. “There would be a 25-year minimum prison sentence for using coercion to traffic someone under 18. Buying sex with a 16-year-old would bring a sentence of at least five years. Younger than that and it’s a 10-year minimum.”
The bill also made it much harder for both sellers and buyers of prostitutes to defend their actions, she wrote.
“Didn’t know her age? Wouldn’t matter,” Woolner wrote. “Was she previously involved in selling sex? It would be harder for pimps to raise that as a defense.”
The bill also offered both teen or adult prostitutes a sort of “get-out-of-jail-free card” to those who could show they were coerced into it.
“Physical abuse, threats, confinement, destruction of immigration documents, drugging, financial control — all would be considered coercion and could be used as a defense against a prostitution charge,” Woolner wrote.
But, while Georgia was praised for its forward thinking on the legislation three years ago, prostitution is still thriving today.
Just last month, FBI agents all across Georgia, including investigators from Augusta, Atlanta, Macon and Savannah, arrested 71 people during a sting called Operation Cross Country on charges such as pimping, criminal attempt child molestation/enticement of a minor, prostitution and solicitation.
A total of 11 children were rescued from prostitution in Georgia as part of the sting.
Since Operation Cross Country was established in 2003, the FBI reports it has recovered more than 3,400 children nationwide from being exploited. The investigations and subsequent 1,450 convictions have resulted in lengthy sentences, including 14 life terms.
The darkest hour
While the U.S. Department of Justice has identified Atlanta as one of the top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions in the country, Richmond County sheriff’s Investigator Tony Hyatt said prostitution can also be found all across the state.
“I would say that there is not a hotel in Augusta where it’s not happening,” Hyatt said, adding that the condition in which investigators find some of these women is indescribable.
“I remember this one girl tried to leave her pimp and he got her and he beat her with a piece of gym equipment. She laid on the floor for weeks.”
The image of that woman on the floor is one that Hyatt said he will never be able to forget.
“That was a scary ass environment that we pulled her out of that night,” he said. “Even for me, it was uncomfortable. Me, being in law enforcement for 15 years and doing some of the things we do, it was a really terrifying situation.”
When most pimps beat these women, it is much more than a punch to the face, Hyatt said.
“When these girls are beaten, it’s like beer bottles broken upside your head,” Hyatt said. “We had one girl with a black eye that was so terrible, you wouldn’t believe it. There are also girls with really bad bite marks. These beatings are brutal.”
It was extremely fortunate that the woman who was beaten with a gym weight by her pimp managed to survive the attack, Ozden said.
“I remember interviewing her after the fact and it was almost like talking to a zombie,” Ozden said. “She was so beat down at the time. I think we recognized that something needed to happen. We needed to get her somewhere far away from that situation.”
That’s where Nancy Uveges, a victim specialist for the FBI’s Savannah office, stepped in to find this young woman the help she desperately needed, Ozden said.
“That is probably the hardest job in the FBI,” Ozden said of the victim specialists. “If Nancy gets one out of 100 back on their feet, she is doing good. But, I’ll tell you, the other 99 she will work just as hard to try to help.”
In the case of the woman who was beaten with the weight, Ozden said he recently received an email from Uveges stating that the woman was employed, off drugs, attending church and doing exceptionally well a full two years after the incident.
“She was so close to the end and we caught her at the right time,” Ozden said. “She realized if what happened to her before happened to her again, she probably wouldn’t survive.”
The woman, who is now in her mid-20s, has turned her life around.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Ozden said. “You saw her at her darkest hour. And now you get to see her at a much better time. That is a nice, rewarding experience.”
Much of the credit for such success stories goes to the determination of the victim specialists like Uveges, he said.
“She will work all night and all day until she finds a place where they can go and be safe,” Ozden said. “And it’s tough.”
Finding places for juveniles involved in prostitution is much easier because law enforcement can immediately call the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. But for those who are over the age of 17, it can be a challenge, he said.
“At some point, a 20-year-old doesn’t get the same concern that a younger juvenile does,” he said. “There needs to be places and groups that take care of them and give them shelter and give them a place to stay.”
Nonprofit groups such as iCARE, do a good job trying to help save troubled women and families in the Augusta area, he said.
“It’s a strange crime problem because it takes a while for people to finally have compassion for the adult victims, unless you are in it and see what goes on,” Ozden said. “Everybody can say, ‘Oh yeah, she is 14 or 15, she is a juvenile, so of course we care about that.’ It is not until you hear some of the real stories about these prostitutes that you have compassion for the 23-year-olds.
“Because you can ask them, ‘When did you start this?’ And most will say, ‘I got into it when I was 12 or 13.’”
Sex with a minor spells major jail
As long as there remains a strong market for prostitution in Georgia, these pimps will continue to seek out young, naive runaways for human trafficking.
“I would say most of the guys, or johns if you will, they just want a prostitute,” Ozden said. “A young girl is appealing, but we don’t necessarily see this huge number of men in Augusta who are looking for 15- or 16-year-olds, like you might see when guys travel overseas for that purpose.”
In Augusta, the majority of men who are paying for sex with hookers don’t have any idea who they are meeting. They are just looking for sex.
But if these men are caught having intercourse or sexual contact with someone underage, all bets are off, Ozden said.
“With the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the district attorney’s office, if you are looking for a prostitute and have sex with a minor, there is a very good chance that you can go to jail for a very long time and people should know that,” Ozden said. “That’s the risk. When you do hire a prostitute and you end up having sex with a 15-year-old, it is a whole different story.”
Having sex with a minor will change these men’s lives forever, he said.
Defendants not only face possible lengthy jail time, but they can also be forced to register as a sex offender depending on the charges.
“We just had a guy, he had no idea the prostitute was underage, but she was,” Ozden said. “He is going to have serious problems now. And this is a career guy who works for a good company and his life is going to go real bad, real fast.”
The men hiring these prostitutes should also be aware that most of these women carry some form of sexually transmitted disease.
“The majority of the girls that we do come in contact with, they do have HIV or hepatitis,” Hyatt said. “I don’t know if these guys are not thinking or what the deal is, but I would say eight out of 10 have an STD. And some of the women require protection and some of them don’t. So, while this guy chose to call this girl, this fellow might have a wife and family and take whatever he catches from the prostitute back home.
“It is the big picture that I think a lot of people are missing.”
That’s why investigators are taking the johns’ role in prostitution so seriously, Hyatt said.
“With the prostitutes, if they are not underage, we look at their phones,” he said. “We look at the call log and I’ll backtrace that and go back to their clients and customers. Some even use credit cards and we’ve tracked them back that way making payments, swiping the card with the phone.”
If Hyatt finds out a john’s identity, he doesn’t mind paying him a little visit.
“It is not uncommon for me to look up these girls’ customers and show up at their job or house and talk to the them,” Hyatt said, smiling. “So, if you hire a prostitute, you risk getting a visit from me.”
A hotel and a highway
Brian Jones, a task force officer for the FBI who concentrates on cases in Columbia County, vividly recalls one of the first cases he handled for the bureau.
“I had just started working full-time here and it was a case where the child was 9 turning 10,” Jones said. “This guy had made contact with her and was exploiting her by the internet. He had already made plans to come here to take her back with him to the northeast, around New Hampshire.”
When the girl’s mother found out about her daughter’s exchanges with the adult man, she contacted law enforcement and Jones was assigned the case.
“Thankfully, I was given information and I was able to put myself in her place, but the stuff this person was planning on doing, was pretty horrific if you think about the fact that this child was 10,” Jones aid. “This was a real child. Fortunately, the man is now in custody up there and we come to find out he was a sex offender who had reoffended up there, even as he was contacting this girl down here.”
Ozden says Augusta’s FBI office works extremely closely with other agencies around the country when investigating online crimes against children.
“A lot of times we will get a call from other offices, where you will get an officer who has been chatting with somebody in Augusta in an undercover capacity,” Ozden said. “And, for whatever reason, that guy doesn’t travel up to the other agency. He gets cold feet, he gets scared or he gets suspicious that he is talking to a cop.”
But the investigation doesn’t end there. The Augusta office will continue to monitor the situation to make sure that grown man does not continue to solicit minors, he said.
“It is very difficult with the constraints that we have as law enforcement to put yourself out there as a young girl and try to convince a grown man to drive to your area for whatever his sexual preference is,” Ozden said. “It is an art form to be able to convince them that you are a 12-, 13- or 14-year-old girl because you can’t send pictures of yourself naked. There are a lot of things that you can’t do, that with the technology that is available today, is expected.”
Mark Dobbins, a Richmond County sheriff’s investigator who specializes in online crimes against children, believes most local residents don’t realize that prostitution can happen anywhere in the CSRA.
“Whether it is in Evans, whether it is on the Hill or whether it’s on the Bottom, if there is an interstate and a hotel, it is pretty much fair game,” Dobbins said, adding that after 12 years in law enforcement, he is still disturbed by the people he comes across trying to solicit children via the internet. “When I first got into this, my mindset was these people are these thick Coca Cola-bottle glasses wearing guys that live in trailers out in the woods.”
But the more Dobbins came in contact with these predators online, the more he realized these men are everywhere.
“These predators live in $450,000 homes. They are attorneys. They are doctors. They are preachers. They are principals,” Dobbins said. “It is unfathomable. There really is no way to identify them. They walk among us.”
And these individuals are preying on the most vulnerable society has to offer: children, Dobbins said.
“We realize there are individuals out there who are seeking children. It’s real life,” he said. “It’s not something we just created and we go online and act as a ‘Catch a Predator: Dateline NBC’ kind of stuff. These guys are real. If we are not out there doing it, they are communicating to 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds.”
Teens often have no idea that they are being targeted by a sexual predator, he said.
“We know historically that children go online from prepubescent to hitting puberty and they are interested in their own sexuality and sexuality in general,” Dobbins said. “They feel like they can’t communicate with their parents or anyone about it, so they go online, they go on Instagram, they go onto Twitter, Facebook, any of these social networks that are out there and they communicate with people they believe to be other children.”
But many are adults disguising themselves as minors, he said.
“These are real bad guys who are portraying themselves as children,” Dobbins said. “They get these young people to produce child pornography for them and it’s a never-ending cycle. If we aren’t out there monitoring stuff like that, we know that those adults are going to be communicating and victimizing real children.”
Earlier this year, Jones said the task force performed a sting called Operation Broken Heart that identified approximately 14 local people who were attempting to have sexual contact with children.
Occasionally, road deputies will even come across a stop involving teens that looks suspicious.
These deputies have been trained by investigators such as Dobbins and Hyatt to recognize the warning signs of teenagers being forced into prostitution.
“If you see two young girls and a 29-year-old man in the car and there is no direct family connection and they can’t tell you whether they are coming or going, those are signs that those girls are being exploited,” Ozden said. “I can look into a person’s car and tell in about two seconds whether that is a pimp or not. It becomes painfully obvious once you’ve done it for so many years. You know the signs. In fact, we recently recovered a juvenile during a traffic stop.”
But probably one of the most important lessons that these investigators and special agents pass on to other officers is to treat the prostitutes with compassion because they are victims of a crime.
“Most, if not all the girls, even the ones who are of age, there are very few of them that are out there doing it because they enjoy the lifestyle,” Ozden said. “I’d say 90 percent of them are in some sort of servitude-type environment. Most of the girls are in their early 20s, if they are not juveniles. And most of them started as juveniles and don’t have the life skills to survive.”
The pimps prey on those runaways and missing kids from out of state because they are vulnerable, Ozden said.
“These teens are looking for the first person who gives them help and that person is these traffickers or pimps,” Ozden said. “For the first couple of days, they treat them good. They buy them food, they get their nails done, and then after that they take control.”
These pimps will travel from Atlanta and sometimes bring these teens to Augusta simply to get these girls out of their comfort zone, he said.
“If they are from Atlanta, they will bring these juveniles to Augusta or Albany or Macon and take them away from the people they know and the people they may attempt to reach out to,” Ozden said. “So these predators are always on the move. That’s why this task force is here.”
There is a no-tolerance policy for sexual predators or human traffickers in Richmond and Columbia counties, Ozden said.
“If you come into this area, and you are a pervert or a predator, we will put you in jail,” Ozden said. “We are going to catch you and arrest you. So don’t even bother coming to Augusta.”
As all of the other agents and investigators in the room nodded their heads in agreement, Hyatt added, “We will lose sleep to get you. That’s a promise.”