Hometown Upside Down

Sex Trafficking In Western Pennsylvania

Photo courtesy of iStock

Photo courtesy of iStock

Grace Phillips, Co-Editor

“There’s a girl walking down the street in Oakland. It was 12 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and she was crying. The pimp walked up to her, knew she wasn’t in school so obviously somebody wasn’t keeping track of her or cared about her, talked to her, got her in the car, said ‘I feel bad, I’ll take care of you’, took her to get her nails done, bought her a purse and by that night she was taking dates for him because he had showed attention and listened.” -Agent Matthew Patcher, FBI

Whether it be through your mom’s Facebook account or your news outlet of choice, you’ve probably been warned about the alleged sex trafficking taking place in the western PA area. Grim headlines are rocking the papers, describing crimes that seem as though they should be happening anywhere other than our hometowns. These are supposed to be safe neighborhoods…right?

Through my fellow staff writer, Jocelyn Adley, and her connection to the police force, I had the opportunity to interview Pittsburgh FBI agent Matthew Patcher. He has worked in law enforcement for the last 11 years.

“I am a special agent with the FBI and I am currently assigned to the Western Pennsylvania human trafficking and violent crimes against children task force. I work with crimes that mainly focus on the exploitation of children,” said Patcher over the phone.

Before being transferred to Pittsburgh, Patcher worked street gangs in New York City for five years. He investigated violent felonies, drug dealing, shootings, robberies, and murders.

“Everything in New York is just harder to do. There’s more traffic, there’s more people…but at least I knew where I stood; everybody there I was investigating didn’t like me,” said Patcher.

As for our immediate area, Patcher says that although he has never dealt with any crime in Butler City, he has been to Cranberry to investigate a sex trafficking case.

“I made an arrest there. It was a girl, a high school student, 17 years old, who was recruited from Ohio, was brought over, and was being pimped out by two individuals in the Cranberry area,” said Patcher. When questioned about whether the girl was being forced or if she was selling herself, he had this to say:

The law is pretty clear that if you’re under 18 you cannot consent to prostitution. In my experience, not all, but a large majority of the victims in these cases will say that they’re willing participants largely because they know nothing else or because they’re so, for lack of a better word, brainwashed into thinking it’s their choice,” said Patcher, “So very rarely, I think maybe once in my career, I came across somebody who’s like, ‘I’m being forced to do this i don’t want to be here’. It’s usually the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 12th time I’m talking to them where they’re like I really didn’t want to do this I was just so controlled and mentally beaten down or under a spell that I didn’t realize I had choice and this wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Sex trafficking is not as black and white as most would think. I myself was not aware of how multi-dimensional it is until I interviewed Mr. Patcher. The common misconception about sex trafficking is that it usually involves kidnapping, but that is not necessarily true.

“Abduction would be different than trafficking just how trafficking is different from smuggling. A lot of people hear human trafficking and think of what just happened in Europe and London where there are people in the back of a truck. That’s smuggling. So smuggling is a crime against a boarder, trafficking is a crime against a person. You don’t actually have to cross a state line to be a victim of human trafficking. Abductions are what your parents warn you about with the old white van and the stranger with candy,” said Patcher.

So what are some common strategies used by sex traffickers to look out for?

“It depends. One of the most common things we see is what is referred to as a Romeo pimp. They’re the smooth talking, silver tongued, ‘you’re beautiful, we’ll be a family, and I’ll take care of you, no concerns’. There’s one guy we always talk about who was a convicted sex trafficker who used to go to the mall and just tell girls as they walk by they looked beautiful. He said he knew the ones who paid attention and were thankful had never been told that before in their life. It seemed to work for him and he said by that night he’d have them working for him,” said Patcher.

There are three official ways someone could find themselves in a situation like this.

“The legal definition that we have is force, fraud, or coercion. So force is obviously by straight up force. Fraud typically applies more in labor trafficking, you know, you think you’re supposed to come here working as a cleaning lady in a hotel and they end up putting you in a massage parlor where you’re providing sexual favors. Then coercion would be some sort of in between, you’re not necessarily forced but not really against your will. Of course, if you’re under 18 you can’t consent,” said Patcher.

Whether or not you believe the rumors about the Butler Walmart or the Pittsburgh Mills, take note and stay safe. Danger lurks in the shadows of even the smallest town.

“It’s more common than people think, but it’s not something where I think you have to be scared of the world. Definitely all the old adages apply; be aware of your surroundings, don’t take compromising pictures, stranger danger even when you’re a 16, a 17 year old girl,” said Patcher. “A guy giving you a compliment might be giving you a compliment but he might also be looking for other things.

I’d like to give a special thanks to my Co-Editor, Sammy Jo Barnes, for assisting me in my interviewing Mr. Patcher, and I’d also like to thank Jocelyn Adley for going out of her way to connect me with him!