COLUMBIANA CO., Ohio (WKBN) – There are those who don’t believe human trafficking is a big concern in this area, but one woman says she sees signs of it and was once a part of a trafficking ring herself.
We’ll call her “Courtney” and for her protection, we’re hiding her face. The young woman from Columbiana County was a victim of human trafficking and has a chilling story to tell.
“I was 16 when they picked me up,” she said.
“They” are Deqwon Lewis and Starisha Moore — both now serving federal prison time for trafficking in minors.
Courtney said she met them at a gas station in Houston, Texas, where she was living at the time.
“I wasn’t going to school, and I wasn’t going home and I was doing drugs.”
Courtney said they offered to help her get a modeling job but days later, she woke up in a hotel room and they told her what they expected her to do.
“I would have to post ads on Backpage.com, and I would have to go see men and have sex with them for money.”
That wasn’t all. She said they made her find another victim to join the ring.
“I had to recruit her. She was only 14.”
Courtney said her captors frequently beat her, calling it both traumatic and terrifying.
“I was in so much pain from seeing so many people, that I would just beg for one day and they wouldn’t give it to me.”
She said she feared for her life every day and was in survival mode.
The ordeal lasted four months, the suspects giving her ecstasy and Xanax to keep her compliant. Then one day as the others were sleeping, Courtney made a break.
“Got my phone and I texted my mom, and told her that they weren’t letting me leave and she said, ‘Pack your s**t, I’m coming to get you right now.'”
A few days later, she was in Ohio, staying with her father.
In the meantime, police in Texas had come across a photo and started searching for Courtney through Facebook. They alerted agents with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who were able to track her down in Columbiana County.Video: Courtney’s story
Catching the pimps
As a pimp who exploited underage girls, Deqwon Lewis is in the middle of a 25-year federal prison sentence. The woman prosecutors say helped him, Starisha Moore, was given a 19-and-a-half-year term.
Authorities give a lot of the credit in this case to Courtney. In 2016, she testified against Lewis and Moore after escaping what investigators say was a human trafficking ring selling sex.
“It was more terrifying to see them and testify against them because now they know who. I’m the reason that they’re in prison,” she said.
Investigators say Courtney’s case was unique, although she’s not the only local woman who has been a victim of human trafficking.
“We don’t see too many success stories like this,” said an undercover Mahoning County sheriff’s detective.
He said Courtney is truly the exception in cases like this.
“A lot of them controlling them through the use of heroin addiction, through force, threat.”
The sheriff’s detective said many victims in this area are too scared of their pimps to cooperate, too drug-addicted by their captors or both.
“You also don’t see many of them that are gonna be in a place where they are mentally capable.”
Police say a focus of their efforts is in the high traffic areas along the I-80 corridor in Austintown. Right now, they’re investigating half a dozen potential suspects and have found more than 50 victims just in the last couple of years.
As for Courtney, she is now 19 and expecting her first baby. She sports a tattoo on her forearm that says, “I survived now I live.”
Courtney said strangers often don’t believe her when she tells them why she has it.
“‘It doesn’t happen here,’ they think. They think that that’s just ungodly for that to happen around here.”
Courtney said she knows better and she’s seen it locally. She hopes those girls will see the “red flags,” as she calls them, before it’s too late.
“They usually target people that don’t go to school, and don’t go home at night and they do drugs. And that was my biggest problem.”
Signs she wishes she saw.