U.S. Attorney talks about human trafficking investigations - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va

U.S. Attorney talks about human trafficking investigations

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"We're unfortunately seeing a spike in human trafficking," said Tim Heaphy, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.

We talked to Heaphy about human trafficking issues in southwest Virginia and a Roanoke County case from earlier this year where police say they stopped a van with 16 people driving up Interstate 81.

"I determined this might be a human trafficking situation. We were able to interview the driver of the vehicle which had told us each one of these individuals had been sold for $200 and they were going to be traveling to an unknown location," said Roanoke County Police Officer Jessica Price back in July.

Police told us ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) wasn't able to come to the traffic stop, officers said there wasn't enough to charge them under Virginia law and they all got back in the van and drove away. 

"I saw your report and I asked questions. What happened, why didn't ICE respond? It forced us, people like me and my counterpart of ICE, managers, not just officers on the street to talk about process and that's a good thing," said Heaphy. "It brought to the fore a larger issue of law enforcement communication which is been productive."

Heaphy says in this case ICE didn't get accurate information soon enough, something they've since been working to fix.

"That has led to discussion between us and the folks in ICE leadership about what should be our protocol. What are the questions to ask, what do they need to know before they will respond. I ultimately think it will be productive," said Heaphy. "I talked to them about this and they have pledged to me that they will be responsive."

Heaphy says ICE training local officers is key and this case has educated others. 

"It's actually created a healthy conversation and everyone from the folks who were involved in that case to others who are worried about similar cases has learned from this. Hopefully that means that when we see signs of human trafficking that people will respond in a way that's more thoughtful, it's more intentional that recognizes really what we're dealing with," said Heaphy.

He says the Winchester / Staunton area of the state has a human trafficking task force where officers meet at least once a quarter and share information.

"I don't believe we've had participation from the officers in the Roanoke Valley but perhaps we should. Some of your reporting, I'm realizing that there may be an extension of this and a task force ought to potentially expand into the Roanoke Valley," said Heaphy.

Officer Price mentioned the need for a regional task force during our interview with her in July.

Heaphy says there's a difference in types of human trafficking---- people being sold into prostitution or forced labor and those going somewhere with the promise of immigration status. He said stopping both are a priority but the more pressing issue is forced labor or forced prostitution.

ICE wasn't available for an interview.

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