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Modern-Day Slavery

The dirty business of sex trafficking in the Mid-South.



Slavery was legally abolished when the 13th Amendment was signed into the United States Constitution in 1865. However, 150 years later, nearly 21 million people around the world — 5.5 million under the age of 18 — are still being trafficked for sexual, occupational, and bodily labor, according to the International Labour Organization's 2012 Estimate of Forced Labour report.

The illegal practice generates up to $32 billion in annual profits, according to the National Association of Attorneys General. This makes it the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world, behind illegal drug distribution, and also the fastest growing.

The ILO reports that 4.5 million of the enslaved workers are victims of forced sexual exploitation — more than 90 percent of them women and girls.

Although many presume it's a scourge that occurs primarily in other countries, human trafficking has a significant presence in the United States, and the Mid-South is one of its hotspots.

Shelia Simpkins knows this firsthand.

At the age of 6, Simpkins was sexually abused. Her mother forced her to perform fellatio on one of her male friends.

"She told me to suck it like it was a lollipop," Simpkins candidly remembers.

This would be the first of many deplorable acts that Simpkins would experience. Until she was 14, she was repeatedly abused sexually by several of her mother's male friends. She eventually ran away from home.

While living on the street, Simpkins met a charming 19-year-old man who offered to provide her with a safe place to stay. She would even begin to view him as a boyfriend.

He was a pimp, who, shortly after providing Simpkins with lodging, manipulated her into prostitution so she could provide them with money for food and drugs.

By her 18th birthday, Simpkins was addicted to "freebasing" cocaine and crank (a powder form of crystallized methamphetamine).

After managing to escape from her situation, she began to work at the now-defunct Memphis strip club King of Clubs. It was there that she met another man who sold her drugs. He was also a pimp, and Simpkins ended up in debt to him. He forced her into prostitution as a means of paying him back. He would ultimately traffic Simpkins, along with several other girls, around the country.

"Some people, they didn't understand. I truly didn't want to be in that situation," Simpkins says. "Every time I would leave, he'd come find me. I don't know how he'd find me, but he'd come find me."

For nearly a decade, Simpkins was trafficked from Memphis to Nashville, Washington, D.C., Anaheim, California, Orlando, Salt Lake City, El Paso, and Las Vegas.

She would work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day of the week. Her nightly quota was $1,000. She was brutally beaten if she didn't meet it.

"My head looks like a road map from all the scars," Simpkins says. "I've been beaten with six-inch stilettos, a piece of iron, wood. I've been duct-taped."

She estimates she saw 10 to 12 men a night, unless she was fortunate enough to meet a trick who would give her a large sum of money. She says fear and addiction kept her trapped.

After enrolling in the Magdalene program, a residential rehab center for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction, Simpkins has managed to overcome her addictions and her sex-trafficking past. She now works for Magdalene and counsels many of its residents.

Kimberly Benson is another victim of sex trafficking. The daughter of an alcoholic father and a mother who'd been raped multiple times in her youth, Benson felt the after-effects of what she considers "a generational curse" growing up.

At 18, she moved out of her mother's home and became friends with a woman who was a few years older. They became roommates.

"She was everything I needed," Benson said. "She was a friend. She was a confidante. She would take me shopping."

One day, Benson's roommate asked her to attend a party. While there, Benson engaged in a drinking contest with one of the men that spiraled out of control.

"I'm 18, and I've never drunk before," Benson says. "I passed out in the bathroom, and, when I woke up, there were used condoms all over — at least two dozen."

When Benson crawled into the living room, she noticed everyone had left, including her roommate. When she arrived back at their apartment, lots of new clothes were laid across her bed. Her roommate convinced Benson that the party was just a party.

A couple of weeks later, her roommate urged her to attend another party.

"I told her that I didn't want to go to another party with guys, because I didn't want the same thing to happen," Benson says. "It was just girls, at first, and we were having a good time. Then two big guys came in. My heart sunk. I watched them hand [my roommate] a big wad of money, and then they grabbed me and took me and the other girls with them."

Benson was sold by her roommate and transported to downtown Chicago, where she worked as a prostitute, along with the other girls. Benson was able to escape after six months, when her traffickers left her alone one day.

Benson now runs A Bridge of Hope Ministries, an organization that provides resources to help restore the lives of adults who were trafficked, drug-addicted, incarcerated, or abused.

Simpkins and Benson are only two of many who have engaged in commercial sex acts for the financial benefit of another person. They were able to escape that life, but there are many more who are still trapped in this form of modern-day slavery.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's 2011 Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking Study, 78 out of 95 counties in the state reported at least one case of human sex trafficking in the 24 months of the study.

Shelby County was among four counties that reported more than 100 cases of adult and minor sex trafficking. The other three counties were Davidson, Coffee, and Knox.

Alarmingly, according to Margie Quin, coordinator of the study, 79 percent of the participating counties said they didn't think their departments were adequately trained to recognize human trafficking, meaning the study may have only touched the surface of the scale of minors and adults being trafficked in Tennessee.

"What we've been focused on for the past 20 months is a robust training program for first responders," says Quin, an assistant special agent for the TBI. "We have trained about 4,600 first responders. We've rolled it out to law enforcement and the department of children's services. We've [also] been talking with nonprofits and nongovernment organizations in an attempt to bring everybody to the table that really needs to be there [to deal with] human trafficking. It's not a problem that any single entity can solve on its own."

Edward Stanton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, says there's been significantly more cases indicted and prosecuted in West Tennessee than any other part of the state. The bulk of these cases can be attributed to the civil rights unit Stanton formed, which places strong emphasis on combating sex trafficking.

"We have roughly 12 cases that we've prosecuted or are pending," Stanton says. "This office is one of the leaders of the more than 90 federal districts across the country in human-trafficking cases prosecuted and pending prosecutions."

One recent case that Stanton's office has dealt with involves Memphis rapper Osbie Antonio Sea, better known by his rap alias, "Mr. Money." He was arrested in April for allegedly trafficking a 14-year-old girl he met in a Raleigh Kmart. Sea posted ads for the juvenile on the advertising website If convicted, Sea faces a minimum of 15 years.

Another recent high-profile case being prosecuted by the U.S. attorney involves Terrence Yarbrough, also known as T-Rex. According to federal prosecutors, Yarbrough is a pimp who ran a national human-trafficking ring. He's accused of violently forcing eight women — a couple of them mothers of his children — and four teens into prostitution.

In December 2012, Yarbrough was found guilty on 10 of 12 counts for sex trafficking, along with one count of conspiracy to commit food-stamp fraud. Currently awaiting sentencing, he faces a minimum of 15 years.

"For victims who are 14 and under, the defendants are looking at mandatory minimums of 15 years to life," Stanton says. "[For victims] who are over the age of 14, up to 18 and thereafter, they are looking at mandatory minimums of 10 years to life under the federal statutes."

Sex trafficking is often stereotyped as a problem plaguing the African-American community. Kala Bray, a teen from Bartlett, belies that myth. Along with her accomplice, Vincent Jones, Bray lured Memphis-area teenagers — a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old — to Houston, with promises of a trip to a water park. After posting ads for them on, Bray and Jones drugged the juveniles and forced them to engage in commercial sex acts in Memphis and in Houston.

In October 2012, Bray was sentenced to 14 years in prison for conspiracy to engage in child sex-trafficking. In March, Jones was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy to engage in child sex-trafficking and sex-trafficking by force, fraud, and coercion.

"Sex trafficking cuts across socioeconomic lines and racial lines," Stanton says. "The cases that we've had span from the inner city of Memphis to the rural areas around Memphis. [But] all have been documented to make thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in the sex-trafficking industry."

"I come in contact with rape victims, trafficking victims, juvenile prostitutes, and adult prostitutes every day," says Suzanna Parkinson, sexual assault intervention specialist for the Shelby County Rape Crisis Center. "In the case of trafficking victims, the key is to try to identify them when they're brought here. They often don't self-identify for a variety of reasons. It's the equivalent of being brainwashed. These young women oftentimes start out running away from some situation at home. They are easily coerced. They are easily seduced. They think they're in love with their trafficker, so they're not going to reveal their circumstances when they come."

The internet has become a popular tool for sex trafficking. Classified advertising website has received scrutiny over the last couple years for allegedly being a forum for sex trafficking of juveniles and adults online.

"A lot of these pimps now are able to hide behind the internet, particularly It's something we see very often," Stanton said. "[Postings on the internet] are how we're able to track a lot of these victims, get them the help they need, and, quite frankly, the evidence that we need to prosecute cases."

In spite of the hundreds of sex-trafficking cases established across the country from information acquired on, owned by Village Voice Media, Liz McDougall, general counsel for the site, doesn't agree with the notion that it's the primary outlet for individuals trafficking juveniles and adults.

"As with any website that allows third-party content, this is a potential issue," McDougall says. "It's an issue for Google, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo.

"If you're just looking at ads [on] and can say, 'This is an ad for prostitution,' then law enforcement wouldn't have to do stings to determine whether or not it's actually an ad for prostitution and to convict," McDougall says.

McDougall says all ads submitted by users go through an automated filter to identify and remove any that may indicate illegal activity. She said more than 36,000 words and phrases are filtered to determine whether or not they're potentially linked to sex trafficking. The adult ads subsequently receive an additional review by staff.

Bartlett state representative Jim Coley has been an avid supporter of anti-trafficking bills in Tennessee. He's helped introduce several bills that have brought stiffer penalties for traffickers, as well as more outreach to victims.

"When the TBI released the report on human trafficking, my eyes were opened to the reality of the situation here," Coley says. "I knew then that our state needed to make drastic changes in the law to go after the traffickers and purchasers of the victims."

Twelve anti-human-trafficking bills were recently passed in the General Assembly and will take effect in July, making Tennessee one of the leading states with regard to anti-trafficking laws. Prosecutors will now be able to charge and convict those who purchase commercial sex from minors. They could face up to 15 years for such an offense.

Further, under the new statutes, defendants can no longer use ignorance of the age of a minor as a defense for soliciting of a minor. There will also be a human-trafficking task force, which will determine future policies and services provided to victims. The task force will include members from the TBI, Sheriff's Association, Department of Human Resources, and Children Services, among others.

Anyone who suspects sex trafficking will be able to report their concerns to the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-55-TNHTH.

There will also be enhanced training of law enforcement officers and other entities to recognize trafficking victims, and more organizations are being established that center on combatting this form of modern-day slavery.

"For someone to think that they can exert their will, power, dominion over another human being and treat them as property, solely for financial profit, is something that's unacceptable," Stanton says. "I want to ensure that victims know that they have a place where they can come and seek justice to get out of these situations."

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