Modern-day slavery in Charlotte and the challenges Feds face fighting it

The underground world of human trafficking

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The word slavery has a way of evoking certain images. For many, faded photographs of a time long ago come to mind. But while the methods may have changed, slavery is still alive and well in Charlotte.

WBTV sat down with a sex-trafficking survivor who was just 17 when she was shuffled from man to man as property, not a person. She asked to remain anonymous.

"It seems like they're not putting a gun to your head to stay there, but it's like there's already a gun to your head to stay there," the woman said.

The woman says the things she experienced are hard to imagine for most but she doesn't want anyone to even try.

"Nobody wants to feel like a sex slave. Nobody wants to sit there and feel like a man can touch me whenever they want and just play on me like a basketball," she said.

This nightmare is a reality for countless women across Charlotte, many of them coming to United States awaiting the American dream. The victim we spoke to fled the civil war in Sierra Leone as a refugee.

"It's like someone telling you you're fixing to win a million dollars and that million dollars never came," she said.

So how did a 17-year-old end up in the hands a sex traffickers? She says she had no where else to go. They offered a roof over her head and meals in exchange for her freedom.

"It's 150 per hour, it's 200 per hour. I did what I did to survive," she said.

Christopher Healy is resident agent in charge of Charlotte's Homeland Security Investigations.

"There is a problem here. When you go into the locations that we've rescued these victims out of and you look at the paraphernalia there, it is absolutely disgusting and rough what these woman and men and children have gone through," Healy said.

Healy says for these women, running isn't an option.

"If you run and you have a child, we'll kill your child. If you have family that assisted you in a foreign country, we know where they live. We'll hurt your family," Healy said, describing how the traffickers intimidate their victims.

The survivor we spoke with says she experienced that trapped feeling first-hand.

"He already told me he had a gun in the closet. This man could decide to come and shoot me and nobody would even look for me," she said.

That thankfully did not happen to the victim. She was rescued by HSI agents and her trafficker convicted. But that's rare.

In the past five years the US Attorney's Office in the Western District of North Carolina has only prosecuted and convicted five sex trafficking cases. Compare that to the hundreds of victims Charlotte's non-governmental organizations say they've helped in the same time frame.

Healy says the problem lies with the fear traffickers instill in their victims. If they don't agree to testify, Healy says there is no case.

"Without the testimony of these victims, we're done. So it's a courageous act on their part too, to relive this nightmare on a stand or in the grand jury," Healy said.

The victim we spoke with took the risk. The reward is that her trafficker spending the next 25 years behind bars, a prisoner, just as she had once been.

"Sometimes, standing up for the right thing might cost you your life but I feel like somebody got to stand up," she said.

HSI agents say many of the trafficking organizations working in the area are based in Charlotte.

Copyright 2015 WBTV. All rights reserved.