First person: Inside the local fight against human trafficking

On a dark winter morning, Brian Vigneaux maneuvers his car through Cleveland’s eastern neighborhoods. The first part of his surveillance excursion focuses on obtaining information on a couple of suspected pimp’s houses. A retired FBI agent, Vigneaux chose to keep his golf clubs in the closet and become the investigator for the human trafficking unit in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office a couple of years ago.

He likes to call himself “The Pimp Hunter.”

He’s earned the moniker, having already arrested or collaborated in the arrest of several particularly vicious predators, known as “gorilla pimps” because they regularly beat their victims. Getting them off the street will spare any number of women and children who’ve been forced into prostitution from their unimaginable abuse. For many, however, it won’t end the horrors they’ve experienced. The majority face a lifetime of recovery from their addictions and PTSD.

Battling the sobering statistics

Worldwide, human trafficking, which includes both forced sex and labor, is the second largest criminal enterprise after the illegal narcotics industry, averaging $150 billion earned annually and victimizing more than 20.9 million people, including roughly 300,000 minors. It happens in every country across the globe and every state in America. Pimps long ago figured out that they can only sell a drug once, but they can sell a human body again and again, making it that much more profitable.

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s 2016 statistics, Ohio ranks fourth in volume of their hotline calls, after California, Texas and Florida and ahead of New York. One report claims sex trafficking makes up 88 percent of all human trafficking in Ohio.
Fortunately, our state and region have become savvier and more aggressive in addressing the crime, while other cities and states lag behind in even acknowledging it. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was enacted in 2000, but Ohio did not pass a law against the offense (Senate Bill 235) until 2010. That allowed law enforcement and prosecutors to take action. After recording the county’s first conviction for human trafficking in January of 2014, Holly Welsh, a prosecutor specializing in human trafficking cases for Cuyahoga County, has put away several pimps busted by Vigneaux and crew.

Cleveland is also fortunate to have the Renee Jones Empowerment Center on West 65th Street, where the deeply compassionate and innovative Jones has been building an expansive recovery program for victims since 2002. Today, she is recognized nationally as a leader in community outreach efforts to rescue victims from the streets, and then give them the support, training and therapeutic activities to overcome their trauma and reclaim their lives. Programs range from health classes with doctors from a recent partnership with The MetroHealth System to much-loved horseback riding adventures at Fieldstone Farm Therapeutic Riding Center.

Victimizing the vulnerable

I’m learning a lot about this insidious social cancer while riding with the affable but intense Vigneaux, who’s seen it all, as they say. Trafficking, he notes, starts with pimps who know how to leverage their victims’ vulnerabilities: low self-esteem, poverty, drug addiction. They promise them money, but pay in bling or heroin and a miserly amount of food or other necessities. Often, the women share clothing: sweatpants when they’re off and “dating clothes” when they’re on. Some of the victims, mostly women, often minors, get so addicted that the only compensation they demand is enough dope to avoid drug withdrawal and sickness.

But Vigneaux offers up some good news as well. After fostering collaborative efforts to combat human trafficking for the past couple of years, Cuyahoga County began rolling out a new region-wide task force earlier this year. Thus far it includes the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Homeland Security, Cleveland FBI and the Independence, Middleburg Heights, North Olmsted and Solon police departments, along with close relationships with the Cleveland Police Sex Crimes Unit, the Westlake Police Department, Cleveland Rape Crisis Center and others. They hope to continue adding area organizations and police departments to the roster.

“Police agencies and social services are more aware of the flags that indicate the possibility of trafficking,” Vigneaux explains. “They now have access to a group of investigators that can assist them in uncovering and prosecuting these operations.”

Close to home

The second part of my ride-along was partially to convince me that human trafficking is located everywhere, including a couple residences within a mile radius of my house. Most people don’t believe the problem is in their own back yard because they either don’t want to believe it, or they are completely oblivious. After all, it’s not easy to identify trafficking if you don’t know what to look for. It becomes more visible with a little education, which is exactly what Karen Walsh remains driven to provide today — more than ten years after founding the Collaborative to End Human Trafficking with Sr. Toby Lardie.
<span class="content-image-text">6th Annual Human Trafficking Awareness Program at Cleveland City Hall</span>6th Annual Human Trafficking Awareness Program at Cleveland City Hall 
“Our mission is to educate and advocate for the prevention and abolition of trafficking, while connecting services on behalf of trafficked victims,” says Walsh of her organization. That mission includes raising public awareness, educating hospitality personnel, and connecting Greater Cleveland law enforcement with social service agencies. Last year, they rolled out the Happens Here Too campaign before the RNC. While trafficking typically has an uptick before large public events, she adds, one of the lessons they’ve learned is it happens 24/7/365.

“Our work continues to evolve,” she says. “This is really a generational change, because the crime isn’t new, but we’re changing how we look at an old reality.”

A coordinated effort ... and a cupcake

Additionally, the Collaborative acts as the lead coordinator for the dozens of agencies and organizations that comprise the Greater Cleveland’s Coordinated Response to Human Trafficking initiative. The team includes more than 30 members, from Bellefaire JCB Homeless and Missing Youth and the Salvation Army of Greater Cleveland to the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association and University Hospitals.

<span class="content-image-text">Human trafficking cases in Ohio</span>Human trafficking cases in OhioTapping into funding provided by the Ohio Attorney General’s office, Maureen Guirguis (formerly Kenny) co-directs the CWRU School of Law Human Trafficking Law Project. Launched last year, the initiative features a law clinic that provides legal services to juvenile and adult victims, educational awareness programs and legislative reform to eliminate antiquated laws that recognize “child prostitution” — something enlightened legal professionals see as an oxymoron that criminalizes victims. As president of the Renee Jones Empowerment Center, she has also partnered with Jones to develop a survivor training certification program to foster the participants’ recovery by teaching them how to share their stories publicly.

Cuyahoga County now also has a Safe Harbor Court, which was founded in 2015 and is overseen by Judge Denise Rini, to treat victims who are minors in a more compassionate, decriminalized way. For adults, Judge Marilyn Cassidy initiated the Human Trafficking Specialized Docket court in the fall of 2014. Last November, she held a “graduation” ceremony at Massimo Da Milano’s restaurant to celebrate the first woman who had completed the two-year program and half a dozen others who were half-way through and expect to graduate this year.

What can you do to help? Walsh suggests visiting the Collaborative’s website to become educated in possible signs of trafficking and how to respond. And while social problems don’t usually come with appetizing options, thanks to Abolition Bakery, the brainchild of Cleveland culinary artist Rita Ballenger, you can buy cupcakes and other goodies to help the cause. Her goal is to enhance awareness of trafficking, while donating a portion of the proceeds to these organizations serving victims.

Christopher Johnston
Christopher Johnston

About the Author: Christopher Johnston

Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor,, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at Cleveland State University. He wrote The Way I Saw It, the memoirs of Marc Wyse, co-founder of Wyse Advertising. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) will be published in February 2018.