LONOKE, Ark. – Arkansas law enforcement officers say they are seeing a major spike in internet crimes against children, which in some cases turns into sex trafficking.
When there’s no end to a road in sight, an interstate connects the coasts into a world of traffic you see and traffic you don’t.
“There are so many different types of human trafficking,” Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant James Hall said.
It’s the vicious cycle of used and abused.
“They are battered women, they’re drug-addicted, a lot of them started out as at-risk juveniles,” LCSO Sergeant Anthony Counts explained. “Some of the prostitutes are actually human-trafficking victims.”
Counts is assigned to Street Crimes, the unit’s mission is to prevent and stop crime.
Street Crimes Lieutenant James Hall said Lonoke County could be considered the perfect spot for people to try and hide trafficked victims.
“Look, small hotel right here, conspicuous,” Hall described of the area. “We got a couple gas stations, a Sonic, your gas stations also have your food that’s in there as well.”
He explained that for traffickers, it’s all about staying under the radar and off surveillance cameras.
“Perfect to people who are doing the trafficking because they don’t want to be seen,” he said.
“It’s all about watching and observing.”
At just before 7 p.m., the hunt is on. The Street Crimes Unit is at a hotel where Counts said he recently busted a sex offender on drug charges.
“We rolled through the parking lot looking for drug activity, and we ran a license plate that returned to a sex offender that lives in Cabot,” Counts recalled. “And that’s like, ‘Why is he at a hotel staying there?’”
Counts was in an unmarked police truck, with a partner on the other side of the parking lot. They’re looking for people acting suspicious.
“There’s a maroon Dodge Ram, black after-market wheels. It has an occupant just sitting in it,” Counts says into the radio, noting how the truck’s driver has their attention.
“There’s a person sitting in the passenger seat right there. Just sitting there,” he explained. “And again, he may have somebody — he could be riding with somebody that’s visiting a friend real quick. It could something totally innocent or it could be a whole laundry list of other things.”
After some quick investigating, the license plate comes back clean. It’s not stolen and the owner has no priors. Counts has no reason to ring the alarm because eventually the guy purchases a hotel room.
“It’s all about watching and observing. Waiting. Patience,” he said.
Counts noted that he’s looking for people who may have entered into one room repeatedly.
“Look for vehicles showing up, people getting out and going into a room, several, over a period of time,” he said. “Several different people, going into the same room and leaving.”
“I’m about to intercept.”
As night sets in, Counts heads to a gas station off Highway 67/167 not far from Interstate 40. As he waits, Counts sees something. His partner circles the parking lot as a white Focus drives away.
“Hey, follow it out,” Counts radios, before catching up and also beginning to follow the car.
“Even though we drive unmarked – sometimes they recognize our vehicles,” he said.
Counts asked dispatch to run the license plate, waiting to hear a response as the car pulls into a shopping center parking lot.
“I’m about to intercept. I’m about to get a good look at the occupants,” Counts said into the radio.
After the car passes by, dispatch provides details on the license plate – “He’s a registered S.O. – in compliance.” S.O. stands for sex offender.
Now Counts and his partner wait and observe.
“So, this is where that – not necessarily probable cause yet, but where reasonable suspicion starts to build,” he said.
Counts and his partner wait for the two in the car to go into the store.
“When they go inside, I’m going to pull up and take a look around their car — so if there’s any paraphernalia or anything in the open,” he planned out loud.
The two occupants of the car head into the store, giving Counts a chance to walk to the car to see if he can spot anything suspicious.
“I’m not seeing anything of interest,” he said.
The night is getting late, moving out of prime hours, so his team moves on.
“We come to work every day and we put our heart,” Counts said. “We go to bed thinking about the cases we’re working on.”
The unit keeps up the surveillance, watching the clock tick, knowing each passing car could be a case of trafficking and a victim waiting to be seen.
“It’s because I care,” Counts said. “Being a voice for someone who can’t have a voice for themselves.”