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Sex Trafficking

But Have ‘Only Scratched the Surface’

Maria Francavilla, left, and Lisa Principe speak about their daughters' experiences Jan. 31. Photo by Kyle Barr

Two mothers, one from Farmingville and the other from Merrick, may live on different parts of Long Island, but both had very similar experiences, watching their daughters abused in sex trafficking schemes that saw men use drugs to keep their children captive.

Photos of Maria Francavilla’s and Lisa Principe’s daughters. Photo by Kyle Barr

Lisa Principe and Maria Francavilla spoke of their experiences Jan. 31 at a Suffolk County Police Department press conference in Yaphank to round off National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. 

Principe said her daughter, Jenna, went to school at Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore. She said her daughter fell in love with a man who ended up taking advantage of her in the extreme. She was gang raped at only 19 years old, as her “initiation.” She was kept in motels with a number of other girls as her pimps used her addiction to drugs to keep her under control. She would spend time in and out of jail, but as soon as she got out the traffickers were there to pick her up and bring her back into the fold. 

“They took her soul,” Principe said. Even after the men keeping her were arrested, Jenna would later die at 27 from an overdose at home. 

Though her hardship remains, she said she hopes new initiatives from the police will help combat the slew of sex trafficking cases happening all across the Island, targeting potential victims on the internet, in public places or even around schools.  

Jennifer Hernandez, the executive director of the nonprofit Empowerment Collaborative of Long Island, which provides trauma services for victims of human trafficking and other abuse, said they have worked with more than 160 victims of trafficking just this past year.

“Most of which were born and raised right here on Long Island — in Suffolk County.” she said.

Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said the biggest misconception about sex trafficking is that it’s men piling people, mostly immigrants, into the back of trucks and taking them away. Modern sex trafficking happens to people of all walks, immigrants and native-born Long Islanders. Traffickers take vulnerable people, mostly young women, and use a combination of drugs, violence and other emotional manipulation to control these women. There’s no single place, police said, whether rich or poor, that sex trafficking isn’t happening. The epidemic is tied to the opioid crisis that still rages in communities across the Island.

Since October of 2017, the police’s human trafficking unit has leveraged 417 charges against individuals, with 186 she said were specifically related to sex trafficking. The police has interacted with and identified over 220 women involved with trafficking since the beginning of the initiative, with the youngest one being only 12 years old.

Still with those numbers, Detective Lt. Frank Messana, the commanding officer of the department’s human trafficking unit, said they have “only scratched the surface.”

On Jan. 25, Kings Park man and alleged Bloods gang member Abiodun “Abi” Adeleke was sentenced to 25 years in prison for multiple counts of sex trafficking. He allegedly participated in this ring from 2014-18.

Last year, Sound Beach man Raymond Rodio III was arrested for allegedly hosting a sex trafficking ring at his parent’s house on Lower Rocky Point Road. Police and the county district attorney said he had preyed on more than 20 women over several years, most from Suffolk, with many floating in and out from the man’s basement apartment as his parent’s home located in a relatively middle-class neighborhood.

Lt. Frank Messana of the police’s human trafficking unit speaks alongside commissioner Geraldine Hart. Photo by Kyle Barr

Rodio’s investigation originally began in 2018 when an officer witnessed a suspected victim of trafficking in the alleged perpetrator’s car during a traffic stop. Hart said such awareness and education, for not only police officers but the general public, is doing much of the job of finding and arresting sex traffickers.

In October 2017, police first piloted its human trafficking program, which then became permanent in 2018. The commissioner said in the year prior to the unit being formed, there hadn’t been any examples of sex trafficking arrests.

In 2019, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office started a human trafficking unit to work inside the county jails. Undersheriff Kevin Catalina said the team of officers look to identify human trafficking victims within the jail. While women are in jail for a stint, officers can get them to “open up.” Many, he said, could not even identify they were victims of trafficking, instead thinking these people were their “boyfriends.”

Francavilla had a similar experience to Principe. Her daughter, Tori, fell in with the wrong people early out of high school. She described it got to the point that her daughter was, “handcuffed to a bed and kept captive.”

She would eventually help put the perpetrator away but, like Jenna, the opioid addiction followed her even after her traumatic experiences. She died when she was 24.

Police said a person is at-risk or is already a victim of trafficking if they start to show behavior of chronically running away from home or having a history of unstable housing, demonstrates inability to regularly attend school or work, exhibits bruises or other physical trauma, withdrawn behavior, signs of drug or alcohol addiction, inconsistencies in their stories, inappropriate dress, a mention of a pimp, “daddy” or being “in the life,” suspected engaging in prostitution, history of pregnancies, abortions or sexually transmitted diseases, and looking as if they worked excessively long hours.

Identifying such a person, a resident should call 911 in an emergency, or contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS (8477). 

People can find more information and resources at the ECLI at www.empowerli.org.

For more information about Suffolk County’s public information initiative, visit https://scatili.org/

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The house where Raymond Rodio III allegedly committed acts of sex trafficking. Photo by Kyle Barr

A Sound Beach man who was arrested last year for sex trafficking pled guilty Feb. 4. He is set to be sentenced in March and faces what could be more than nine years in prison.

The Suffolk County district attorney announced Raymond Rodio III pled guilty to several counts of sex trafficking, selling drugs and several counts of promoting prostitution. 

Police and prosecutors said Rodio had been conducting a human trafficking operation in the basement apartment of his parent’s house located on Lower Rocky Point Road in Sound Beach, in which police said they identified more than 20 victims who had been moved through that house. Rodio engaged in drug sales, including heroin and crack cocaine, and used those drugs to keep better control of his victims, which he pimped out in motels around Long Island.

“This is an individual who clearly had no regard for the women he victimized, subjecting them to exploitation, fear and humiliation,” District Attorney Tim Sini (D) said after the defense’s guilty plea was read out. “It is our hope that this guilty plea delivers justice for the many survivors of Rodio’s scheme.”

Police also said Rodio would keep women in that basement for an extended period of time, forcing them to use a bucket as a toilet since there was no bathroom in the apartment. The Sound Beach man would post advertisements on websites, including Backpage and Craigslist, promoting prostitution by the victims and would keep either a large percentage or all of the profits of their prostitution.

Rodio’s attorney is listed as Scott Gross, a Garden City-based criminal defense attorney. Gross did not return calls for request for comment.

Police originally started investigating Rodio after a Suffolk County police officer noticed a suspected victim of trafficking in his car during a routine traffic stop in August 2018. The man was later arrested in March 2019 after an investigation found a score of other victims.

Rodio is scheduled to be sentenced by Acting Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Mark Cohen March 9. The court promised the defendant a 9½-year with five years of postrelease supervision on the top count. He will also be required to register as a sex offender upon his release from prison.

The house on Lower Rocky Point Road in Sound Beach, a relatively quiet, two-lane road that parallels the North Shore coastline is somehow indicative of comfortable, suburban living. The house is quaint and the front yard is loaded with lawn ornaments. Now there’s something hauntingly disturbing at the sight of it.

On April 25, the Suffolk County district attorney announced a multicount indictment of a resident of that Sound Beach house, Raymond Rodio III, for allegedly keeping over 20 women in a cycle of drugs and prostitution over several years, often using that basement for activities related to that prostitution. The parents said they didn’t know. Comments from community members online were similarly flummoxed. Nobody expected a story like that to come from such a neighborhood.

Nobody ever does.

Everyone knows about the opioid epidemic. It’s said you don’t have to stick your arm out too far before you brush against someone who has been impacted by the crisis. For years it has ravaged Long Island, and only with concerted and multiyear efforts from community activists, journalists and policymakers are we finally starting to make efforts from the ground level up. Local legislators and school districts continually host Narcan training courses to aid overdose cases, and with the New York State budget, an expanded access to medication-assisted treatment has become available in both the hospital and jail settings.

Residents have commented online there are houses they suspect are involved in drug dealing, but why would anybody expect that this case also has allegedly been involved in human trafficking?

That’s just the thing — perhaps people need to be more alert to prevent these crimes.

Rodio was allegedly operating this illicit scheme for five years or maybe even longer. He got away with it for that long only until thankfully during an unrelated traffic stop an officer recognized that the woman passenger in Rodio’s car showed signs of being in a forced prostitution situation. 

Prostitution? On the North Shore? Yes, it does happen here, and it doesn’t just take place in seedy motels or in illicit massage parlor operations. It happens at reputable hotels, and online, through well-known websites like craigslist or on dating apps like Tinder. It’s likely that people as young as 15 years are involved. These sex traffickers often recruit online through social media or find young women with poor family lives or with existing drug problems.

It can happen anywhere. The case in Sound Beach more than proves it.

It’s time for parents and teachers to learn about this issue, one that has only grown with the opioid epidemic. Children need to learn the dangers beyond drugs, and adults should learn the warning signs to notice young women who might be involved in these truly horrific situations.

Many North Shore communities have continued to step up in the overwhelming face of the opioid crisis. We can take a stand against this issue as well.

Jeans placed in the Safe Center LI Bethpage headquarters in recognition of National Denim Day which looks to support survivors of sexual violence. Photo by Kyle Barr

This post is in regards to a story published on April 25 about Raymond Radio III, who allegedly ran a sex trafficking ring in his parents’ house located in Sound Beach.

The house on Lower Rocky Point Road that allegedly was used by Raymond Rodio III for sex trafficking is well known in the community for its multitudes of colorful lawn ornaments. For residents of the small North Shore hamlet, with a population barely over 7,500, reactions on social media ranged from disbelief to outrage. 

But sex trafficking has become a growing front for those linked to the illicit drug trade, and according to those who try and work with those who have been victims of sex trafficking, the trade is well-linked to the middle-class suburban areas of Long Island.

The house where Raymond Rodio III allegedly committed acts of sex trafficking. Photo by Kyle Barr

Emily Waters is the director of Human Trafficking Programs at The Safe Center LI, a Bethpage nonprofit that assists the survivors of drug addiction, domestic abuse, child abuse and other issues. She said the issue of sex trafficking has only escalated in recent years, due in part to the opioid crisis that has killed millions across the nation. The center is currently involved with more than 130 human trafficking cases on Long Island, including minors and adults involved in sex and labor, but cases like the one in Sound Beach, she said, are extremely common. 

Waters said these human traffickers, often called pimps, use drug addiction as a means of control of these people, mostly women. She said the average age for these young women is 14 or 15 years old, though she has personally been involved, in the United States, with cases of one as young as 9 years old.

“A victim can look like anyone,” Waters said. “Could be anyone from a high socioeconomic background to somebody who’s living in poverty.”

Worse, sex trafficking has become, in many cases, a more profitable business for criminals. Keith Scott, the director of education at the Safe Center, said a pimp could make upwards of $280,000 a year, and that the practice is often harder to prosecute on the polices’ end.

In 2017, the Suffolk County Police Department, at the time headed by Sini, launched a pilot program to go after human traffickers, according to the DA’s office. In 2018, Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart adopted the Human Trafficking Investigations Unit while the DA launched its own team to track human traffickers.

For years, human trafficking has been growing as an issue. Data from the New York National Human Trafficking Hotline show there have been more than 6,400 calls and more than 2,000 cases of sex trafficking for New York since 2007. The vast majority of these are sex trafficking, and the vast majority are with women.

A 2017 report by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health said the top sex trafficking venues are commercial-front brothels (with legitimate businesses up front and illegal sex work in the back), online advertising venues such as craigslist and hotel- or motel-based venues.

Those who have worked to get people treatment understand the issue has grown on Long Island, people like Joe Czulada, a graduate of the Riverhead school district and Riverhead resident until recently who moved with his wife to Brooklyn, where she operates a funeral home. Czulada worked as an interventionist, helping to put people into recovery for about five years. He saw the way the opioid epidemic was tied to the illicit sex trafficking industry. What he saw was mostly young women from small hamlets, those who were often addicted to drugs, and whose pimps used that addiction as leverage against them.

“It’s prevalent, it’s become ever more prevalent, the whole industry,” Czulada said. “It’s everywhere, in every small town here on Long Island.”

The work was emotionally draining, especially in seeing people go in and out of recovery, often ending up back on the street or back with the people who abused.

Cases of sex trafficking with prostitutes over the age of consent require proving a form of cohesion. Many cases, like the alleged one of Rodio, come in the form of what Waters called the “chemical tether,” or the trauma bonding between a trafficker and victim. The pimps often come in two forms, ones who expressly use violence to maintain control, and the others who first get the trust of girls, often abusing their need for affection if they come from affectionless backgrounds, and then hooking them on drugs in the process. Scott said opioids are often used, especially in modern cases of sex trafficking, because it makes those victims more docile. Stimulants, like cocaine, are also used often. Those sex traffickers use the threat of withholding drugs as cohesion. In many cases, the pimps will effectively brand women with tattoos, which can range from the pimp’s name to words like “whore,” effectively reducing their chance of being able to get employment if they wished to escape the life.

A patchwork quilt hung up in the Safe Center LI’s headquarters in Bethpage. Photo by Kyle Barr

The biggest misconception when it comes to sex trafficking is that it only happens to those in poverty. Cases like the one alleged in Sound Beach show just how tangible the reality is for middle-class areas. And in the age of the Internet, pimps also find these victims through social media, luring in these young women through the promise of affection and drugs. Waters said recruitment also often occurs at schools. Often sex work is sold through online websites, such as craigslist, but she said it also occurs at more than 20 other websites, and even on mobile dating apps such as Tinder.

Beyond that, it takes a campaign of education, starting with local schools, to keep the community informed. It takes people knowledgeable about the warning signs, and a need for people to call the police if they suspect someone is engaged in sex trafficking.

“People may not know what they’ve seen, but they’ve seen something,” said Scott, who grew up in Smithtown and currently lives in Kings Park. He knows the North Shore and said despite its prototypical sense of suburbia and pockets of wealth, residents need to understand what issues creep into the smallest of residential neighborhoods. 

“People often don’t want to realize it’s going on in their own backyard,” he said.