‘Albany, itself, is a hub’: A deeper look into human trafficking

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Published: Jun. 28, 2021 at 5:38 PM EDT
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ALBANY, Ga. (WALB) - Human trafficking is something that continues to happen across the globe and even here in the City of Albany.

This investigative report all started after family and community members of missing mothers Jessica Vanzant Dietzel and Ciera Odenthal believed the two could have been part of human trafficking.

Police don’t believe the two cases are related and both are still open investigations.

However, WALB News 10 took a deeper dive into how big of an issue human trafficking is right here in our area.

An Albany mother and military wife, Leah Dee makes it her mission to bring awareness to human trafficking.

She took WALB News 10′s Bobby Poitevint to a hotel in the area where she believes human trafficking takes place.

“Any given day of the week, you can sit right here and watch it go down. You can watch the man on the corner watching, the girls in their rooms and the clients pull up,” she said.

Over the last two years, she believes she has rescued dozens of women in Albany alone.

Leah Dee believes she has rescued dozens of women in Albany alone over the past two years.
Leah Dee believes she has rescued dozens of women in Albany alone over the past two years. (source: WALB)

“I’ve seen things here in Albany that I didn’t even see in a big city such as San Diego,” she added.

She knew this was her calling after helping drug addicts get their lives back together.

However, she said one of her biggest concerns today is “there’s always that worry that the trafficker is gonna know that you’re coming to get his girl.”

Dee said another concern is when victims she has worked with don’t check in with her as they usually would.

“I just wonder what would be happening, why the girls wouldn’t be calling me because I do develop relationships with these girls. Some of these girls I’ve been talking to for over a year,” she said.

She said she can get several emergency calls in a week from those victims or go weeks without a call at all.

Those are some of the scarier moments for Leah.

Poitevint asked: ”do you ever carry any kind of weapons on you when you go out?”

“I mean, I’m not gonna give away all of my secrets,” Leah replied.

But is human trafficking rampant in the Albany area?

Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said “Albany, itself, is a hub for the southwest Georgia area.”

District Attorney Greg Edwards
District Attorney Greg Edwards(source: WALB)

He said there’s a method to the way predators pick their victims and it starts in public sight.

“Here we have a centralized location. We have an ample supply of hotels, motels,” he said.

Edwards added predators typically operate in broad daylight like at sporting events, malls, grocery stores, and more.

In the Albany area, it’s typically done in a system of three, starting off with a “Gorilla Pimp.”

This person is an older male who parties with young girls but uses blackmail, drugs violence and more to gain control of their victim.

Next, the “CEO Pimp” looks at sex trafficking as a business and promises riches and fame to the victim.

Lastly, the “Romeo Pimp”, promises love and affection. This person typically targets runaways or pushes the victim to run away.

Edwards said he’s seen this kind of activity right here in Dougherty County but not on a large scale.

He said the abusers could be based across the globe or right here in southwest Georgia and the victims are often teens.

“They take these different approaches to make contact with children and immigrants,” Edwards said.

One of the main problems, according to Edwards, is getting victims to talk.

He said they won’t come forward because they’ve been intimidated and conditioned by their abusers.

But identifying predators and victims is just a start. Prevention is also key and that starts with parents.

He said abusers prey on the victim’s needs that are often not met at home.

“Shower your children with love and affection, know what your children are involved with, know the things that they are engaged in, what their dreams are,” Edwards said.

Albany police also have a hand in prevention pushing parents to know what their child is up to, especially on social media.

”I have children myself. My children don’t have privacy until they move out of my house,” Det. Timothy Harvey said.

Det. Timothy Harvey
Det. Timothy Harvey(source: WALB)

The department sees a couple of cases each year that could lead to human trafficking.

Cases that land on the desk of investigators, like Harvey.

He agrees with Edwards, the hold-up to solving these cases is getting victims to open up.

“Being able to know that it’s going on is one thing being able to open an active investigation and a prosecution is a completely different ballgame,” said Harvey.

For Dee, this is also her full-time job.

Rescuing is something she doesn’t collect a single penny for.

She recently left her full-time job as a law enforcement transcriptionist to pursue helping survivors full time.

She said she’s thankful to have a family who supports her every step of the way even in the dark times after a rescue.

“I’ll have a good cry in the shower and you know I gotta come out and be a mom but that’s the reason I’m into this. Because I don’t want anyone’s daughter or anyone’s son to be a victim of human trafficking. I have two kids. I couldn’t imagine,” said Dee.

A top priority for the state’s highest law enforcement agency.

Fighting against human trafficking is a top priority for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), according to leaders with the bureau.

They told WALB News 10, right now, they’re looking into around 100 active cases in the Peach State.

Last year, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation opened their Human Exploitation And Trafficking Unit, or H.E.A.T, Unit.

Within days, they had numerous requests for help in investigations from across Georgia.

Some of those cases are right here in Albany but little about them can be talked about right now.

Assistant Director John Melvin
Assistant Director John Melvin(source: WALB)

”I’d like to talk to you in two months if I could. I can’t really get into open and ongoing investigations,” said Assistant Director John Melvin. “Evil exists and it’s everywhere and Albany is no exception.”

Although the H.E.A.T Unit is new, Melvin said they’ve been fighting human trafficking for years because around 85% of cases are drug-related.

He said the GBI is working hard with state, community, and local leaders on three aspects in combating human trafficking, prevention, investigation and recovery.

Melvin said he’s thankful for Gov. Brian Kemp’s and the Georgia Legislature’s progressive actions to fight against human trafficking in the Peach State.

He said right now, people need to realize it happens and more talks about prevention and awareness to occur.

If you know of someone who needs help, an area faith-based organization provides support for survivors.

You can contact Rahab’s Haven at (229) 886-8348 or stop by at 925 Pine Avenue.

They also offer classes to help spot human trafficking.

You can also listen to more about Leah and her fight against human trafficking through her free podcast “Least of These.”

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