Syracuse (WSYR-TV) - Three people accused of operating a sex trafficking ring in Syracuse, Watertown, and Ithaca faced a judge in Onondaga County on Tuesday morning.
Eric Oliver, 30, of Syracuse, was allegedly the ring leader, according to prosecutors. Even while he was serving time in jail over the past year, investigators say Oliver ignored warnings that his phone calls were being recorded, and directed two women to help him keep the victims working.
"It was really a despicable operation. They were coercing girls as young as 15 years old, getting them addicted to drugs, using physical violence and intimidation, forcing them into being prostitutes," said New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
In court records, prosecutors allege that 19-year olds Jessica Moro of Cicero and Tirra Pate of Syracuse transported women to locations where they were forced to commit acts of prostitution.
Moro is accused of feeding the women drugs so they'd cooperate. In court, her attorney insisted she is also a victim. Prosecutors disagreed, asking for $20,000 bail.
"She was to get cocaine and heroin to give to a prostitute, so Eric Oliver could get money for that. That's not a victim. That is a victimizer," a prosecutor told the judge.
Ultimately, Moro's bail was set at $25,000 cash or bond.
Police believe Pate deposited profits into Oliver's inmate account. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office helped with surveillance.
"This is not something that we want in our neighborhood and we definitely feel for the the individuals that may be involved in this type of thing," Jefferson County Undersheriff Paul Trudeau told a reporter at WWNY.
Efforts to strengthen penalties against traffickers, increase services for victims, and eliminating legal references to them as prostitutes have been introduced in New York State as The Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act. But, the measure has stalled in the legislature.
Under the current Human Trafficking Law, Attorney General Schneiderman says Oliver faces up to 25 years in prison, if convicted. Victim's advocates believe that's not enough to tackle the problem.
"We really have a big appetite for slavery here in New York State and Central New York State is no exception," explained Elisa Morales with the Spanish Action League in Syracuse. "I have been doing this for 10 years now and I've crossed paths with hundreds of people who are victims of human trafficking."
Morales says victims may avoid getting help because they have been threatened or beaten and fear retaliation. Often, they are isolated. Many of her clients end up in the Syracuse area after being transported from other countries.
She recalls working with a teenager from Thailand who said she was sold at the age of eight because her father needed to pay a debt. The teen told Morales she gathered the courage to call for help after a random encounter at a Syracuse mall.
"While she was walking with her trafficker, a stranger just happened to make eye contact with her and he smiled and she said for that moment, she felt human," Morales explained.
The stranger likely had no idea he was smiling at a girl who had been forced into a life of prostitution. Morales calls her clients invisible victims. She's quick to eliminate assumptions that sex traffickers only target women or children from other countries.
"Have sex with my child in exchange for rent or computers or rims or things like that. That is becoming more of a trend," Morales said. "Right here in Central New York."
She hopes a high profile case will convince more hidden victims to come forward. The Spanish Action Network provides a 24-hour crisis hotline at (315) 427-3315. During business hours, clients can call (315) 475-6153.
Oliver faces charges including two counts of Sex Trafficking, a felony punishable by 10 to 25 years in prison; Compelling Prostitution; Promoting Prostitution; Rape in the 3rd Degree; and Conspiracy in the 5th Degree.
Moro faces charges of Promoting Prostitution and Conspiracy.
Pate faces charges of Sex Trafficking, Promoting Prostitution, and Conspiracy.
Oliver and Pate are being held in jail without bail. All three are scheduled to be back in court on Oct. 21.