CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Nineteen-year-old Jill Mourning was sleeping in her Arizona hotel room when she heard the buzz of a keycard unlocking her door. The UNC Charlotte student and part-time model woke as her manager and two other men entered the room with a tripod and video camera.
At first Mourning thought it was time to get up for her photo shoot for a cigar company. But then her manager walked over to the side of her bed and pinned down her arms, she said. Another man sat on her ankles.
“I realized something bad was about to happen,” the Charlotte woman, now 25, remembered.
The three men took turns raping her, Mourning said. They took videos of the act, pictures to sell on the Internet and blackmail her with, she said.
“And the next day, I was to shoot like nothing had happened,” the Charlotte woman, now 25, remembered. “My manager actually said to me, ‘This is business as usual. This is just business; don’t take it personally.’ ”
Now Mourning is part of a community of local activists, law enforcers and civic groups dedicated to raising awareness about human trafficking and providing relief for Charlotte victims. In July, Mourning founded All We Want is LOVE – Liberation of Victims Everywhere, a nonprofit that aims to educate youth about human trafficking.
Mourning’s group and others have sponsored several events across the city to bring attention to the crime as January marks National Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month. On Friday, The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina hosted a conference on human trafficking in Charlotte as part of a new, yearlong effort to combat what authorities call a growing problem in North Carolina and across the country.
Mourning was a trafficking victim from May 2007 until October of that year, during which Mourning’s manager raped her “more times than I could count” in Charlotte and several other cities across the country, she said. She didn’t tell anyone, she said, because she was terrified she would be judged, that people would think she deserved what had happened to her.
Her manager sold the videos he made of the rape online, she said. The trafficking finally stopped when the manager was arrested for an unrelated financial crime and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“I want to use my experience to make people aware,” Mourning said last week at a sushi restaurant where she’d recently held a fundraiser for her nonprofit. “I realized how many people didn’t know this problem exists, and the people who do know it exists think it’s only in poor, third-world countries in Africa.”
Authorities call trafficking a “hidden crime” that is, by its nature, hard to uncover or prosecute. Sex trafficking is different from prostitution, when an adult chooses to sell sex for money, because it involves someone coercing a victim into the sex trade.
“Charlotte is also following national trends,” said Lia Bantavani, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
She said the city’s growing immigrant community, major sports events and franchises, and easy access to several major highways all attract human traffickers.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office formed a special human trafficking task force last year and is investigating 10 to 12 trafficking cases across North Carolina, which ranks in the top 10 states where trafficking has been reported, according to anti-trafficking groups.
Bantavani was unable to say precisely how many trafficking cases originate in Charlotte. Both the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say they rarely encounter trafficking cases but are dedicated to helping federal agencies with their investigations.
Before the Democratic National Convention, CMPD officials in June presented a report that showed the department helped FBI and Homeland Security in five undercover operations to rescue missing minors involved in the commercial sex industry. The investigations also worked to identify potential traffickers and pimps in Charlotte.
Meanwhile, anti-trafficking activists around Charlotte point to the women who seek help from their organizations as proof the crime is occurring.
Justice Ministries, one of those groups, focuses on outreach to strip clubs, which founder Mark Blackwell calls gateways to trafficking. The group started in April 2011 and in that time has helped about 10 women find safe shelter, Blackwell said.
Rise Up Ministries, one of Justice Ministries’ partner organizations, helped five women leave their traffickers or pimps last year and encouraged seven others to leave the sex industry, founder Aimee Johnson said.
“We go into to 13 different strip clubs and bring goodie bags, personal hygiene items, health items and cards with our hotline number,” Johnson said. “They can call it anytime they need to get help.”
Sex trafficking occurs in massage parlors and exotic dance clubs but also through online escort services, Bantavani said. The internet has become a popular place for traffickers to advertise, because it’s cheap and anonymous, she said.
“And there are fewer ways for the so-called pimps to get caught,” Bantavani said.
Manipulation and fear
Mourning said she met the man who became her trafficker through ModelMayhem.com, an online forum where aspiring models can connect with others in the industry and show off their photographs. A woman who said she worked with the man sent Mourning an online message to tell her the manager wanted to represent her.
“And I of course said yes,” Mourning said. “What 19-year-old wouldn’t?”
She and her new manager met several times in Charlotte over several months in early 2007, Mourning said. He helped her book modeling jobs and became a father figure to her. He listened to her when she needed to talk about her difficult childhood and problems with her parents.
“It all felt very legitimate” to the straight-A student who had been voted East Lincoln High School’s “Most Excellent Teenager” during her senior year.
By the time her manager started videotaping rape sessions with Mourning, she said she felt like he was too powerful and knew too much about her for her to get out.
“I decided I wasn’t going to tell anybody; I was going to compartmentalize,” she said. “It was like, holy crap, everything I’ve worked so hard for could be taken away from me, because people will think that I did something to deserve this. And I was not about to let that happen.”
Anti-trafficking activists and authorities said traffickers often use fear, manipulation and blackmail tactics to take advantage of their victims, who are often made vulnerable by their age, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.
“They are scared into submission,” Bantavani said.
For years Mourning didn’t tell anyone about the months she spent as a trafficking victim. In 2011, after her manager was in prison, she told her grandmother. Suzanne Zucker had raised Mourning for most of her childhood. Zucker, who lives outside of Columbus, Ohio, said she had never even suspected anything was wrong.
“The rage, the anger, the fear that you have … it’s really overwhelming,” Zucker said.
Even after four years, a failed suicide attempt and counseling, Mourning said she can’t bring herself to file charges against the man who forced her into sex trafficking – even though she said her ex-boyfriend has found some of the videos taken of her on illicit websites.
She recently talked to an FBI agent about prosecution but said she is not ready to relive the most terrible months of her life.
“To go back now, when I am in such a good place – reliving all of the evidence, watching the videos – to go back to that would be really, really tough.”
Instead, Mourning is focused on her nonprofit efforts. She’s spoken in schools and churches, put together a model for student-run human trafficking awareness groups for colleges and high schools and organized fundraisers for All We Want is LOVE.
“She’s very beautiful,” Zucker said of her granddaughter. “But I’ve often said the best part about her is her brain and her heart.”
And Mourning has found healing in raising awareness.
“You need to have kids understand trafficking so they don’t become victimized,” she said.
The next fundraiser is Jan. 19 at the Blake Hotel; for more information visit the All We Want is LOVE website.