2 charged in Camden County under trafficking law

AKIRA SUWA /Staff Photographer
AKIRA SUWA /Staff Photographer
Posted: February 01, 2014

GLOUCESTER TWP. Invoking a new state law, Camden County officials have charged a man and a woman with human trafficking after they allegedly brought a woman from North Carolina to New Jersey to work as a prostitute.

Van Howell, 41, of Sicklerville, and Krista Burton, 30, of Columbia, Pa., were arrested last Friday and charged with first-degree human trafficking, Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said at a news conference Thursday at the Municipal Building in Gloucester Township.

The two recruited a 26-year-old sex worker from Cherokee, N.C., Faulk said in a statement, paying for her bus ticket and promising her "more lucrative business," but then warning her of consequences if she did not meet their expectations.

Last Friday, her first day working in the sex trade in New Jersey, she was discovered as part of a prostitution sting at the Howard Johnson Express Inn on Route 168 in Gloucester Township.

The woman had been brought into the state just hours before the sting, Faulk said, and may have been part of a larger operation. He declined to provide details, saying the investigation was continuing, but said the network did not appear to be based in Gloucester Township.

Asked where it was based, he described it as "a movable feast."

Township Police Chief Harry Earle said his department had adopted a new crime-fighting philosophy. Research, he said, has found that sex workers often come from at-risk populations - including runaways, drug users, and those with special needs - and that they should be treated as victims, not criminals.

"We have to recognize that often, the woman involved is the victim," Faulk also said, adding: "The villains are the men and women who use them."

The woman brought from North Carolina has returned there, Faulk said, and was not charged with prostitution.

In addition to Howell and Burton, six others were charged in the sting. Of those, four were charged with prostitution. The rest were charged with promoting prostitution and other offenses. Social workers offered all of the prostitutes counseling services.

"Every case is unique. We had a number of women arriving at the hotel that evening, and, really, on a case-by-case basis, that decision was made," Earle said of the decision to charge some women with prostitution and not others. "As the investigation progresses, it's possible that could change."

Faulk said the women were treated first as victims, and later some were charged.

"The first response was, 'Are these victims?' and it was only after we determined that they were probably not victims that they were charged," he said.

The human-trafficking arrests come amid a statewide law-enforcement crackdown in advance of the Super Bowl in North Jersey on Sunday. The event typically brings increased human trafficking in the cities where it is held, officials have said, and agencies across the state have been engaged in an anti-trafficking campaign for more than a year.

Though the focus is on North Jersey, Faulk said, the case in South Jersey - one of the first to use the human-trafficking law that took effect in July - shows the need for vigilance in all regions.

"New Jersey is a hub for sex trafficking," Faulk said, because of its location between New York City and Philadelphia.

"We see it in this county and we see it passing through this county," he said.

The 2013 law designated new human-trafficking crimes - such as first-degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking - and enhanced penalties.

The state Attorney General's Office said Thursday the law had been used only twice before as far as it knew.

The first time, in July, it was used to target a network of brothels in Ocean County where women from Mexico were brought in to work as prostitutes. It was invoked again this month, when the Essex County Prosecutor's Office announced the indictments of three men and a woman in an alleged human-trafficking conspiracy involving a 15-year-old girl.

Howell and Burton were held on $400,000 bail at the Camden County Jail. Their first-degree charge carries a mandatory penalty, if convicted, of a minimum of 20 years in state prison.

jlai@phillynews.com856-779-3220 @elaijuh

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