On the morning of March 28, 2013, a Portland woman was walking to work in Westbrook. By the afternoon, two men were trying to force her to walk a busy city block in Boston and charge men $50 to $200 for sexual favors in their cars.
“I think I got myself into trouble,” she texted a friend on the way to a busy Boston block at 6:09 p.m. Seconds later: “I’m scared.” About three hours later: “I just want to kill myself.”
She realized she had been lied to and manipulated by the two men, Fritz Blanchard and Samuel Gravely, who that morning had asked her to join them — along with another woman and teenager — on what they’d described as a sightseeing trip to Boston, according to court documents. In reality, they were forcing the woman into a sex trafficking ring.
To most, forcing or manipulating an unwilling, unknowing or underage person into having sex with strangers over and over for personal gain is unconscionable. But trafficking continues to happen among us. Trying to understand what motivates traffickers, and how they learn to target, smooth talk and debase victims can help shed light on how to stop trafficking.
While Gravely and Blanchard’s actions were cruel and horrific, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are psychopaths — people who don’t feel empathy — said Dave Rogers, the former agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s human trafficking program in the bureau’s Civil Rights Unit.
Traffickers usually do what they do purely for the money, translating their deep understanding of how to manipulate and use people into personal gain.
“It’s a very profitable business. It’s a commodity they can sell again and again and again,” Rogers said. “Most traffickers are people who recognize a vulnerability of someone, and they exploit it.”
They go after runaways, people who are destitute, people with addiction, and those looking to have their basic needs of food, shelter and self-worth met.
“They watch people and learn people’s mannerisms and learn their normal pattern of behavior,” said Elizabeth Goatley, an assistant professor at the Diana G. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “They know their insecurities. It is a very in-depth psychological understanding of people.”
The Portland victim was able to escape Gravely and Blanchard by asking for help at the front lobby of their hotel.
Both men were later arrested on charges of assisting in the commercial trade of prostitution across state lines. Gravely was sentenced in 2014 to four years in federal prison, while Blanchard was sentenced to three years and 10 months.
They are both currently serving their sentences in prison and declined interviews with the BDN.
Demand in Maine
Sex traffickers may come from within or outside of Maine, said Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam. They do business here because there’s money to be made.
“If Maine stopped giving them our money, then they wouldn’t be here,” Elam said.
Last year, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s office and the Waterville and Augusta police departments conducted sting operations at three Waterville and Augusta hotels on three separate weekdays between Aug. 11 and Sept. 17. They resulted in the arrests of 21 men on charges of engaging a prostitute — a class E misdemeanor carrying punishments of up to six months in prison and fines of up to $1,000.
To catch the johns, police placed ads on the classifieds site Backpage.com. Within five minutes, responses started pouring in and continued throughout the course of the day.
“The responses were overwhelming. More than we were expecting,” said Waterville Deputy Police Chief William Bonney, who is also part of the Somerset/Kennebec Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation victim service team.
Bonney didn’t know how many responses they received in total since there were so many. Most sought sex during lunchtime or in the evening after work.
The men ranged in age from 23 to 71 and came from New Hampshire and throughout Maine: Old Town, Waterville, Augusta, China, Winthrop, Camden, Pittsfield, West Forks, Islesboro, New Gloucester, Raymond, Searsmont, Appleton, Manchester, Bowdoinham, Pittsfield, Troy, Harpswell, Corinna and Clinton.
“As long as there is a demand, there is going to be a supply,” Bonney said. “If we reduce the demand then that by nature would reduce the supply.”
The going rate in Waterville for an hour of sex is about $200, he said. Often pimps make their victims have sex eight or more times per day; the pimps keep almost all of the money.
Unlike drugs, which can only be sold once, a sex trafficking victim can be sold over and over again, said Carey Nason, director of the long-term, sex trafficking victim support program called Hope Rising, located in Penobscot County. And while it is easy to identify a drug, it is a lot harder for a law enforcement officer to identify a sex trafficking victim, she said.
“If I get caught selling drugs … that’s a really big risk compared to, ‘I have someone with me.’ That doesn’t look like anything that is a criminal activity. ‘I was just hanging out with this person,’” Nason said.
‘A new way to make money’
Blanchard and Gravely fit the demographics shared by many pimps and sex traffickers interviewed by researchers from the Washington D.C.-based think tank the Urban Institute.
The two men, who are both in their late 20s, were best friends growing up in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester — an area with a nearly 23-percent poverty rate, according to a 2014 study from the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Blanchard left school in ninth grade but later earned his GED, he said in court testimony. In 2009, he was convicted of possession of a class B drug with the intent to distribute. In 2011 he lived in a Boston homeless shelter.
In 2012, Blanchard enrolled in a program to learn how to run a cafeteria, while earning money working in the homeless shelter’s kitchen. But months later he got into a car accident, injuring his back and neck, keeping him from work.
Gravely also broke the law on several occasions growing up. He served time in the early-to-mid 2000s for gun possession and several drug distribution-related crimes. A few years later, he moved to Portland, then Bangor and eventually Presque Isle, where he was convicted of domestic violence assault.
The two fell out of contact for a while when Gravely moved to Maine, but they reconnected in 2012. Gravely picked up Blanchard at the bus station in Bangor. The two talked about old times, the neighborhood and trafficking women. Gravely was selling drugs at the time.
“He knew a new way to make money besides selling drugs,” Gravely said in court. “He told me that prostitution was the new way, there was money to be made. He was making money in it.”
Blanchard denied in court ever having that conversation or having any involvement in sex work, and said Gravely acted alone. He also claimed they simply went sightseeing and shopping during their trip to Boston, where they were accused of exploiting women.
Shaped by their surroundings
There is little research looking at the psychology of pimps and traffickers, due to the illegal nature of their work.
But a 2014 Urban Institute report provides a look at the motives of 73 people from eight U.S. cities who were charged, convicted and incarcerated for crimes related to compelling prostitution or earning money from a commercial sex trade.
To be considered sex trafficking legally, prosecutors must prove that someone used force, fraud or coercion as part of the commercial sex operation. Federal law and state law also consider it to be sex trafficking if the person performing the sex act is under age 18.
Not all of the people in the study were sex traffickers, since they didn’t all bring the people they were selling into their ring through force, fraud, or coercion.
About 85 percent of the interviewed pimps were men. Most had some education, with 75 percent having graduated from high school, earned a GED, completed some college courses or earned a higher degree.
Many of the men grew up around the sex trade. About 32 percent of the interviewed pimps had family members who engaged in or facilitated sex work, and 26 percent lived in neighborhoods where sex work and pimping were common.
One pimp explained how his surroundings growing up influenced his decision to enter the sex trade.
“We were piss poor. I remember when I was little I was on welfare, I lived in the projects,” the pimp explained. “Dope fiends, pimps, and prostitutes. Gang bangers, helicopters over your roof. That’s no way to live. Seeing glitz and glamor, I always wanted that. Coming up like that having square jobs was never appealing.”
About a quarter of the respondents said they sold drugs before segueing into the trade; a quarter said they were encouraged by women who were seeking a pimp for themselves; and others were mentored by another pimp or exposed to it in another country where sex work is legal. Some pimps explained that, when people wanted to buy drugs, they were also looking to buy sex.
Just 5.6 percent of the pimps expressed fear for their sex worker’s safety, while 18.1 percent expressed fear for their personal safety, and 21 percent feared the risk of their arrest.
Nearly all the pimps described themselves as business managers who found clients, chose the locations and times for the sex acts, and determined the price of each transaction. Pimps reported selling women to everyone from lawyers, police officers and judges to men serving in the armed forces, construction workers and teachers.
Dr. Elizabeth Hopper, the director of Project REACH at the Boston-based Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, has provided crisis-based mental health services to more than 500 sex trafficking survivors around the country since 2003.
She worked on one sex trafficking case in which the pimp had his girlfriend strip so he could take pictures, which he sold for money. He then escalated his money-making venture by making his girlfriend engage in sex acts. And as money continued coming in, he brought other women into the fold as well.
“They learn with one person that it works, and it is so financially re-enforcing that they just grow it,” Hopper said.
Gravely officially entered the sex trade in early March 2013 by recruiting a woman with whom he had been intimate. The two had met in 2012 while she was working at a local gas station in Presque Isle.
Gravely posted an ad for her services on Backpage.com, and she saw clients out of a Motel 6 in Bangor, according to court documents. Gravely collected the money she made.
After business slowed in Bangor, Blanchard and Gravely drove south and began selling the woman to more men out of a Motel 6, and later a Travelodge, in Portland.
At one point, Blanchard and Gravely met a teenage girl at a Portland restaurant. The three started smoking marijuana together outside the restaurant and talked about “nothing specific,” according to Gravely’s testimony in court. They eventually convinced her to get in the car with them, and they headed back to the hotel, posted an ad online and trafficked her to men — all in the course of a day.
After business slowed in Portland, they decided to drive down to Boston. The next morning, on March 28, Blanchard and Gravely were driving along Cumberland Avenue in Portland, smoking marijuana, when they saw a woman walking to work.
The woman, a 21 year old at the time of the trial, had been living on her own since she was 13 — supporting herself through jobs and school. The men said they were from out of town and asked her for directions to Portland City Hall. Since it was on her way to work, she decided to hop in the SUV and show them, according to her testimony in court.
Once at City Hall, though, they kept driving, started talking, and asked her if she wanted to go shopping and sightseeing with them in Boston. She agreed. They stopped at her house, so she could pick up her clothes, iPad, charger and other items. She was getting paid at work that day and said she wanted to pick up her check, but they told her she didn’t need it.
They went back to their hotel to pick up the teen and the Presque Isle women. The teen had blonde hair and a black eye, and looked “really young,” while the Presque Isle woman had dyed dark hair and a tattoo on her forearm, the Portland victim recalled in court. They drove to the Midtown Hotel in Boston — located in a busy central business district near the Prudential Center.
Exploitation through manipulation
Traffickers and pimps are typically good readers of people who can pick up on someone’s vulnerabilities through their nonverbal skills and communication, Goatley, at Baylor University, said.
Goatley has been researching sex trafficking since 2009. Sometimes people are trafficking victims within their own family, making it easier to exploit their insecurities, she said.
Many of the pimps in the Urban Institute’s study also emphasized they preferred using mental and emotional persuasion when recruiting women than using violence or drugs.
Most of the time, traffickers target those vulnerable men and women, and manipulate them by being the person who’s there for them when others aren’t, Goatley said.
The manipulation is often gradual, she said. They tell victims they need to repay them for the things they provided them and at first may not make them do things they don’t want to do. Sometimes they house them with other trafficking victims, so they can live in a space where sexual exploitation is normalized.
“It’s usually not a situation where I grab you up, tell you how good you look, and set you on the corner and tell you, ‘You have to do five or six tricks per night,’” Goatley said. “That’s usually not how it happens. It’s usually a more gradual process.”
Gravely and Blanchard apparently didn’t attempt a gradual process with the Portland woman.
In March 2013, they tried to use Blanchard’s sister’s card to pay for online ads on Backpage.com, but the card didn’t work, Gravely said in court. So they decided to sell the Presque Isle and Portland women on “the track,” a busy area in downtown Boston where sex workers are known to walk the streets looking to attract customers.
The woman from Portland apparently had no idea Gravely and Blanchard had plans to traffick her. In the hotel room, the three women sat and talked. Even though the Portland woman was dressed for work, they were telling her to get ready.
“I just didn’t understand,” she said. “I just kept getting confused on what the hell she was talking about.”
Finally one of the women asked her if she knew what an escort was. She said no. Confused and frightened, the woman called one of her friends back home on her phone. She didn’t want to be an escort and told one of the other women she was scared. She continued texting her friend throughout the night, expressing her fear.
The men eventually returned to the hotel and told the Portland and Presque Isle women to go downstairs into the garage where an SUV was waiting for them.
Dropped off on a city block, Blanchard explained to the Portland victim how she’d need to give oral and regular sex for money. They walked the streets “endlessly,” the woman said.
So, as she told the court, she pretended to become “dope sick” — referring to someone on drugs suffering from withdrawal symptoms — to buy herself some time.
They walked the same four streets in a continuous loop for hours. But no cars stopped for her that night. The weather was cold, so they went to a 7-11 for drinks and cigarettes. Blanchard also bought condoms, she said.
They eventually returned to the hotel room, and the woman went to the bathroom to call her friend. She pretended she wasn’t feeling well. Gravely was lying on the bed, and Blanchard had left with the teen, according to the woman’s testimony.
She then grabbed the Presque Isle woman, and they went to the hotel’s parking garage to talk and smoke cigarettes. She decided to make her escape.
With Gravely asleep, she returned to the room, grabbed her belongings and made her way to the hotel’s front desk.
Hotel employees put her in a room where she couldn’t be seen and called police. She was crying hysterically. Later she took a bus back to Portland, where she was greeted by two city police officers.
Blanchard and Gravely’s money-making venture came to a close after they drove back to Maine and were arrested by police. Unlike many who sell women for sex, their exploitation scheme failed long-term.
If you or someone you know might be a victim of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.