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Hartford Police Arrest Four on Prostitution-Related Charges

Hartford — Police responding to online ads arrested four women on charges of prostitution this week.

Det. Sgt. Michael Tkac said police received a tip about women offering “escort” services at White River Junction motels.

Police located the advertisements online and posed as clients to set up appointments. Tkac declined to name the websites.

The women arrived at the motels on Wednesday, and they were apprehended by several undercover officers who had staked out the locations, Tkac said.

Three of the women were cited with prohibited acts while one was cited with aiding prohibited acts, all misdemeanors. None of the women’s actual clients were arrested.

Experts from advocacy organizations said they are concerned that these women — or anyone who is involved in prostitution — are participating because of coercion or because of human trafficking.

“People are beginning to recognize that many of the people involved are in fact victims and not criminals,” said Erin Albright, who is the anti-trafficking regional coordinator for the Boston-based International Institute of New England.

She said it’s not uncommon to see women and men travel from New York or Boston up to New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine for sex trafficking, and she said the routes they take often mirror the drug trafficking routes. They typically move on to the next town after a week or so, she said.

Hartford police have done similar stings before, and while there haven’t been many prostitution arrests this year, there were a number of similar arrests last year, Tkac said.

Tkac would not say at which motels the women were staying, but he said all of the motels involved were “very cooperative.”

One website commonly used to offer escort services is Backpage.com. On June 18, the day of the arrests, the website listed three posts from women advertising their services in White River Junction off exit 11. The contact numbers provided had 603 area codes and southern New Hampshire prefixes.

Tkac would not confirm whether the women pictured in those advertisements were some of the women who were arrested.

Prostitution and the use of online advertisements is an increasing concern in Hartford, he said, and police officers are often dealing with what he calls the “fallout of prostitution.”

Although these women weren’t charged with drug related crimes, Tkac said prostitution in Hartford in general is a symptom of the drug trade. He said police are concerned that people are turning to prostitution to earn money to support drug habits and that violent rapes and other sex crimes related to prostitution are underreported.

In the same way that the town’s proximity to two interstates make Hartford a magnet for drug traffickers, the town also attracts prostitutes, Tkac said.

“We have a very high transient population,” Tkac said. “We have quite a few hotels, and we actually appear to be a narcotics hub at this time.”

Across the river in Lebanon, Deputy Chief Phil Roberts said prostitution hasn’t been a significant problem. He said he can’t recall a prostitution-related sting in the 14 years that he’s been with the department.

Roberts said that detectives periodically check websites that commonly are used to solicit prostitution to see if there are advertisements for the Lebanon area and said that officers will deal with them as the arise.

“It’s not something we’re focusing on daily,” Roberts said.

Peggy O’Neil, executive director of Lebanon-based WISE, an advocacy group for victims of domestic and sexual violence, said it’s important for police to look at prostitution in the broader context that allows investigators to determine if the women are linked to human trafficking. People who are involved in prostitution have often been victimized in the past, O’Neil said, and may have backgrounds of violence, child sexual abuse and trauma.

The women WISE has supported who are victims of human trafficking often feared for their lives and felt their options were limited, O’Neil said.

Albright, of the International Institute of New England, said how prostitution is viewed by law enforcement is changing. Traditionally, police viewed everyone involved in prostitution as willing participants, but police are now acknowledging that many of those involved are participating because of coercion, threats and actual violence.

In 2000, the federal government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. New Hampshire passed a human-trafficking law in 2009, and in 2011, Vermont passed its first anti-trafficking legislation.

Since those laws were put into place, Albright said, there has been a more concentrated effort to train law enforcement to view issues of prostitution in a larger context and to teach officers how to conduct screenings to determine if there are any red flags for human trafficking.

O’Neil said she had a number of questions about the arrest in Hartford: How did these women become prostitutes? What are their backgrounds? Who else is involved? Who are their customers?

Tkac said human trafficking is on the Hartford police’s radar, but he declined to say whether the four women who were arrested in Hartford this week were screened for involvement in human trafficking. Tkac said the women were provided information about WISE and other women’s organizations, but Tkac said it’s ultimately up to the women whether they look for help.

Police in South Burlington, Vt., arrested seven men during an undercover prostitution sting on the same day that Hartford police made their arrests, but Tkac said the timing was coincidental.

In the South Burlington sting, police created their online advertisements and waited for responses. The seven men who were arrested showed up at an area motel named in the ad.

When asked why Hartford police focused on the women rather than their would-be customers, Tkac said it was because the tip police received was about the women setting up shop in the area.

All four women, Nikiya Bryson, 21, Sieraa-Xandra Harrison-Francis, 19, Sarah Flonory-Schneider, 20, all of Manchester, and 22-year-old Abygail Medugno, of Hooksett, N.H., are scheduled to appear in Windsor Superior Court on July 29.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.