LAURINBURG — Scotland County Detective Jessica Sadovnikov remembers the night early in her law enforcement career when she pulled over a car for a minor traffic violation.
The car had out of state tags, and the 40-year-old driver had no license or any other form of ID. What he did have was something that set off an alarm for Sadovnikov.
“In the back seat was three juvenile females,” Sadovnikov said. “One was Asian; one was African American, and one was Hispanic. Neither of the three girls could tell me their name, their age, where they came from, where they were going. Their stories were inconsistent. They were nervous; they were very afraid to talk to me. It became very apparent to me in that moment what I had.”
Sadovnikov, who is now working with state and federal officials to stop the sexual exploitation of children, hopes Scotland County residents will be on the lookout for things that don’t seem right.
“People see things every single day,” the sheriff’s office sergeant said. “They never think to call, but that’s what we’re here for.”
Lt. Kelly Jacobs of the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office was also appointed to the SBI’s Internet Crimes Against Children – ICAC – Task Force.
The program collects information from tips, verifies it and passes it on to local detectives to investigate. To verify the information, the SBI seeks subpoenas and search warrants on the internet accounts of suspected offenders and confirms that there is a need to prosecute.
The tips are gleaned from a multiple of sources and coordinating agencies such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Department of Homeland Security, and Interpol.
Local investigators verify the details of the case again and conduct interviews with local participants whether victims or perpetrators and make any necessary arrests.
“It is a nationwide task force… probably hundreds of thousands of agencies have partnered,” Sadovnikov said. “The goal is to reduce attempts of solicitation by computer, child exploitation, child pornography and things of that nature.”
She said it can involve a variety of different social media sites: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Google Chat, Google drop box, even email.
“We receive tips that may involve child pornography, adults’ attempts of soliciting children by computer and some of these come even from overseas, ” Sadovnikov said.
Often predators will present themselves to children and teens as another juvenile, but in some cases the pedophile is up front that he or she is an adult and asks for explicit pictures or video of the child or sends inappropriate material of themselves to the child, according to Sadovnikov.
As is often the case with other adult on child crimes, online predators tell the young person not to report the interaction to adults.
A recent case that started in the United Kingdom wound up having a connection to Scotland County. Homeland Security was familiar with the suspect and had already received numerous tips about his propositioning young girls in the US between 10 and 14-years-old on the internet.
He had even come to the states to meet with children, according to reports. The SBI reached out to Scotland County Sheriff’s Office to let them know that the man had been talking to someone here.
“He was actually asking for pictures [of the girls]. Luckily in this case he never obtained them. One of those attempts was actually here in Scotland County to two of our juveniles,” Sadovnikov said. “We intercepted the information. We went and did the knock and talk with mom and dad. We sat down with the juvenile and made them aware of who she was talking to. We were able to intervene before anything actually happened to this child.”
The detectives say that county residents need to be aware that this is an ongoing problem and that it can happen right here.
Jacobs believes that some of the internet crimes such as child pornography come down to supply and demand.
“There are so many so many child pornography downloads that is being done in the state of North Carolina, it is so overwhelming that the SBI can only go after, in the entire state, the top ten cases,” Jacobs said. “If word can get out there that … if people would not seek out that type of pornography then it wouldn’t be produced. You’ve got to have a demand for a product to come out.”
The rapes in child porn are real, not acted out, according to Jacobs. He added that those kidnappings and sexual assaults are not the end of crimes committed against children.
“What you’re sitting there watching, if you would figure in its entirety what’s going on as far as the kidnapping, the rape that’s going on, the murder that’s going to happen when this child gets too old and is not one, two three, four-years-old anymore,” he said. “Because you’re six or eight, you’re body’s not needed anymore, so we’re going to slit your throat and throw you in a river or a shallow grave somewhere because you’re not two-years-old anymore because the demand is needed for a child.”
Sadovnikov has been working sexual crimes for the county for three and a half years. She said that Scotland is a “busy county” for child pornography and sexual assault of juveniles under the age of 16. She had investigated over two dozen sexual assault cases in the county; only one of those cases did not involve a child in some capacity.
North Carolina is ranks fifth in the nation for child exploitation, child porn, and trafficking, according to Sadovnikov.
She believes some of that can be attributed to the rural makeup of the state making it easy to hide victims in the countryside, country roads that make it easy to move victims avoiding patrols, and interstate highways that make North Carolina a thoroughfare to access other states.
Sadovnikov and Jacobs hope to be able to coordinate with local groups like churches and schools to help educate the public on the issues and educate them on what to look for in cases of sexual exploitation and or trafficking.
Sadovnikov and Jacobs will attend a conference in Atlanta over the summer to receive further training and gather more information on issues related to trafficking and sex crimes against children.
The sheriff’s office will also work with National Initiative on Child Exploitation by Trafficking.
“Child trafficking is a huge issue that more people need to be talking about. It’s one of the greatest issues right now that I think our minor children face in America today,” Sadovnikov said. “The Bureau of Statistics has released reports that on average every few hours there’s a child that will be trafficked in America. The average age is often 14 years of age.”
The victims are frequently drawn in by false pretenses. One scenario is a teen hoping to be a model who comes across a website or person representing themselves as an agent. They ask for regular photos of the teen as a means to lure them in.
“She responds and sends pictures of herself that are appropriate, and she’s thinking she’s legitimately going off to meet for the purposes of modeling, and then, she’s abducted or coerced into child trafficking,” Sadovnikov said. “We have girls all the time that go missing from our jurisdictions across the state who wind up in other states, wind up in another country.”
Many girls that are lured in under the guise of work wind up in the sex trade as strippers or prostitutes sometimes in brothels. In some cases the children are sold into labor like farm work, sweatshops, or domestic help.
Often the young people being trafficked are from other countries, but American children also fall victim to what is essentially slavery, according to Sadovnikov.
“They end up in the back of commercial motor vehicles [transfer trucks]. They’re being moved across the nation some of them of these girls are coming in from other countries, particularly Latin America and Asia Minor,” she said. “But the Bureau of Statistics states that over 80 to 90 percent of these cases are for the purposes of sexual exploitation. It’s pornography. It’s pimps. It’s prostitution. It’s brothels. It’s strip clubs.”
Sadovnikov said that the average person sees more than they realize when it comes to crimes especially trafficking or child sex abuse. Sometimes gut instinct is the best indicator of something awry: A minor child with an adult where there is something off about the child’s behavior or interaction with the adult, a truck driver with a girl who appears to be under age in the truck, young farm workers who appear underage who won’t make eye contact all can be indicators that something is wrong.
Both Sadovnikov and Jacobs say they would rather work a case that is a prevention or an intervention than to come in on the other side looking for a child who has been kidnapped, raped or sexually exploited over the internet.
“I encourage people to call. We want people in Scotland County to understand that our job is to look into these things,” she said. “The worst thing that’s gonna happen is that we’re gonna go out there, knock on the door, verify that those are or are not his children. If there’s nothing to it we get back in our car, and we go home for the day. But if there’s more to it; then, you could have possibly saved a child’s life or brought a child home to parents who don’t know where their child is.”
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169