Acting Attorney General John Hoffman, Camden County Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk, Gloucester Township Police Chief Harry Earle, Chief William Walsh from Bellmawr, Chief John Evans from Magnolia, Chief Chris Winters form Pine Hill, Chief Mark Diano from Runnemede and Chief John Stimelski from Winslow reported one of the first cases in the state to use a newly enhanced human trafficking statute designed to allow law enforcement to target the men and women who most benefit from the sex trade in New Jersey.

Van Howell, M/41, of Sicklerville, and Krista Burton, F/30, of Columbia, PA, are among the first in the state to be charged with the new 1st degree Human Trafficking charge after their arrests January 24, 2014. Both are being held on $400,000 bail at the Camden County Jail. The first degree offense carries a mandatory penalty of a minimum of 20 years incarceration in a New Jersey state prison.

Howell and Burton were charged with the first degree offense when officers learned the 26-year-old woman they escorted to the hotel hailed from North Carolina. She appears to have been engaged in the sex trade in Cherokee, North Carolina, and was recruited by the two defendants to work in New Jersey with a promise of more lucrative business. The two defendants paid for her bus ticket to New Jersey and last Friday was her first day participating in New Jersey’s sex trade. The arrests resulted from a joint Prosecutor’s Office and Gloucester Township Police prostitution sting at the Howard Johnson’s on Route 168 on January 24. The operation was coordinated through the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force.

“In rescuing the victim in this case and charging two individuals under New Jersey’s new law, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office and partnering police agencies demonstrated the vigilance that is needed to uncover this terrible crime of human trafficking,” said Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman. “When a young woman is transported into this state and sells herself for sex because of threats and intimidation, she is a sexual slave, not a prostitute. I am proud to say that New Jersey is in the forefront in shining the light on this form of modern-day slavery and coordinating law enforcement efforts to catch traffickers and aid their victims.”

It is alleged that the female victim arrived in New Jersey just hours before being detained in the sting operation. Howell and Burton are accused of immediately making it clear to the woman she was expected to earn money for them through the sex trade, and would suffer consequences if she did not. The victim was ignorant of this area and is believed to have had neither the funds not the knowledge of the region to leave the two defendants.

An investigation into the activities of Howell and Burton is ongoing. Evidence collected in the past week suggests the two had a network that went beyond one North Carolina woman, and may have worked to import other women to New Jersey to participate in the sex industry.

New Jersey’s Attorney General’s Office has made human trafficking a priority for law enforcement statewide, as New Jersey has several factors that makes it particularly fertile ground for this crime. Big cities with large homeless populations, a higher concentration of strip clubs and go-go bars than any other state in the country and the presence of gangs and organized crime all contribute to human trafficking here. Human trafficking has been spotlighted due to the Super Bowl being held in New Jersey this weekend, but the Gloucester Township case demonstrates this is a crime that’s not isolated to the New York metropolitan area, and is not limited to Super Bowl weekend. While the woman allegedly trafficked in this case was an adult, it is believed that human trafficking rings like the one run by Howell and Burton often target minors for exploitation.

Law enforcement arranged the Gloucester Township sting after police received information that the location, which is easily accessible from a number of major roads, was frequently used as a rendezvous for prostitutes and johns. Undercover officers rented hotel rooms to pose as customers and used a website to order women. The hotel’s staff and management was fully cooperative with law enforcement.

The primary intent of the operation was not to target the prostitutes themselves, who are often women with mental health issues and drug addictions, but to target pimping and the network that facilitates the sex trade.

The operation netted eight on charges of Prostitution and Promoting Prostitution. Several of those charged were escorts or drivers for women.

The investigation at the Howard Johnson’s treated the women detained for prostitution as victims, not criminals. Two women were not charged, including the woman from North Carolina, and a social worker employed by the Gloucester Township Police Department was on hand to counsel the women and connect them with social services.

“We understand that in an effort to effectively fight crime we must begin to focus beyond the belief that arresting someone is the only way to fight crime,” Chief Earle said. “Community education, prevention efforts, compassion, re-defining what a victim is, and community based partnerships coupled together with arrests must be the way that we solve and prevent crime now and in the future.”

The Human Trafficking offense has been on the books in New Jersey since 2005, but in July of last year it was expanded in some important ways. Previously, grounds for charging Human Trafficking included a threat of serious bodily harm or physical restraint, criminal coercion, destroying, concealing, removing, confiscating, or possessing any passport, immigration-related document, or other ID. The 2013 amendments make fraud, deceit and misrepresentation, as well as making drugs available to victims, all evidence of human trafficking. The amendments also created resources for victims of human trafficking, including the creation of a statewide Commission on Human Trafficking, a Human Trafficking Survivor’s Assistance Fund and the opportunity for victims to apply to have related convictions expunged.

“New Jersey, with its dense population, large immigrant community and extensive highway network and transportation hubs, is an epicenter for human trafficking in the United States,” Prosecutor Faulk said. “This abuse isn’t limited to the big cities, though. The mistreatment of victims through the sex trade happens in your own backyard, and we are putting perpetrators on notice that we will be watching and using all our resources to combat them.”

Women who participate in prostitution are often drug addicts, sometimes homeless and, in some cases, suffering from mental health issues. They are committing a crime, but they are also as vulnerable a population as any in our society. Nationally, the number of people who are victims of human trafficking, either in the sex industry or through other forms of labor, is not known, but could be in the hundreds of thousands, according to the Polaris Project, a national organization devoted to ending human trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reported a 259 percent increase in calls between 2008 and 2012 and 9,298 unique cases of human trafficking in the same time period.

The others charged in Friday’s sting are as follows:

• Amelia Adams, F/19, of Clementon. Charged with Prostitution

• Hector L. Echevarria, M/25, of Sicklerville. Charged with Promoting Prostitution

• Robert M. Myers, M/45, of Elizabeth, NJ. Charged with Promoting Prostitution

• Jenny E. Rossi, F/29, of Westville. Charged with Possession of Drug Paraphernalia and Prostitution

• Melinda Scheunemann, F/24, of Cherry Hill. Charged with Possession of Drug Paraphernalia and Being a Fugitive from Justice

• Andrea K. Kerber, F/49, of Collingswood. Charged with Prostitution

All persons charged with criminal offenses are innocent unless and until convicted in a court of law.