NewsInvestigations

Actions

After Va. Beach pastor arrested for solicitation of prostitution, human trafficking in Hampton Roads investigated

zak-social-media-human-trafficking-pic-1.jpg
Posted at 6:12 AM, Nov 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-22 18:29:46-05

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - It's been a few weeks since News 3 broke the story of a Virginia Beach pastor being one of more than a dozen men from Virginia and Maryland arrested in a sting in Chesterfield County related to solicitation of prostitution involving minors.

“We're going to hold you accountable,” Chesterfield County Police Dept. Maj. Mike Louth told News 3.

Recently, John Blanchard made a court appearance in Chesterfield County. He was charged with felony solicitation of prostitution and use of a vehicle to promote prostitution.

At the time of his arrest, he was serving as Pastor of The Rock church in Virginia Beach.

“Each of these 17 people that were arrested thought they were chatting with an underage minor, when in fact, they were talking with one of our special victims detectives,” Louth said.

Louth said police frequently monitor online websites where this type of activity is found, including social media sites and sites on the dark web.

The story spawned a News 3 investigation into prostitution of solicitation of minors, human trafficking and what local groups and law enforcement are seeing in Hampton Roads.

“We consider that to be child trafficking, because a minor cannot consent to sex,” Samaritan House Executive Director Robin Gauthier said of the Chesterfield County sting case. “We consider them to be sex trafficking victims. “It's one of the arms of human trafficking, when minors are being put out there to do sex acts. It's definitely one of the worst things that we see.”

One recent case of human trafficking involved a Norfolk man, LeAnthony Winston, being convicted by a federal jury on sex trafficking and fraud charges.

According to prosecutors within the Eastern District of Virginia, from March through May 2020, Winston trafficked two women in Norfolk and coerced them into engaging in commercial sex.

They also said he used a combination of false promises of love and protection, threats and violence, including beatings and pointing a firearm at the women to gain compliance.

Winston's sentencing is set for March 2022 and faces anywhere from 20 years to life in prison.

“It's really hidden in plain sight,” Gauthier said of human trafficking.

Samaritan House is a local group tackling human trafficking by helping victims and starting the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force.

Gauthier and others have been keeping tabs on the issue since 2016.

“There was an uptick happening in Hampton Roads [in 2016], and we could all see more human trafficking occurring than we liked,” she said.

Since the start of the task force, Gauthier told News 3 there have been 365 investigations and 273 confirmed victims. Of those cases, she said 69 have been minors.

At Samaritan House, she said the group has seen 203 victims. Only 18 of the 203 victims have been foreign nationals.

“These are people here in the United States that are being forced by fraud or coercion to do sex work,” Gauthier said.

Samaritan House officials said Virginia recently ranked 15th in all of the U.S. when it came to human trafficking

Courtesy: Samaritan House

Gauthier told News 3 she thinks Hampton Roads is a hot spot for human trafficking, with a lot of military and hotels and motels in major cities in the area. She also believes our local highways could also be a factor in human trafficking.

“One of the elements of human trafficking, to not get caught, is to move the victims around,” Gauthier said. “Sometimes we're one of those stop-off areas. We've seen cases go up and down the east coast or nationwide.”

“It's very difficult to prosecute, because they only stay around for maybe a weekend or two or three, and then they're gone,” Gauthier added. “They're moving to another city and taking their victims with them.”

She said many of the child victims they've helped have been runaways.

“A lot of homeless and runaways is the number one case of human trafficking,” she said. “Children leaving home because maybe they're being sexually assaulted at home. Maybe they're not getting along. They're having problems at home or in school, and so they end up running away and they're homeless. A predator will see that vulnerability and may try to give that person food, clothing, shelter, lots of nice things, even pets. We've had some pets that've come in because the trafficker has given this child or this young woman or young man a pet, using that as a form of control, saying, ‘If you don't complete this number of sex acts for me, I'll hurt or kill that pet or take it away.”

But Samaritan House is taking action with groundbreaking set in January on a property in Virginia Beach aimed at helping trafficked youth in Hampton Roads. Gauthier said the facility will provide medical help, education and counseling among other services.

“We're really excited to be able to build something to fill the gap that is so needed,” Gauthier said. “There's just not a great location to bring victims to that you rescue that are minors.”

Courtesy: Samaritan House

According to Gauthier, it's important to look for anything suspicious, more specifically if you're seeing a lot of different people going in and out of a hotel room or Airbnb. She said to also look out for kids who don't know where they're at or feel disoriented in any other way.

Samaritan House also operates a 24/7 crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking. That number is (757) 430-2120.

You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

To report a tip of suspected human trafficking activity, you can call 1-866-347-2423.