Ohio sex trafficking numbers among highest in the nation

Ohio sex trafficking numbers among highest in the nation
Vanessa Perkins (PHOTO: FOX19 NOW/ Jody Barr)
Vanessa Perkins (PHOTO: FOX19 NOW/ Jody Barr)

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A Cincinnati woman sits behind bars tonight, on a $5 million bond, charged with pimping an 11-year-old girl out to her heroin dealer.

The reason: a hit of dope, investigators said. It happened in March 2015 when the victim confided in an adult that she'd been traded to a 41-year-old man for drugs.

The man, Shandell Willingham, was the heroin dealer, Cincinnati Police say. The woman, April Corcoran, faces 27 felony counts while Willingham faces 26 counts related to the sex trafficking case.

This is the first human trafficking case to be prosecuted in Hamilton County, according to the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

Statistics from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in Washington, DC show human trafficking cases in Ohio are some of the highest in the nation. A FOX19 NOW analysis of NHTRC statistics shows Ohio reported 289 human trafficking cases in 2015.

That is the fourth-highest tally in the nation, behind only California, Texas and Florida.

Since the NHTRC started compiling statistics in 2007, Ohio's ranked fifth in the nation among states with reported cases at 833.

Ohio also ranks fifth in the nation in the number of human trafficking-related calls to help lines with 3,693 calls in the last decade.

A Cincinnati-based anti-human trafficking organization told FOX19 NOW it handled 250 human trafficking cases in Cincinnati through all of 2015.


"He would strip me down all the way naked because he believed I was holding things from him, money or drugs from and I wasn't," Vanessa Perkins, who was caught in a sex trafficking ring out of Columbus.

"I was tricked and I was forced into doing sexual acts for people I would never have done," Perkins said.

Perkins, who said she was molested at four years old until she turned 12, said she fell for her trafficker after believing she was in a relationship with him. But, a short time into the relationship, things changed.

"I believed he loved me. I believed the promises that he made were real. I believed that he was a good person and that we were going through a rough time. I believed that stuff," Perkins said, "Maybe it's because he said all the right things that I didn't even know that I needed to hear."

There were beatings. A woman trafficker in Columbus, Perkins said, pulled a gun on her one night. It was all attempts to control Perkins and the other women victims she knew on the streets.

"Part of that is the psychological control, like me feeling no good. Where am I going to go if I have nowhere to go? If I'm not good enough," Perkins told FOX19 NOW.

A few years passed and Perkins said she met her second trafficker in Columbus. Perkins, again, said she thought that man loved her and she was back in the same situation she was in before: caught in a sex trafficking ring.

"He wore business suits and he had a nice car. He had a house, a wife and two kids and owned houses in Columbus and would rent them out. He knew what he was doing. He's a business man and this is where he could see the most profit, so this is what he acted on," Perkins said.

"I never had a name, I was just a number," Perkins said, describing how she was "ordered" by the men she was forced to service with her second trafficker.

Perkins said she was pimped out to men in "upper class" suburbs around Columbus. She would be sold to customers for around $200 an hour, but rarely stayed more than a half-hour and driven to other customers around the city, Perkins remembered.

There were no lunch breaks.

"It became, the sun goes up and the sun goes down and you don't get to stop working until this amount's done," Perkins said of how she and other women were forced to make money for their traffickers.

"And, if I didn't bring back a certain amount of money he would beat me, light me up, usually open-handed smacks across my face and he did this to control me," Perkins said," He locked me in a house, hit me with a hammer. Had some woman trafficker next to him with a gun. What was I going to do? Wish I wasn't alive," Perkins said.


"I think a big part of it is, I was just no good. I deserved to be there. I was meant to die that way. I fully believed I was meant to die that way, that's a real dark place to be," Perkins said.

"Suicide became a very real option for me. I actually tried to put too much heroin in the needle so that I wouldn't wake up and I did. And, I kept waking up and I would be so mad at God for that, like why am I still here? I didn't want to be here," Perkins said.

"Suicide seemed to be better for a lot of years. I really wanted that to happen, I just couldn't make it happen," Perkins told FOX19 NOW.

A trip to jail in 2010 on a solicitation for prostitution charge was Vanessa Perkins' key to freedom. She spent several days in the Franklin County Detention Center, she said, and ended up in front of Judge Paul Herbert.

Luckily for her, Herbert was a judge who had a different way of looking at those charged with participating in the world's oldest profession.

"The ladies would come through. I'd give them a jail sentence and three, four, five months later, I'd see them come back again and again and again. No hope," Herbert told FOX19 NOW in an interview earlier this month.

Herbert said he realized after seeing thousands of domestic violence cases, tens of thousands of prostitution cases and granting as many protection orders that something tied many of the circumstances surrounding those cases.

Herbert got himself educated. He, along with a human trafficking research center, started conducting assessments of the more than 1,000 people charged with prostitution-related crimes who passed through his courtroom.

"That tool came out that showed 92 percent of all women charged with prostitution also are victims of human trafficking," Herbert said.

Vanessa Perkins was one of those cases. She went through a counseling and recovery program administered by Herbert's court and six years later, Perkins said, she is as happy as she's ever been.

In 2010, Perkins was standing before Judge Herbert, sure she was about to pull another jail sentence and return to the man who was pimping her out across Columbus. But she entered the court's "Changing Actions to Change Habits" program and ended up getting sober and her criminal record cleared of what prosecutors determined were human trafficking-related charges.

"My world was dark for years. I just knew people were out to get each other. It was just like a dog-eat-dog world, but that's not real. Not everybody's like that," Perkins explained.

Today, Vanessa Perkins once again has custody of her son and now works in the stalking unit of the Franklin County Municipal Prosecutor's Office.

"When they told me to put my resume in here, I thought it was a sick joke," Perkins said, laughing as she recalled the conversations with the prosecutor's office about working there. In the weeks after getting the job, Perkins said she began to feel a sense of self-worth creeping in.

"What I've noticed is, I can go a whole block without overly checking my area. Like, that's got to mean something, right? To not be in a constant state of fear, that's so huge," Perkins said.

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