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Killing of Carina Saunders raises awareness of human trafficking cases in Oklahoma

by Phillip O'Connor Published: September 3, 2012
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The October discovery of Carina Saunders' dismembered remains behind a Bethany grocery store stunned the community.

Then, shocking evidence surfaced that the 19-year-old Mustang High School graduate and varsity choir member might have been tortured and killed by members of a human trafficking ring.

The Saunders case is shedding light on what some law enforcement officials and others said is a growing problem in Oklahoma: victims, including underage children, being forced into prostitution.

“That really woke everybody up,” said Mark Elam, director of Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans (OATH), a victims' advocacy group. “Unfortunately, her murder has forced everyone to recognize how severe this can be.”

Once a crime more readily associated with the Baltics, Asia or Latin America, human trafficking is increasingly being recognized as a problem in the United States.

In 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, federal law enforcement charged 181 people and obtained 141 convictions in 103 human trafficking prosecutions. Of those, 32 involved labor trafficking and 71 involved sex trafficking. That represented the largest number of federal human trafficking prosecutions ever initiated in a single year.

“Advocates like us around the nation have been rolling out information and trying to retrain law enforcement, legislators and the public to understand that slavery exists in a modern form,” Elam said.

Notable cases

No comprehensive data is available on state prosecutions and convictions, but Oklahoma has been the site of several notable human trafficking cases.

• In 2001, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Tulsa-based oil industry parts manufacturer John Pickle Co. Inc. lured 52 skilled laborers from India, confiscated their identification and immigration documents, crammed them into a warehouse “dormitory” and paid them only about $3 per hour. The highly skilled welders and fitters also worked as janitors and performed other menial jobs for company officers under threat of physical harm. They escaped in 2002 with the aid of area churches. The business was closed.

• In 2004, the FBI investigated reports of children recruited in Oklahoma City being prostituted at truck stops and through call services nationwide. The investigation, dubbed “Stormy Nights,” discovered 16 underage sex workers. Nine defendants were charged with sex trafficking of minors and transporting juveniles for use in prostitution. Eight pleaded guilty, and a ninth was convicted at trial. Defendants received prison terms ranging up to 17.5 years.

A grisly death

Human trafficking doesn't necessarily entail the movement of people. It also differs from prostitution in that participants are either minors or are coerced into commercial sex, often with drugs, threats of violence or both.

“You can't tell them apart without an investigation,” Elam said. “If someone starts controlling her and keeps the money and is not letting her quit … that ... makes it a trafficking case.”

In the past, local prosecutors have been reluctant to take such cases, he said.

“They were so inundated with the problems of gangs and burglaries and homicide and so many of what they considered these far more serious crimes that they didn't have the energy or resources to help dishwashers and labor workers and groundskeepers and women being prostituted. Those were misdemeanor issues compared to the severe felonies.”

The torture killing of Carina Saunders may change that, he said.

Two men, Jimmy Massey, 34, and Luis Ruiz, 37, are being held in the Oklahoma County jail in connection with her death.

Court documents filed in the case suggest that Saunders was killed as a message to others not to defy a human- and drug-trafficking ring. Confidential witnesses have painted a picture of a criminal organization that wanted to show what happens to people who don't cooperate.

Witnesses told law officers they witnessed, either in person or on videotape, her grisly slaying in an Oklahoma City apartment. Investigators said in court affidavits that Ruiz beat Saunders, tied her to a table and tortured her by sawing off her left foot, then trying to cut off her right foot. But the saw broke.

Massey, while jailed on drug charges, shared details of the slaying with two detainees, telling the first detainee that he participated in the torture-killing.

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by Phillip O'Connor
Enterprise Editor
O'Connor joined the Oklahoman staff in June, 2012 after working at The Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a combined 28 years. O'Connor, an Oklahoma City resident, is a graduate of Kansas State University. He has written frequently...
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