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

by Phillip O'Connor Published: September 3, 2012
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Case similarities

Jeanetta McCrery, 41, of Tulsa, said her heart is torn by the Saunders case.

“It's like walking through my own history,'' she said.

McCrery said she was kidnapped, drugged and assaulted at age 11 after going with friends to a house in north Tulsa. Within a year, she was arrested for the first time on a prostitution charge.

By the 1990s, she was working as a prostitute for what she described as the Mexican Mafia in Texas. When she sought to escape the group, McCrery said, she was stabbed 36 times and barely survived.

“You don't just walk away from that when you're in that lifestyle,” McCrery said. “You know and see so much. I believe (Carina) was one of those people. We knew and saw and were trusted too much.”

McCrery moved back to Tulsa and went back to working the streets. In 2004, with the aid of friend, she finally quit the business. She went back to school and now is nearing completion of a master's degree in clinical social work from the University of Oklahoma. She works at a shelter for women and children.

As a trafficking victim, McCrery said she was too afraid to seek help but too scared to stay where she was.

I think that's where (Saunders) may have been at,” she said. “When a community is not aware of what's going on, it's hard to protect someone.”

Stepped up efforts

The FBI's Oklahoma City office stepped up its efforts on human trafficking a couple of years ago. Agents focused primarily on the Hispanic community, looking for evidence of forced labor, abuse of migrant laborers and domestic servants and sex trafficking.

Other than a few individual cases involving pimps and prostitutes, the office has received few allegations of domestic servitude or forced labor and no allegations of trafficking by international organized crime rings more prevalent in some larger coastal cities.

Since June, the FBI has participated in two local prostitution operations that resulted in about 70 arrests, including four underage girls. In such cases, authorities seek to connect the minors with the appropriate support agencies.

While the Saunders case is tragic and has drawn a large amount of media attention, FBI officials said human trafficking does not appear widespread here.

“I would not call it overwhelming,” said Supervisory Special Agent Gary Johnson.

Broader authority

A law that takes effect Nov. 1 will give the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control broader authority to investigate human trafficking. The bureau has established a seven-member anti-trafficking unit and partnered with the FBI and Oklahoma City police on the recent prostitution stings.

The need for greater investigative powers became apparent after confidential informants, undercover investigations and other intelligence gathering made it clear many in the drug trade also plied in people.

“The same groups that are bringing drugs into the U.S. — the cartels — are finding there's more profit to be made in trafficking humans,” bureau spokesman Mark Woodward said.

“These cartels are criminal enterprises. They are not sole-sourcing drugs. … They will traffic drugs, humans, weapons, whatever, for a profit.”

Growing problem

Narcotics bureau director Darrell Weaver is convinced the problem is growing.

Oklahoma ranks near the top in many high-risk categories for human trafficking including percentage of women incarcerated, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, children in poverty and youth homelessness.

Traffickers often use the promise of jobs or other enticements to seek out the most vulnerable, including runaways, the poor and uneducated, those previously molested or from uncaring homes.

Oklahoma also sits at the crossroads of three major interstates — 35, 40 and 44 — making it vulnerable to such activity.

“We're just wrapping our arms around it. It's really alarming what we're seeing,” Weaver said.

That includes the death of Saunders.

“I don't have to wear a law enforcement hat to be concerned about that case,” Weaver said.

“It really shocks the conscience. We're in Oklahoma, and things like that just don't happen in Oklahoma. And it did.

“We've got to look at this closely. How did this happen? What can we do to prevent the next case? If we can save one young lady like that, it's worth it,” he said.

NewsOK.com has disabled the comments for this article.
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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