In the latter half of last year, the Honolulu County Human Trafficking Task Force teamed up with detectives from Orange County, California, to investigate sex trafficking on Oahu.

As part of that effort, the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force ran a three-day training session in which they coached their Honolulu counterparts on how to identify trafficking victims and perform “proactive” investigations, according to Honolulu task force reports.

The two teams then collaborated on a two-day undercover sting operation in which investigators went online to make “dates” with potential victims in hopes of identifying additional “targets” for investigation.

Yet for all the planning, the effort yielded no arrests – in large part due to a lack of parking.

Trafficking operation
Homeland Security Investigations partnered with the Honolulu Police Department and U.S. Department of State on a human trafficking operation. Homeland Security Investigations

“At the conclusion of the operation, it was determined the operation location played a key factor in the lack of success, as multiple targets cited parking was too difficult and expensive,” the task force wrote in its 2021 annual report.

The failed effort was just the latest in a string of dozens of fruitless human trafficking investigations on Oahu over the past three years.

Since early 2019, the Honolulu task force — a federally funded coalition of prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, along with the nonprofit Susannah Wesley Center, a victim service provider — has conducted at least 40 trafficking investigations but has yet to secure a single conviction, according to the task force reports.

The investigations included two late last year in which children are believed to have been trafficked — in one instance by their family — and another in which a woman is cooperating with law enforcement after she reported being trafficked. No arrests or charges have been announced in any of the three cases.

As of the beginning of this year, the reports show the task force investigations resulted in just two arrests.

The primary reasons for the failure to secure convictions, according to one of the reports, were that the investigations frequently did not turn up enough evidence to bring a case and that sex-trafficking victims were reluctant to cooperate in investigations.

In contrast to the experience in Honolulu, the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, which was formed in 2010 after receiving the same U.S. Department of Justice grant that would later create the Honolulu task force, has helped prosecute more than 770 felony trafficking cases since 2012, according to a report from the group. Charges were filed in 94% of those cases and 95% of the cases that went to a jury trial ended in a guilty verdict.

A Slow Start For Honolulu’s Human Trafficking Investigators

Despite the lack of results from last year’s sting operation, the Honolulu task force still saw value in the collaboration with its California counterpart, according to a report it sent to the DOJ.

“Although the operation did not yield any arrests, it was a success for our task force,” the group wrote in the report that focused on its work in the second half of last year.

“During this period, investigators were also provided training on conducting undercover pro-active investigations using fake social media accounts,” the task force wrote. “Our goal is to shift the focus of investigations from the victim to buyers and traffickers, in order to strengthen our law enforcement response, generate strong evidence-based cases, and be able to successfully prosecute traffickers and buyers while sparing victims from the trauma of testifying at trial.”

Members of the Honolulu task force subsequently told Civil Beat that they have recently been trying to take the burden off victims by conducting more proactive sting operations.

Since that time — and in the weeks following a Civil Beat report that found that there have been hundreds of reported victims of human trafficking across the state in recent years while no traffickers have been convicted — the Honolulu prosecutor’s office has announced three new arrests.

Trafficking
The Honolulu County Human Trafficking Task Force has conducted at least 40 investigations but has secured no convictions on trafficking charges since its creation. Civil Beat

On Thursday, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged Louis Carl, 64, with one count of commercial sexual exploitation of a minor.

Carl was arrested as the result of an undercover sting in which an HPD officer posed as a 16-year-old girl online, Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm said in a press release.

The announcement comes one week after Alm’s office charged a Palolo couple, Pommerine and Kevin Robert, with felony labor trafficking.

The couple allegedly brought a 15-year-old girl and her mother, Domain Romot, from Guam to Hawaii, took their passports and all the money Romot made working as a dishwasher at a Waikiki deli, and forced the girl to work as a servant around their house, according to court documents.

Romot and her daughter were allegedly beaten when they did not comply, prosecutors said.

Kevin and Pommerine Robert were arrested on March 9, after the girl, identified in court documents as “L.R.,” reported the alleged abuse to a counselor at Kaimuki High School, where she was a student, on March 4.

“Human trafficking, whether for labor or sex, is an abhorrent crime that deserves the full attention of all levels of law enforcement: federal, state, and county,” Alm said in a statement. “Trafficking victims often bear invisible scars that stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

“My administration is dedicated to stopping trafficking in all of its forms and this case is just the beginning of our efforts,” Alm continued.

Alm said that his office recently hired an investigator dedicated solely to trafficking crimes.

According to Matt Dvonch, spokesperson for the prosecuting attorney, the Honolulu task force was involved in the investigation into the Roberts, provided services to the alleged victims, and coordinated with Child Welfare Services, the Hawaii Children’s Justice Center and the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii to provide support.

Rochelle Vidinha, the head of the Honolulu County Human Trafficking Task Force and the sex assault team captain at the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, will be the prosecutor in the cases against the Roberts and Carl.

Honolulu Prosecutor podium before Prosecutor Steve Alm speaks to media about the Deede trial.
The Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has recently filed three new cases related to trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Task force reports to the DOJ, which are required as a condition of the $700,000 federal grant used to create the group, reflect a slow start for its work, which began meeting in early 2019.

“Despite the number of reports of potential child sex trafficking, the number of investigations and prosecutions remain dismally low,” the task force wrote in a progress report to the DOJ in early 2020. “Law enforcement attributes this to the unwillingness of victims to speak and cooperate with law enforcement efforts.”

The task force reported encountering similar problems when investigating labor trafficking.

“Labor trafficking remains underreported and law enforcement efforts less than optimal in this area,” they wrote in the same report. “This appears to be primarily the result of few, if any cases being reported to law enforcement and service providers.”

The report called for greater educational efforts to raise awareness of labor trafficking in the general population.

“Given the lack of investigations and identification of victims, educational efforts are needed to raise awareness on indicators of labor trafficking in the community,” the task force wrote.

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