3 charged with child sex trafficking in Northwestern WisconsinThe first child sex-trafficking case in Iron County, Wis., illustrates the fact that small-town America isn’t immune to the growing phenomenon, a domestic violence case manager said Thursday.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
The first child sex-trafficking case in Iron County, Wis., illustrates the fact that small-town America isn’t immune to the growing phenomenon, a domestic violence case manager said Thursday.
“I believe absolutely, it is happening more than just what happened last week in our county,” said Malinda Peterson, Iron County case manager for DOVE — Domestic Violence Escape — based in Ironwood, Mich. “Traffickers are targeting rural areas.”
Three Milwaukee women — Nikia Shantay Burchette, 27, Tanya S. Brown, 18, and Tamyra Leeann Thomas, 23 — face felony charges of trafficking of a child, human trafficking, physical abuse of a child and operating a stolen motor vehicle for their alleged actions on the night of Sept. 26 and 27 in Mercer, Wis. The complaint against the women alleges they delivered a 14-year-old girl from the Milwaukee area to spend the night with a 67-year-old Mercer man for $1,000, plus $300 for travel expenses.
Mercer, population 1,557, is about 130 miles southeast of Duluth.
Charges are pending against the Mercer man, Iron County District Attorney Marty Lipske said. The girl, who had run away from home, has been returned to her family, he said.
If convicted of all four charges, each woman would face up to 74 years in prison. Burchette and Thomas remain in Iron County Jail on $50,000 cash bond, Lipske said. Brown was released on bail.
Sam Falippo, an attorney in Saxon, Wis., has been appointed public defender for Burchette. She will have her initial appearance in Iron County Circuit Court in Hurley on Monday, he said.
Falippo was appointed on Wednesday, and said he hasn’t had time to fully study the case, but did call into question the severity of the actual events involved.
“It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds on the surface,” he said.
Public defenders haven’t yet been appointed for the other two defendants, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said Thursday.
Both Peterson and Lipske confirmed this was Iron County’s first sex-trafficking case.
According to the criminal complaint, police were alerted to the crime by an emergency call.
Iron County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the Loon’s Nest Motel on U.S. Highway 51 in Mercer around 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 27, with a report that a girl had run from the motel yelling for help and saying she had been beaten and prostituted.
Sheriff Tony Furyk, Undersheriff Donna Klawitter and Deputy Chris Voyer arrived and learned the identity of the girl’s alleged captors and a description of the vehicle they were driving from the victim.
Lt. Paul Samardich noticed the suspect vehicle — a silver Volkswagen Passat — that had been stolen from Franklin, Wis., headed south past the motel. Furyk and Voyer pursued, stopped the vehicle, and arrested the three women.
The victim, who had been listed as a runaway on Sept. 12, told officers she had been engaging in prostitution for the previous two weeks using advertisements that Burchette had posted on an Internet site. She said she had engaged in about nine separate acts of prostitution during two trips to Madison. She received an average payment of $100 for a half-hour and $200 for an hour, paid in advance, and would immediately turn the money over to Burchette, the victim said.
The Mercer man contacted the girl via the cell phone number listed on the website about Sept. 25, she said. The women delivered her to the man’s residence on the afternoon of Sept. 26, where she received the payment and allegedly gave the money to Burchette, according to the criminal complaint.
Burchette picked up the girl around 4 a.m. Sept. 27, and they returned to the Loon’s Nest Motel, where the women had stayed. The girl claims Burchette became angry with her, pushed her down and hit her head against the bed’s headboard. That was when she ran from the room, she said.
The complaint said the Mercer man admitted answering the Internet ad for an escort and paying for the girl’s time. He said the ad indicated the girl would be 19. He said he kissed her once and gave her wine.
In an interview, Lipske said that although the alleged incident occurred in his county, it could have happened anywhere in rural America.
“Our information was they were on their way to Minnesota,” he said. “They could have ended up in Ball Club, Minn., or Solon Springs, Wis., or wherever someone had the Internet.”
Peterson, who has been case manager in Iron County for eight years, said human trafficking has become big business, netting $32 billion annually in the U.S.
Perpetrators prey on small towns, she said.
“We are vulnerable, because we’re not trained on this unfortunate crime,” Peterson said. “We don’t know what the red flags are.”
But both Peterson and Lipske lauded the Iron County Sheriff’s Office for its rapid response in last week’s incident.
“I’m just exceedingly proud of my community and how they responded,” Peterson said.