THE YOUNG woman who befriended Tiffany on the Internet seemed innocent enough - so in the midst of a rough patch with her father, the 16-year-old Northeast Philadelphia girl let her new cyber-friend pick her up at home.
When she got into the taxi on that fateful day in January 2006, Tiffany didn't know that she was stepping into a dark underworld of violence, drugs and sex slavery. The seemingly normal young woman she'd met on MySpace.com delivered her into the hands of Rahiim McIntyre, 36, a now-convicted violent sex trafficker who awaits sentencing in federal prison.
Over the next two weeks, she would face unimaginable horrors as she plotted to get away from her captor without being caught and beaten - or worse.
The experience of Tiffany - a pseudonym created by the Daily News to protect her identity - is not uncommon.
Domestic sex trafficking, federal and local officials say, is an increasingly common and highly lucrative underground business - a close-to-home subsection of human trafficking commonly involving American girls and young women (but sometimes boys) forced into sex slavery by sick pimps who prey on some of society's most vulnerable members.
Law-enforcement agents warn that any teen or young woman could be in danger of coming into contact with a trafficker in places as unassuming as a mall or a train station. Pimps can earn $150,000 to $200,000 a year on each victim they force into prostitution, according to the Department of Justice, so the incentive is strong to entrap and exploit several girls and young women at a time.
In a world where pimps like McIntyre - who went by "King Kobra" on the street - can groom their victims and sell their bodies online, police and prosecutors say, domestic sex trafficking is a booming industry that lurks in the shadows just about everywhere.
And experts say Philly's location creates a particularly attractive opportunity for the brokers of enslaved women.
"We are sort of in a unique hub area because we're between New York, Atlantic City, Washington, D.C., Harrisburg - all of which have child-prostitution problems," said Michelle Morgan, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecutes sex-trafficking cases in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. "There are a lot of places for pimps to go from here to make more money, to buy new girls, to trade girls, so it's a lucrative area."
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office estimates that sex-trafficking investigations are initiated by local authorities about once a month.
Since a specialized task force for local sex-trafficking cases got off the ground in 2010, federal indictments in the Philadelphia area have gone from virtually zero to 20, Morgan said. She anticipates six to 12 new sex-trafficking indictments in the near future - but that's barely scraping the surface of the problem, she said.
"We could quadruple our number of indictments. It's like shooting fish in a barrel in terms of how much of this is going on in our city, and really every city in the United States," she said.
"Everybody says over and over again, human trafficking is modern-day slavery, but it literally is. It's happening all day, every day, right here in this town."
Tiffany, the Northeast Philadelphia girl swept into the dark underbelly of sex trafficking, lived every parent's nightmare: She watched in horror when her captor, McIntyre, savagely made an example of another woman, beating her into submission with the heel of a shoe until she bled. He warned Tiffany that if she didn't comply with his orders to sell her young body to dozens of men, she, too, would face a beating.
Photos were taken of Tiffany in lingerie and posted on the websites Craigslist and Backpage, and soon, droves of men were calling to set up "dates" - $150 per half-hour, during which she would have sex with them or do whatever else popped into their twisted minds - in hotel rooms around the city and in New Jersey.
She wasn't allowed to have a meal without begging for permission.
"Any time we made money, it went right to him," Tiffany, now 24, said in a recent interview. "We had to ask for money to eat. We had to ask for permission to leave the hotel."
Already street-smart beyond her years, Tiffany knew that she had to find a way to escape.
Sex traffickers, Morgan said, typically prey on young women - often teenagers - who are vulnerable because of a lack of supervision, a drug problem or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Predators are skilled at sniffing out the most susceptible girls, and they take advantage of places like malls or public-transit hubs, where the girls are more likely to be alone.
Morgan and Tiffany both said that McIntyre would send the young women who worked for him into the Gallery at Market East to try to recruit new girls.
"The mall's a pretty popular recruitment place for that reason - unattended teenage girls," said Morgan, who secured McIntyre's conviction in April. "Sports venues come to mind, public transportation, train station, bus station. Those are all popular places for pimps, or prostitutes working at the direction of pimps, to approach teenage girls."
For Tiffany, who has a younger sister, being sent to recruit more girls was almost as much of a nightmare as being forced into prostitution herself.
She couldn't bring herself to do it. "That's like asking my baby sister," Tiffany said. "I couldn't pull another woman into a death sentence. I know what it's like."
McIntyre hooked another unsuspecting young woman while she window-shopped on South Street. He chatted her up, bought her a pair of shoes she'd been eyeing and later kidnapped her, assaulted her and took her to a hotel in Massachusetts to try to pimp her out, according to court testimony.
Justin Williams, 39, who went by the monikers "Pimp Juice" and "New York Ice," was convicted in September of holding at least three young women and forcing them to sell themselves in Philadelphia's Kensington section, in the Meadowlands in North Jersey, in New York and in Washington, D.C.
Williams, who faces 27 to 34 years in federal lockup, targeted and groomed one 20-year-old woman who had come to Philadelphia to attend college. Williams, according to court testimony, met the student at SugarHouse Casino, wooed her and eventually held her captive along with other young women, using physical violence and threats to coerce them into them having sex with up to 10 men per day and pay him all the proceeds from their "dates."
Williams once beat the student, punching her in the jaw and slamming her head into a wall, when he suspected she had been talking with another man on the street who had been acting "boyfriendish," she testified. After about two months, she managed to escape when her mother came to Philadelphia in hopes of finding her at a court hearing.
Traffickers, experts say, know no demographic or geographic boundaries: They have trained eyes and will try to lure a potential victim wherever they can find one.
"The thing about traffickers is they're master manipulators of the vulnerabilities they find," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dave Rogers, who heads the bureau's human-trafficking programs. "The lures are as varied as the human beings who are involved. The key is that the traffickers themselves, they manipulate a vulnerability either that already exists or one that they help to foster."
One pimp with whom Morgan spoke during an investigation told her that he was so adept at detecting that defenselessness, he could choose from a room of 20 girls, just by scanning the crowd, which ones he'd be able to hook, she said.
"They're looking for that vulnerability, the lack of self-esteem, the emotional neediness that is present in nearly every 14- or 15-year-old girl," she said. "They can smell it like bloodhounds, and they can zero in on it."
Tiffany used her street smarts when she found herself in a bad spot: She said her struggle with drug addiction as a young teen - before she was ever sucked into the sick underworld of sex trafficking - gave her the strength to refuse to let her captor continue to use and degrade her.
"I've been through enough self-inflicted harm," she said. "I don't need another person adding on to that."
She soon found her way out, she said: If one of the women had a particularly lucrative day, McIntyre would throw an alcohol-fueled hotel party for the group to celebrate. Tiffany used this one day while she worked at the Marriott at Philadelphia International Airport, asking that her prostitution ad be reposted several times on Craigslist and Backpage so that she would get a higher number of calls for "dates."
She said she pushed herself to have sex with man after man who called, in hopes of earning enough cash for McIntyre that he would throw a hotel party that night. Then, when everyone was drunk, she would take the money and escape.
"They're thinking I'm a go-getter, I want the money because I'm gonna push us all up. No, I'm getting out of here," Tiffany recalled. "I pushed myself to the limit even though I was breaking down inside."
Her plan worked. The alcohol flowed later that night, and when McIntyre and the other women passed out, Tiffany took $6,000 and made a break for it.
"I just wanted to get out of there so bad," she said.
Eventually, during their investigation of McIntyre's trafficking enterprise, FBI agents found her. She agreed to testify against him.
"If that's one person I could put away and one female that I could save, then that's worth it for me," Tiffany said.
Getting victims to cooperate with investigations to secure convictions in sex-trafficking cases rarely comes easily. Just determining whether prostitutes who come into contact with police are being forced by a pimp into sex work is a challenge.
"It's really difficult to get people who are being trafficked to basically tell us they're being forced," said Philadelphia Police Lt. Derrick Wood, a supervisor in the Citywide Vice Unit, which targets prostitution. "I worked in Narcotics, and it was easier to get drug dealers to flip on each other than it is to get a woman to tell who her pimp is."
Wood said vice cops are trained to ask the women they find during prostitution investigations whether they're being forced - but the women rarely reveal it.
Even when the police have evidence of coercion, like text messages, Wood said, the victims can still be loath to sell out their pimps - a testament, experts say, to how thoroughly pimps manipulate their victims.
"They're looking for love, emotional support, a feeling of having a family . . . and they all talk about having that feeling with their pimp and the other girls they're working with," said Morgan, the federal prosecutor. "Even though they're just being abjectly used and discarded, they don't view it that way."
The college student who fell prey to trafficker Justin Williams at one point told her mother, who tried to persuade her to leave: " 'I know you don't want me anymore. This is my family now because I'm nothing but a whore now,' " the mother testified.
If a sex-trafficking case involves the Internet, then it meets the criteria to be considered a federal case because it involves interstate commerce.
For the D.A.'s office, prosecuting sex-trafficking cases that don't rise to the federal level brings additional issues.
Under Pennsylvania law, sentencing guidelines recommend that judges give convicted sex traffickers anywhere from probation to three years' incarceration - although they can go outside the guidelines if they justify it.
At the federal level, mandatory minimum sentences are considerably tougher: Convicted traffickers face a mandatory prison term of at least 15 years for trafficking a minor older than 14 or an adult by force, a minimum of 10 years for trafficking a juvenile older than 14 without force, and a 15-year minimum for trafficking a child 14 or younger, regardless of force.
Local prosecutors, according to the D.A.'s office, try to reach for convictions on offenses considered more serious - and thus more strictly punished - that often go along with sex trafficking, like sex- and aggravated-assault charges, and promoting prostitution of a minor.
The state trafficking statute also has a strict requirement that prosecutors prove coercion in any case for a trafficking charge to stand in court.
"The trafficking [charge] might be dropped because you don't have enough coercion. It's not as serious a crime as if they're raping a kid," said Assistant District Attorney James Carpenter, chief of the D.A.'s Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit.
For example, promoting prostitution of a minor, Carpenter said, is a more serious offense under state law - and falls under Megan's Law, requiring offenders to register and report postprison, while trafficking does not.
Repeat trafficking offenders, Carpenter said, also would not be sentenced any more severely for subsequent trafficking offenses under state law.
Despite the challenges at the state level, the D.A.'s office has secured lengthy prison sentences in some recent cases involving sex trafficking.
A judge last month slapped Robert Spence, 46, with a 17-to-34-year state prison term for trafficking a teenage runaway he'd found and lured while she was eating from trash among homeless people.
"My blood just boils," Common Pleas Judge Robert Coleman said during Spence's sentencing. "Clearly, you're accepting no responsibility for what you were doing. You scare me."
Spence's trial dragged on for six years before its resolution - perilously lengthy for a trafficking case, experts said, because victims often remain transient and drug-addicted after their pimps are jailed.
"A lot of times what we see is [victims] end up with somebody else, or they end up somewhere else back in this cycle," said Assistant District Attorney Erin O'Brien, an assistant chief in the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit. "So it's very difficult for us to locate them. They're people who are really kind of off the grid."
With victims who are difficult to get into court to begin with, cases that drag for years of continuances become increasingly tough for prosecutors to resolve.
Sometimes, the victims "are rarely interested in anything more than, 'Where can I get my next bag of heroin or crack?' That's the government's star witness," Morgan said. "It's more anxiety than most of my colleagues want to have on any given day. But who more deserving of our efforts . . . than these victims, whom everyone else has dropped? I can't think of anyone."
Worse than the challenges police and prosecutors face when it comes to putting sex traffickers behind bars are the emotional burden and indelible scars the trauma of being trafficked leaves on victims.
The drug addiction, violence and emotional manipulation they experience is almost insurmountable, experts say.
"I've worked on every single type of crime in 12 years, and I think this is the most destructive just to individual human souls that I've seen, because once you're sort of turned into a piece of meat by another person and your innocence is destroyed and your body is used like that, even if it's only for a couple days, these girls don't bounce back," Morgan said.
"It completely destroys their sense of self-worth, and they view themselves through that lens for the rest of their lives," she added. "In no other crime have I seen the human psyche so eradicated as I have in these cases."
Tiffany can attest to that: Eight years after her ordeal, she's still struggling to outrun her demons.
"I was actually sober and everything when I went with them, but I came back on drugs," Tiffany said, a night before she was due to enter rehab for cocaine addiction. "It's not a glorifying life to me. It's actually no life at all. I have problems getting off it because I've been involved with it for so long."
In the case of the college student who was sucked into the dark sex-trafficking world, her mother, who eventually traveled from Massachusetts to rescue her, described a painful change she has seen in her daughter since she was traumatized at the hands of a convicted monster.
"It was like brainwashing. She didn't sound like her anymore," the mother testified of her daughter's demeanor when she was enslaved and trafficked.
"All of the . . . beautiful spirit that she has, it was gone."