Hopkinsville on high alert for sex trafficking around next month's solar eclipse

HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The eyes of the world will be on Hopkinsville next month when a total solar eclipse brings tens of thousands of people to the small city. But law enforcement and activists are warning everyone of sex trafficking, a dangerous threat they hope does not become a reality.

“We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Amy Leenerts. “But the thought is yes, it will definitely happen.”

Leenerts is the founder of Free 2 Hope, a non-profit agency dedicated to preventing sex crimes. She was invited in early July to speak at a conference in Hopkinsville on the unexpected topic.

“We have groups that travel around Kentucky and several other states, kind of in a track around,” Leenerts said. “And it’s a human trafficking ring. And we expect that to probably end up in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.”

Leenerts said the agency knows when and where the crimes are likely to happen by tracking Backpage, a website often used to advertise sex for sale and other criminal activities. Traffic on the site skyrockets during big events like the Kentucky Derby, Farm Machinery Show and NCAA events, according to Leenerts.

The FBI is looking into the credibility of human trafficking threats during the eclipse. Meanwhile, the Christian County Sheriff Department is wasting no time preparing for the worst. Deputy Michael Velez said all deputies and Hopkinsville Police officers have been briefed on the warning signs, provided with information packets and are ready to take action.

Velez said they are prepared to “investigate, make sure it’s not a crime, and if it is – they will handle it accordingly.”

Deputies also have Free 2 Hope care packages available for any victims. The bags have basic necessities a victim might need while she or he waits with police during an investigation. Velez emphasized not every case is the same and must be treated with care.

Sex and human trafficking are difficult topics. And even for experts, it can be complicated to spot.

“So often, we will call out these victims as involved in prostitution, instead of being victims of trafficking," Leenerts said. "But anytime there’s force, fraud or coercion, that makes it trafficking.”

There are red flags everyone should watch for. If you spot something, report it. The red flag could be an indication and officer should investigate further.

  • Kids, adults showing signs of abuse
  • Minors with multiple cell phones
  • Kids, adults afraid to speak or respond on their own
  • Hotel guests with little luggage
  • ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign used constantly on a hotel room door
  • Housekeeping services refused for many days
  • Adults loitering in hallways or monitoring rooms
  • Many guests staying in one room
  • Adults with large amounts of cash, credit card swipes, multiple lap tops, pagers, cell phones
  • A male significantly older than female companions
  • A person is vague about his/her profession

“You might have a kid that’s checked in a hotel, and they could be with an older man,” Leenerts said. “And you might see them at one of the hotels that have separate entrances, because they prefer those. You’ll see men coming and going for all hours of the night. Really, it’s going to be something you can see, and your gut knows that something is not right.”

Coordinators are guessing around 100,000 people could descend on Hopkinsville from all over the globe. As of July 5, eclipse planners have determined people from 36 states and 16 countries are making the trip to Hopkinsville or Christian County. Leenerts worries with that many visitors, the risks increase for not only victims being trafficked through the area but also for children and adults being taken.

“When you’re talking state-side trafficking around Kentucky, we generally don’t expect for people to be stolen off the street,” Leenerts said. “But when you’re talking international, that’s a very big possibility.

Velez is warning everyone to stay in groups while in town and to immediately report someone missing.

“Please don’t stay quiet,” he said.. “You’re better off to report it and try to save a life than it is to have to read about it later.”

Business and hotel owners are doing their part by putting up signs with information and the national sex trafficking hotline number. But the only way to keep everyone safe is for everyone to step in and report suspicious activity.

“We need to get information out that it’s happening,” Leenerts said. “It’s going to go on there. And we need to get stuff in the businesses so that they know. And we can have that many more people with knowledge about it. That’s truly the way these things are taken down -- through the community.”

If you see anything suspicious, call 911 immediately. And you are urged to also call the national human trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888. You can also text "INFO" or "HELP" to 233733.

If you are a business or hotel owner and would like to request Free 2 Hope business stickers or informational flyers, call Amy Leenerts at 502-475-0555 or email her at info@free2hope.org. You can also click here for more information and resources.

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