A 32-year-old Rockville, Maryland, man has been arrested on sex trafficking and prostitution charges, police said.
Authorities said they began investigating the suspect, Ernest Wilkerson, in December after an alleged victim told detectives she had been trafficked by him in October.
Wilkerson was arrested on Jan. 27 in the area of Heartfield's Road in Silver Spring. He was apprehended while trying to pick up a trafficking victim to take her to a hotel "to meet with individuals for the purpose of sexual exploitation," police said.
“The victim and the suspect met online, and they had a business type of relationship,” Montgomery County Police Department Officer Carlos Cortes said.
“They came to an agreement to be involved in this type of business in order to make money,” Cortes said.
Police said the woman had been trafficked for almost a month before she came forward, fearing that she may not be Wilkerson's only victim.
For Wendy Stickle, chair of the Montgomery County Human Trafficking Prevention Committee and director of University of Maryland's Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at Universities at Shady Grove, the story is familiar.
“It’s about traffickers creating relationships, creating trust and bonds with victims, and then turning on them and exploiting them,” she said.
According to the most recent data, in 2020 the national human trafficking hotline received 529 substantive communications for issues related to human trafficking in Maryland. Those calls, texts and emails resulted in 136 reports of potential human trafficking across the state.
Montgomery County police say the pandemic has slowed the number of trafficking investigations, but Stickle says that doesn’t mean it’s on the decline.
“The pandemic has increased vulnerabilities, and yeah, it’s made it harder to detect human trafficking, sex trafficking in particular,” she said. “Everything went underground.”
But as the pandemic wanes and society reopens, Montgomery County police say they're starting to see more victims of trafficking.
“There is going to be more demand, and where there’s demand there will be traffickers with victims,” Stickle said.
“There’s a lot of demand here, and traffickers know that, and so they're going to come here because people will pay money,” she said.
Wilkerson is being held without bond. Police have released his picture and a photo of his red 2009 Cadillac DTS and encourage anyone who may have been a victim of sex trafficking by Wilkerson to contact 240-773-5958.
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