The conspiracy to enslave and sell women for sex began at the Matchbox, a hard-edged tavern wedged against the railroad tracks along S. Washington Street in Circleville.
Army Spc. Craig Allen Corey II was on leave back home in Chillicothe. Over beers at the Circleville bar, he talked to a pair of childhood buddies about his plan to pad his soldier’s wages. And there would be good money in it for them, too.
Corey had been a customer of illicit massage services advertised on the Internet, and he proposed to do the same out of his apartment more than 300 miles away in Millersville, Md., near his post as a supply specialist at Fort Meade. With some risque photos of the offerings and some explicit erotic-services listings on craigslist, Corey calculated he could pocket $150,000 a year on top of his drug-dealing income.
That night in late 2008 in Circleville marked the origin of Corey as “Pimp C.” His drinking mates – Jacob Tyler and Robert “Little Rob” Harris II – would act as enforcers to keep the women and johns in line while he played Army. The men added another hometown friend and drug dealer – Richard “Little Richy”Johnson II – to the operation and set out to stock their brothel.
The young men did most of their shopping for women – both willing and not – on the turf where they already peddled drugs: Chillicothe.
Human trafficking, mostly associated with big cities, suddenly had come to small-city Appalachia, about 45 miles south of Columbus. Corey and his gang would travel regularly from Maryland to Chillicothe to obtain and sell drugs and, as he told an acquaintance, “recruit some bitches.”
Corey also used MySpace, YouTube and Web ads to recruit a few women from Virginia, and he imported a woman from Watertown, N.Y., where he once was stationed at Fort Drum. But most of the women – and a 16-year-old girl – came from Chillicothe and surrounding Ross County.
“I don’t think any area is immune,” said William Winter, special agent in charge of the Baltimore office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which built a case against the men that sent them to prison for a combined 57 years. “A lot of the women had not traveled much and were low on the socio-economic scale. They were ripe to be exploited by someone with strong personalities like these guys.
“They would recruit these women by saying … ‘Come to the big city of Baltimore and bring your friends. Come party with us,’ basically. ‘We have a lot of money,'” Winter said.
Nearly nude photos of the women soon were posted on craigslist, with rates of up to $200 an hour “for modeling, role-playing, sensual body rub, personal assistance and private dancing.” A disclaimer added: “I do not offer illegal or immoral services.”
The operation was short-lived, spanning January to April 2009, before it was busted after “Holly” – a 28-year-old Chillicothe woman – accepted $100 for her services from an undercover cop.
But during those four months, beatings, threats and drugs underlined the coercion and control in play in Millersville, an unincorporated area of populous Anne Arundel County south of Baltimore.
The women, who numbered at least 12 over the weeks, were plied with free drugs of their choice to keep working and, once their addictions were rooted, forced to pay for their fixes by handing over their share of earnings.
Women who balked at serving sex customers or attempted to withhold cash paid by the johns would be beaten and threatened with more violence. Tyler and Harris had guns and were not shy about flashing them.
Harris threatened a customer with a gun at one point, and he and Tyler talked of shooting a particularly troublesome woman.
The 16-year-old was ferried from Chillicothe by Corey and his fiancee under the pretext of partying. Then, she was forced to have sex with three men who had responded to an Internet ad from “Vanilla.” She arrived only a few days before the operation was busted.
With little money, no transportation and total reliance on their captors for food and shelter, the women had nowhere to turn.
With thousands of dollars a week coming in, the guys from Chillicothe were living large, buying electronics, clothes, jewelry and car accessories. Harris added gold teeth.
The first sign of what was unfolding in the middle-class apartment complex along Millwright Court in Millersville came in the first month.
A 19-year-old woman called her parents in January, saying her car had been disabled and she couldn’t leave. Her parents recruited police to retrieve her. Tyler had beaten her, but she refused to tell police what had happened.
It wasn’t long before the craigslist ads – offering “companionship” at the price of $80 for 15 minutes – caught the attention of Anne Arundel County authorities. On April 24, 2009, an undercover officer bought a quick date with “Holly.”
Police also found the 16-year-old, drugs and a gun in the apartment. “Holly” was charged with prostitution. Corey was charged with human trafficking. Johnson and an 18-year-old woman from Chillicothe were charged with drug possession.
Because a minor child had been imported across state lines for prostitution, local police turned the case over to ICE, and federal agents visited Chillicothe to help build their case and track down and interview the women who had returned home.
On Sept. 29, the men were arrested on a multitude of federal charges that included sex trafficking by force, sex trafficking of a minor, interstate transportation for prostitution, drug trafficking and conspiracy.
Even after Corey was busted, he continued dealing drugs, traveling to Detroit to buy drugs that were then sold on the streets in both Maryland and Chillicothe. He also sold to an undercover officer.
Of the four sex traffickers, the ringleader perhaps was the most unlikely suspect. Corey had only minor scrapes with the law in Chillicothe and had graduated from high school in 2005. He seemingly had a good Army record, with the exception of getting a female solider pregnant and then denying he was the father. He was discharged after his arrest.
Tyler has had more than 30 misdemeanor arrests in Chillicothe and had done prison time for theft and receiving stolen property. He still has a case pending against him in an armed home-invasion robbery in Chillicothe on March 22, 2009.
Johnson’s criminal record was small-time, but he had become a proficient drug dealer. He bought crack, powdered cocaine and heroin from suppliers in Columbus and from Corey’s supplier in Detroit.
Harris is a castaway from a shattered Columbus home. In 1994, when Harris was 6, his mother died from a stray bullet fired by a gunman outside a Near East Side bar. He was raised by a relative in Chillicothe, where he dropped out of high school and began dealing drugs.
“We had no idea they were running as a group,” said Chillicothe Police Chief Roger Moore. “We knew they all were troubled youths. We had looked at them all over time for drug trafficking. … This has been shocking to the community.”
Recently, in a small house on Mulberry Street in Chillicothe, 17-month-old Robert C. Harris IV scampered around his grandmother’s toy-strewn living room, finally selecting a black-and-white police car as the moment’s plaything.
The littlest Harris last saw his father at his sentencing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on April 28 this year. Even then, they were not allowed to touch.
With all but Tyler facing the possibility of life in prison, the men signed plea arrangements. Corey, 23, will serve 171/2 years. Tyler, 23, and Harris, 21, each received 15-year terms. Johnson, 23, was sentenced to 10 years.
“Robbie will be 13 before his dad is ever out of prison,” said Tabitha White, 20, the child’s mother and the elder Harris’ fiancee. “I don’t think what he did deserved 15 years. I’m not saying he’s innocent, but 15 years?”
White described Corey as a “cocky and arrogant” type who easily recruited Harris into his scheme.
“Robbie’s a follower,” added Tabitha’s mother, Teresa White. “He’d do anything for you.”
Teresa White, whom Harris calls “mom,” doesn’t buy that the women exported to Maryland were held against their will.
“There’s prostitution everywhere. It was all blown out of proportion,” she said.
“All those boys had been friends for years. I told Robbie he needed to start dealing with himself and warned him to stay away from those guys. They were trouble.”
Information for this story came from court and police documents and interviews with local and federal officials, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who investigated the case.