Legal loopholes keeping P.G. County from shutting down certain adult entertainment clubs
A FOX 5 investigation is continuing to look for answers. In January, we took you inside strip clubs where survivors of sex trafficking say they were forced to perform illegal activities.
For many of our viewers, it was shocking that it was happening almost literally in their own backyards. Equally as shocking for them and for our investigative team was the slow response from Prince George's County.
Since our story first aired, we continued to ask for answers from elected officials as to why the establishments we first showed you were operating under the pretense of banquet halls when in reality they are full-fledged strip clubs.
We also asked what the human trafficking task force is doing to investigate reports of alleged sex trafficking inside these very same places.
Not only was the response limited, interviews with key people were shut down.
The pictures hanging on the walls at the rescue organization known as Courtney's House tell the story -- young girls and boys forced into a life of prostitution. Their childhood traded for sex and money.
The once-victims and now survivors shared stories of how their traffickers would take them into area strip clubs and make them work as dancers and back room sex slaves.
"Most of our survivors, including myself, strip between the ages of 13 -- or even 11 and 12 to about 17," said Tina Frundt, the founder of Courtney's House. "But because people think the strip clubs are legit, they are not paying attention. Let's just be honest. When people go to strip clubs, they are not exactly looking for minors. They are not going, ‘Let me look at her face and see how young she really is.' So it is actually the perfect place to traffic people in because it is a legit place on paper."
Last month, we took you inside two of those clubs for an exclusive look into what those survivors had to endure.
These unassuming buildings, one in a residential neighborhood and one in an industrial cul-de-sac, are both in Prince George's County. Irving's and Fuego are adult entertainment clubs licensed as banquet halls. But clearly, naked women and illicit activities are what's on the menu.
We heard from residents living near the clubs throughout the county, including one woman who lives down the street from Irving's. Carmelita Styles said her neighbors are fed up because the county is not responding to their calls for help.
"We would come out early in the morning and we would see condoms all up and down the block," said Styles. "You could come out early in the morning and actually find activities going on in the car."
"Activities such as sex?" we asked her.
"Sex, yes," she said.
Styles said she gets the same answer over and over again with no results.
"They said that they were aware and that they were looking into seeing what they could do," said Styles.
But when we spoke to Karen Toles, the vice chair of the county's Human Trafficking Task Force, we were unclear if the county was even looking at strip clubs harboring sex traffickers.
"I'm going on the record to say that as far as I know and the information I have received, I do not know that those things are occurring within those establishments," Toles told us.
After our story aired, we heard from many of our viewers asking many of the same questions: How could the county not know about these clubs? Why are the clubs holding banquet and catering licenses? Why can't the county just shut them down?
We started by setting up and confirming an interview with the deputy director for the Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement for the county. He handles complaints against these two clubs and clubs like them in the county. His office has the power to shut a club down if necessary.
But that interview was canceled by a member of the county executive's office when we were on our way to the interview.
We asked to speak with police about complaints and investigations involving these two clubs. Nearly two weeks later, that request is still in limbo.
And repeated attempts to speak to County Executive Rushern Baker were denied. His communications staff said there were other people better suited to discuss the issue with us.
It wasn't until the 11th hour that Michael Lyles, the chair of the Human Trafficking Task Force for the county, agreed to meet with us.
Marraco: "You are the only one that's been available to speak with us. Is there a particular reason why the county is shutting the doors on us?"
Lyles: "Well, I don't know that the county is shutting doors on you. I'm here. I think one of the things that you might recognize is that when it comes to human trafficking, it's such an issue that has many colors to it. It's very complex and much of what goes on with human trafficking is behind the scenes and underground. A lot of what we are trying to do -- the task force -- is educate the public, we have to educate even government officials, we have to educate law enforcement."
FOX 5 joined concerned members of the community at a district council hearing last week about yet another entertainment club.
The county is facing what appears to be an uphill battle because many of the clubs in question, including Irving's and Fuego, applied for and were licensed before adult entertainment was defined in the county.
"Our zoning ordinance as it relates to adult entertainment is ambiguous and contradictory, and so it puts property owners, particularly property owners who are utilizing their property for adult entertainment, in a very precarious situation," said one person at the meeting.
It is a situation that may not change until the legal loopholes are closed. Until then, Lyles said his task force is targeting traffickers wherever they are.
"What our main focus is to continue to investigate and to continue to do spot checks on these locations," said Lyles. "We have find criminal activity going on in the location in order to shut them down."
Lyles did say the county in the past has shut down these establishments for other violations.
He could not speak about pending investigations because those are currently in litigation.
As to the licensing violations of these establishments, although our initial interview with code enforcement was shut down while we were in route, it has now been rescheduled for Thursday.