GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A man was arrested earlier this month for human trafficking when the Mackinac Bridge Authority spotted someone hiding under a blanket in the back seat of a car crossing the bridge, deputies said.
Investigators with the Kent County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Task Force got a tip in October about a 16-year-old girl that was being trafficked. Investigation revealed that a 38-year-old Comstock Park man befriended a 16-year-old Grand Rapids teen “in a public area,” according to deputies. They said she was then trafficked using online posts.
Sheriff’s deputies got information that the teen was in the Upper Peninsula, possibly with the man. They informed northern Michigan authorities. While the man was driving across the Mackinac Bridge on Nov. 12, a toll worker saw a person hiding under a blanket in the back seat of the man’s car. The Mackinac Bridge Authority notified police who stopped the vehicle after it crossed the bridge.
The man was arrested and booked into the Cheboygan County jail.
He faces charges of sexually abusive activity, human trafficking, possession of child abusive material and using a computer to commit a crime. He is expected in court Wednesday.
The Kent County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Task Force was created earlier this year. Deputies said this case marks the first charges it has yielded.
“I think you’re going to see more (charges),” said Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young. “We definitely have learned enough to know there is a need for this kind of investigation and this kind of expertise here in Kent County, it’s easy to think it’s not going to be our community, but it is our community, it is our neighbor, our neighborhoods, and it’s stuff that we’re going to continue to need to pay attention to.”
The sheriff added that a significant portion of investigations come to fruition in part because of tips from people in the community.
“(This is) a pretty good example to use. To that toll operator, something didn’t look right. They had been alerted that we were looking for this person, but she didn’t see the victim. Instead, she saw something that didn’t look right in that car and she reported it,” LaJoye-Young said.
Although each case can look different, Sheriff LaJoye-Young said it’s important for people to report anything strange to police.
“Somebody that looks like there’s a strained relationship, there might be a controlling relationship there. Maybe they won’t let them get out of the car, maybe they’re improperly dressed for the weather, maybe they don’t have access to their own credentials, or a cell phone and they are being managed. That would be something I would really have you pay attention to,” she said.
She added that young people should be very careful about what information they share.
“Being friendly is one thing, but disclosing information about yourself, developing a relationship with somebody, beyond a quick ‘Hi, how are you?’ can be very dangerous if they’re trying to manipulate you or gain access to you,” she said. “So having that talk with young people ahead of time; you don’t need to make a friend with the person on the park bench or at the mall who might be trying to connect with you. Those aren’t healthy relationships and it’s not being friendly, it’s being inappropriate.”
Human trafficking incidents are most likely to occur when a stranger has unsupervised contact with a young person. That can be at the mall, a grocery store, a park, or even a school event.
“Having that young person be armed with information, having them be alert that not everybody has good intents, and that when we say stranger danger, if you don’t know this person, disclosing any details about yourself could be a risk,” LaJoye-Young said.
For more information about human trafficking or to submit a tip, visit the KCSO Human Trafficking Task Force website.
Editor’s note: Deputies initially told News 8 the suspect was arrested Oct. 12, but later clarified it happened on Nov. 12.