There was a time when truck driver Kevin Kimmel knew little about the scourge of human trafficking. That all changed when he pulled into a gas station in New Kent County, Virginia, on the morning of January 6, 2015.
Kimmel recalls a quiet scene with few other people around. Yet a "kind of unusual" family recreational vehicle parked nearby caught his eye. "The thing that stuck out was that this was an old RV with black curtains which wasn't very family-ish," Kimmel says.
He watched as a man approached the RV and knocked before entering. Moments later, it began to rock back and forth. Kimmel then saw what he thought was a "minor female" appear from behind the curtain before abruptly disappearing.
He immediately pulled out his smartphone and looked up the contact details of the local sheriff. Police cars were soon on the scene, ushering away what Kimmel describes as "a female in really bad shape." A man and a woman in handcuffs soon followed.
Sex trafficking victim
Although Kimmel gave statements to the police and FBI, that was the last he would hear of the incident for months.
He later saw on the news that the woman he spotted was a 20-year-old sex trafficking victim. She had been lured away from her home in Iowa, held against her will and subjected to a gruesome ordeal of torture, sexual assault and forced prostitution.
Iowa couple Laura Sorenson and Aldair Hodza were subsequently sentenced to 40 and 42 years in prison respectively for the crime. At trial it was revealed that the pair had driven nails into the victim's feet, burned her with metal instruments heated up on the RVs stove and pimped her out at truck stops to men who answered ads online.
The victim was never named publicly and reports at the time stated that she struggled to talk about what happened to her.
Yet without the concern or quick thinking of Kimmel, she may never have been found.
Eyes of the highways
Truckers like Kimmel are increasingly seen as operating on the front line in the fight against human trafficking.
The crime is described by the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH) as "a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against his (or) her will."
Victims are often women and young children but men and boys are also trafficked. Potential incidences of trafficking have been reported in every state in America, according to NHTH hotline data, and the issue was recently described as an "epidemic" by President Donald Trump.
Those most at risk are usually individuals without strong social or family support networks. However, anyone can be targeted.
Kimmel, who still drives a truck and speaks about his experiences at anti-trafficking events around the country, says that truckers tend to spend a lot of time in the places that victims pass through given the transient nature of their job.
"[Traffickers] are constantly moving these people. They stay in the darkness. That's why they can't be anywhere too long," he explains. "But when you're moving them, then you come into my world. If we know the signs and are vigilant then we can make a big piece of this problem go away."
This is a point echoed by Kendis Paris of anti-trafficking charity Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT). Her organization seeks to educate truckers about what to look out for, how to report suspected incidences of trafficking and why it is important to do so.
While Paris explains the majority of sex trafficking offenses will be arranged online and take place in hotels and motels, pimps will also look to sell their victims in the likes of truckstops while in transit -- hence the importance of trucker diligence.
"At any given time in the United States there are more truckers out on the road than there are law enforcement officers," Paris says. She adds that her organization essentially wants to raise up "a transient army, a mobile army that can report these situations instead of having them take place under their noses."
Yet equipping that potentially huge force -- there are 3.5 million truckers operating across the country, according to the American Truckers Association -- with the tools to be effective in identifying trafficking is another matter.
"A lot of guys are not sure if they're really looking at prostitution or trafficking and they just need to be helped," Paris says.
That assistance may soon come in the shape of new state laws.
In recent weeks, a bill has been brought forward in the Texas senate that would make it compulsory for anyone looking to attain a commercial vehicle license to undergo a human trafficking awareness course. Legislation to this effect is also in the pipeline in Kansas and Arkansas, Paris states.
A lot of guys are not sure if they're really looking at prostitution or trafficking
Kendis Paris, Truckers Against Trafficking
Ohio already requires prospective truck drivers who opt into any of its state regulated professional truck driver training programs to complete human trafficking training prior to receiving their Commercial Driver's License.
The Texas Senate bill was introduced by Senator Sylvia R. Garcia who became interested in the subject after discovering how much of an issue trafficking was on the roads between Houston and El Paso.
"Once truck drivers know what to do, there is an increase [the NHTH] gets in leads. This is leading to more cases being made," Garcia says. "I think any help that law enforcement gets in terms of tips that they can follow ... that's great for everybody."
Yet others say that such endeavors, while a positive step, can only go so far in addressing what is a complex and multifaceted problem.
Jamey Caruthers, an attorney with Houston nonprofit Children At Risk, recently told the Texas Tribune that there needs to be more done to help helping human trafficking victims.
Paris admits that truckers are "only one piece of the puzzle."
She adds that "law enforcement needs to be trained. Prosecutors need to make human trafficking cases a priority and actually prosecute these guys to the fullest extent of the law."
On top of this "our legislation needs to be stronger so that these guys don't just get a slap on the wrist and get right back out there ... and not just the traffickers but the buyers as well," she adds.
Kimmel acknowledges that truckers are often seen as potential customers for traffickers looking to pimp out their victims. But he says that's another reason why educating and changing attitudes is key.
"We need to get rid of this thought that they (prostitutes who approach truckers) are doing it because they are putting themselves through college or that was their choice" as that's seldom the case, Kimmel says.
"We need to inform truckers about what's really going on," he adds.
Originally posted on CNN