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Recent arrest, indictment highlight Gwinnett's sex trafficking issue

Lorys Marisol Padilla

Lorys Marisol Padilla

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Martiz Devario Tiller

Lorys Marisol Padilla was arrested Wednesday, charged with keeping five women inside a local apartment as sex slaves.

The same day, Martiz Devario Tiller was indicted on similar charges, accused of making at least two underage girls available for prostitution at a local motel.

Though unrelated, their cases bring an oft-ignored fact to the forefront: Sex trafficking is a very real issue in Atlanta.

And in Gwinnett County.

“People think that it’s an inner urban core problem, and that’s not exactly true,” said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. “The problem is where people have money. Disposable income.”

According to warrants for her arrest, Padilla, 48, “did knowingly maintain another person in sexual servitude by recruiting, harboring, providing and obtaining the victim for the purpose of sexual servitude and received, directly and indirectly, money from the act of prostitution.” Available details were limited, but the charges involved five separate women inside an apartment on Jerry Way in unincorporated Norcross.

Documents alleged that Padilla arranged meetings with customers who called in response to an online advertisement. The apartment was reportedly “used as a brothel and (for) directing customers to that location 7 days a week through 10 o’clock at night.”

Padilla was arrested Wednesday on 14 separate charges, including five felony counts of trafficking a person for sexual servitude, and is being held at the Gwinnett County jail without bond. Jail records show she was also arrested locally in March 2011 and charged with pimping, keeping a place of prostitution and two counts of practicing massage therapy without a license.

Tiller, meanwhile, was indicted this week on two counts of trafficking of persons for sexual servitude, as well as single counts of pimping and keeping a place of prostitution. Documents allege that, between Nov. 1, 2013, and Jan. 9 of this year, the Mableton man did “subject and maintain (two underage girls) in sexual servitude” by “inducing and obtaining” them “to conduct and perform sexually explicit conduct.”

Tiller allegedly arranged a meeting between an undercover officer and one of the girls at the Super 8 Motel at 5150 Willow Brook Oak Trail in unincorporated Norcross. He was arrested Jan. 9 and is being held at the Gwinnett County jail without bond.

Estimates, studies and surveys show Padilla and Tiller are hardly alone in their alleged activities.

A federally funded study conducted by the Urban Institute was released last month, putting the price tag of Atlanta’s underground commercial sex economy at $290 million. That number, based on statistics from 2007, was the highest among the eight metro areas included in the study.

Among the cities examined — Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, San Diego, Seattle and Washington, D.C. — pimps in the local metro area made the most post-2005: nearly $33,000 a week.

A portion of that money is made in Gwinnett.

“There is, unfortunately, a very active market,” said Linda Dove, vice chair of the Gwinnett County Human Relations Commission.

Whitney Bexley is the associate director of information integrity for Street Grace, a Norcross-based nonprofit battling domestic minor sex trafficking in metro Atlanta and beyond. She said the “covert nature” of such activities makes it hard to quantify, much less localize, but did provide one telling stat.

“We also know that 42 percent of the demand for child sex trafficking comes from north of the Perimeter between the I-75 and I-85 corridors, which includes a significant portion of Gwinnett County,” she wrote in an email.

Unterman, a Gwinnett-based member of the Georgia General Assembly since 1999, is the chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services committee and began tackling sex trafficking issues about six years ago.

She said she wasn’t surprised “at all” by the study released last month — and is well aware of the issue’s existence in Gwinnett County — but that progress has also been made.

Laws have changed and a focus has been placed on rehabilitating victims, as well as educating people like judges, teachers and police officers on how to better spot those being trafficked. Penalties have also been stiffened: If convicted, suspects like Tiller now face maximum sentences of life in prison.

“Other states copy our laws and best practices to emulate what we have done to get our numbers down,” Unterman said. “It would’ve grown much more exponentially if we had not been proactive and kind of tamped down what we did have.”

Still, work continues. The demand, and the supply, remain.

“They go on the Internet,” Unterman said, “and they order up a 12-year-old girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. And they get delivered like a pepperoni pizza.”