By Amanda Milkovits
Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE –– Two New York men who the police say came to Rhode Island because of a loophole legalizing indoor prostitution are now the first to be prosecuted for human trafficking and enslavement since prostitution was made illegal in the state.
Andy Fakhoury and Joseph Defeis, both 23, are accused of trafficking and enslaving teenagers as young as 16 and putting them to work as prostitutes in an Elmhurst apartment, in the heart of a block of college rental apartments.
The crimes came to light last month, the police say, after a friend of a 19-year-old woman contacted the Providence police and said the teenager was being forced into prostitution.
Providence police Maj. Thomas F. Oates III said the case then became “a rescue mission.”
Fakhoury is accused of raping the 19-year-old and having her work as a prostitute from July through mid-October. He and Defeis, his roommate, are accused of bringing a 16-year-old girl to work as a prostitute in Rhode Island from 2007 to 2009, according to a police affidavit.
The police are investigating whether a third woman, 22, was recruited and forced into prostitution by the two Yonkers, N.Y., men, who were living in the Elmhurst apartment. All three women are originally from out of state.
“This is hardly a victimless crime,” said Police Chief Dean M. Esserman. “The women who are manipulated into service are exploited themselves. The Providence Police Department is treating these young women as victims.”
Lt. Michael Correia, the head of the narcotics and organized crime unit that investigated the case, had testified in favor of the new law, passed last year, outlawing indoor prostitution. He said it proved its worth in this case because the detectives could now investigate the illegal activity.
After the law change, the Providence police and other departments were trained on how to work with victims of human trafficking. Correia said the training was invaluable when the door opened at the apartment in Elmhurst, and police found themselves facing a woman they believed needed their help. This time, the officers weren’t there to arrest her.
“They’re victims of a bigger crime,” Correia said.
From the beginning, Correia said, the police saw the woman as a victim. The first step was to get her out of the situation, he said. And then, he said, the investigators would build the human-trafficking case.
The blond 19-year-old had had her picture in the adult section of backpage.com, an Internet site with classified advertisements. She also had a fake name, an offer for “upscale gentlemen,” and a phone number with a Massachusetts area code, according to an affidavit and police report.
Within a few days, Sgt. Patrick McNulty, Detectives Peter Conley and Richard Ruggiero found her inside a second-floor apartment at 123 Pinehurst Ave., near Providence College. They arranged for her to meet an undercover detective on the pretense of a “date.” When she offered to perform sex acts for $150 or $250, the police took her into custody.
Fakhoury, who was in the next bedroom, and Defeis were also arrested, because the police found about a pound of marijuana and packaging material inside the apartment, Correia said.
While the men were in handcuffs, the woman was not — a departure from the usual way police deal with prostitutes. Instead, Correia said, she was brought to the station to speak with police and an advocate from Day One, a Providence resource center whose mission is to reduce the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence.
This new approach came from training sessions conducted by Day One, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the attorney general’s office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Laura Pisaturo, the director of advocacy and legal services at Day One, said that the training teaches law enforcement and others to look beyond the accusation of prostitution to see whether someone is a victim of human trafficking. Speaking in general terms, Pisaturo gave several examples of what the police should consider. Is the person being isolated from family and friends? How did he or she get into prostitution? Do they get the money? Are they being forced into paying off debts?
Correia remembered looking at the young woman, who was upset and embarrassed. “I told her, I know it seems horrible, but today is more hopeful than horrible,” Correia recalled. “Today, you have a chance.”
That was Oct. 15. Nearly two weeks later, Fakhoury was arrested on three felony charges of trafficking and three felony charges of involuntary servitude; each charge carries up to 20 years in prison and up to $20,000 in fines. Fakhoury is being held at the Adult Correctional Institutions without bail on those charges and a charge of first-degree sexual assault. He waived his right to a bail hearing on Friday.
Defeis was charged on Oct. 28 with one count of trafficking and one count of involuntary servitude. He was released on $10,000 surety bail on Nov. 5. Both he and Fakhoury are also facing drug charges. (The Journal does not identify victims of sexual assault.)
The young woman has been reunited with her family, but the police believe there are more cases out there.
“We know it’s happening. It’s an under-reported crime,” Correia said. “If anyone knows of victims of human trafficking, reach out to law enforcement.”