BCA finishes investigation into Rochester labor trafficking; refers case to Olmsted County

BCA finishes investigation into Rochester labor trafficking; refers case to Olmsted County

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(ABC 6 News) – The BCA has ended a Rochester-area investigation stemming from an African woman who allegedly escaped slavery in 2022.

According to search warrants the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) filed earlier this year, a young woman claims she was sold to a family in the United Arab Emirates, then sent to Rochester to care for a woman while the woman stayed at the Broadway Plaza hotel on 1st Street SE and received treatment at Mayo Clinic.

ABC 6 News has been in touch with the MN BCA for the past month, until agents referred the labor trafficking case to the Olmsted County Attorney’s Office.

Olmsted County attorney Mark Ostrem said the office had received the case and was reviewing it for possible charges.

The number of labor trafficking cases Ostrem has seen in his time as county attorney is “in the single digits,” he said Monday, due to the extraordinary difficulty of locating and helping victims who are by design hidden from the general public.

“We know labor trafficking is going on, but because we don’t see it in the community, very few of these cases get through,” Ostrem said.

Escape from Rochester hotel

According to the warrants, in January of 2023, a “female victim” identified only by her initials contacted law enforcement to say she had been trafficked in Rochester from February to May of 2022.

The woman, now in her 20s, told BCA agents that she had been abducted from a country in Africa and sold to the family in the UAE during her teenage years.

According to search warrants, the alleged victim was responsible for household chores, cooking, and medical care for the woman who traveled to Rochester for treatment.

Search warrants allege that the victim was abused and assaulted, and although she was paid a wage in the United Arab Emirates, once she was taken to Rochester to care for the family member with medical needs, that payment ceased.

The alleged victim feared she would be murdered if she defied the family, and escaped the Broadway Plaza “hotel/apartment complex” in 2022, according to search warrants.

From Olmsted County search warrants

According to the search warrants, a Broadway Plaza representative verbally confirmed that the family the victim allegedly worked for stayed in a room there in 2022.

The BCA requested photos and videos from Broadway Plaza hotel common areas, as well as rental information for the woman the alleged victim served and the woman’s family during the suspected time period.

Difficulty of prosecuting labor trafficking cases

Labor trafficking cases require the prosecution to prove that a person was held against their will and forced to work with no or insufficient compensation, Ostrem told ABC 6 News Monday.

Law enforcement must then corroborate an alleged victim’s testimony using bank statements, surveillance footage, and more.

However, it could be easy for a defense to “poke holes” in a victim’s statements about not being allowed out of a residence if they were seen in public at all, Ostrem said.

Victims may also be “skittish” about reporting, as “very often they are persons that might be undocumented,” he added.

“”They might be afraid of the system,” Ostrem said. “They may have a fear to report and then follow through.”

Human trafficking or sex trafficking, as it’s better known, is well-understood by the general public, Ostrem said.

“Labor trafficking, because it’s kept behind closed doors, is much more misunderstood,” he said. “Because we don’t see it and we aren’t used to seeing it.”

Both types of trafficking prey on vulnerable people and use fear of punishment or abuse, Ostrem said.

But while victims of sex trafficking are “always out in public” in order for their traffickers to find new clients, “labor trafficking is almost never seen in public,” he said.

ABC 6 News will follow this story as it develops.