‘Human trafficking in real life doesn’t look like the movies:’ Law enforcement, advocates share how minors are trafficked in Dane Co.

MADISON, Wis. — Over the weekend, the Madison Police Department arrested a man they say trafficked and sexually assaulted multiple children while working at a 7-Eleven on State Street. It may not be what many of us may think when hearing about human trafficking, but officials say situations in movies and TV of masked men taking a child often hide the reality of many trafficking crimes. 

“Human trafficking in real life does not look like the movies of someone being kidnapped or abducted and sold on, you know, that’s not what’s happening in our community,” said Lt. Eugene Woehrle of MPD’s Special Victims Unit.

How it is happening in our community, Lt. Woehrle said, is simpler but no less dangerous.  

“That depiction really makes invisible other victims because that’s what people think it is,” said Jan Miyasaki, the director of Project RESPECT in Madison.  

That includes victims like the 15- to 17-year-olds allegedly sexually assaulted by Zachariah Singletary Sr., who was charged this week with four counts of trafficking a child. 

RELATED: Madison man charged with trafficking, sexually assaulting children 

“Wherever you have a supply of children, wherever you have a demand for sex, rural or suburban,” Miyasaki said, “where you have money — and there’s lots of money in this community — and where you have people that abuse their power, you will find human trafficking and so it’s happening here.”  

Project RESPECT offers services like comprehensive case management, crisis intervention and referrals to mental health, housing and vocational education to survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking.  

Miyasaki said many of them are approached by criminals at confusing ages or parts of life.  

“The traffickers are going to take advantage of that and groom them. They’ll groom them with compliments, they’ll groom them with gifts, they’ll groom them with promises,” Miyasaki said.  

The grooming leads to control.  

According to court documents, one of the teens reported that Singletary tried to buy her drugs and vodka to have sex with him, and when she refused, he told her he would force her “to submit to him.” She said that Singletary tried to have one of her friends convince her to have sex with him. 

According to Lt. Woehrle, some warning signs include “where you see someone with someone who is significantly older than them, they appear to be a juvenile, or even not, right? Human trafficking happens to adults as well.”  

“If something seems off, something seems odd, something just doesn’t seem right, if it appears that their decisions and actions are being directed, those are all signs and concerns that as a citizen walking through our community you should be aware of,” he said.  

But sometimes, even if MPD receives those reports, and a victim gets away and to safety, “very rarely are we actually charging a trafficking crime,” Lt. Woehrle said.   

He said they sometimes need to find a way to interrupt traffickers while gathering necessary details.  

“If they are committing crimes in our community, (that’s) looking to arrest them on those crimes so that it gives that survivor, that victim a time and place of space and allow them to get those resources to get them help,” Lt. Woehrle said.  

That helps victims come back from a real, but at times unimaginable, ordeal traffickers put children through, according to Miyasaki.  

“They don’t just take their childhoods from them but they take from them their sense of belonging and purpose and why they’re here,” she said, “and that is a damage that’s is hard to overcome.”  

On Thursday the Dane County Board will hear a budget proposal to add one additional detective and two crime analysts to the sheriff’s office to create a human trafficking task force within the department.