HALIFAX — A 31-year-old man is facing multiple charges after a year-long, seven-province investigation into a human trafficking ring allegedly forcing "numerous" Nova Scotia women into the sex trade across Canada.
The RCMP said it learned last April that men originally from Nova Scotia had relocated to Ontario and were trafficking and exploiting women from their home province.
Supt. Alfredo Bangloy would not say how many victims are involved, but said the suspect named Thursday, Lorenzo Trevor Thomas, is associated with a Halifax-area street gang known as North Preston's Finest.
"We know there are other victims of human trafficking from Nova Scotia out there. Our goal is to find these women, get them to safety and go after their traffickers," Bangloy said.
"We want to see victims and their families get their lives back."
Due to the complexity of the investigation — dubbed Operation Hellbender — Nova Scotia Mounties worked with Halifax Regional Police and RCMP in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland.
Thomas was arrested by police in Niagara Falls on March 27 and remains in custody in Ontario.
He's facing 17 charges, including trafficking in persons, assault, advertising sexual services and receiving a material benefit from sexual services. Police say more charges could be laid.
Bangloy said such investigations are often reliant on victims coming forward, and the RCMP is urging them to contact police.
"These victims are generally isolated, taken far away from home and made to fear for their safety," said Bangloy at a press conference at Nova Scotia RCMP headquarters in Halifax.
Bangloy stressed police are not looking to investigate sex trade workers.
Const. Natasha Jamieson, RCMP awareness coordinator for human trafficking, said victims often do not realize they are being trafficked.
She said it often begins with a trafficker seeking out a vulnerable teenager. They then groom the victim by making them feel special and showing them a more glamorous life.
Jamieson said many victims develop feelings of love, trust and loyalty to their trafficker.
"The hopes and dreams they have been promised are what they hold onto and believe that to be their future," said Jamieson.
She said perpetrators then begin to manipulate the victim, often threatening them and making them believe they must work to get back in their "good books."
When the victim's self-esteem is broken, the trafficker can now exploit them, putting them in a position to do something they wouldn't normally do, said Jamieson.
"You may have a victim who was singled out in their teens by a trafficker, who entices them into believing their relationship has a future," she said.
"They can be discouraged from legitimate means of employment, forced into exotic dancing and prostitution where profits earned by the victim have to be provided to the trafficker."
Jamieson said the expectation is that a woman will work into her late 20s or early 30s before being replaced by someone younger.
Police say signs that someone is involved in human trafficking include becoming isolated from friends and family, moving frequently or staying in hotels, unexplained injuries and new tattoos indicating ownership or branding.
Thomas is scheduled to appear at Niagara provincial court on May 9.
Aly Thomson, The Canadian Press