Watch CBS News

Activists say many efforts to help sex trafficking victims in New York are stalled

Activists say efforts to help sex trafficking victims in NY are stalled
Activists say efforts to help sex trafficking victims in NY are stalled 02:27

NEW YORK -- All four women police have linked to Gilgo Beach murders suspect Rex Heuermann were prostitutes, and at least one was a victim of human trafficking.

As CBS New York's Ali Bauman found, New York is a hub for human trafficking and many efforts to help the victims are stalled.

When Heuermann -- an architect, husband and father from Long Island -- was arrested for the cold case Gilgo Beach murders, many were shocked, but not Alisa Bernard.

"We know that sex buyers are generally, are overwhelmingly upper middle class white men with disposable income to spend on sex," said Bernard, the national campaign manager for the coalition World Without Exploitation.

Bernard, a survivor of prostitution, and Lauren Hersh, who used to lead the sex trafficking unit at the Brooklyn prosecutor's office, both now work to fight human trafficking through World Without Exploitation.

"Were you ever in a situation where you felt you could've ended up like one of the women on Gilgo Beach?" Bauman asked.

"I think every single time I took a call that was a thing that you think about," Bernard said.

Prosecutors allege Heuermann used burner phones to contact his victims -- all of them prostitutes.

"For the vast majority of those who land in the sex trade, they don't land in the sex trade by choice, and once they're in the sex trade, it's very hard to get out. And there is an extraordinary amount of violence ... and this guy is a perfect example. He may be the most extreme version, but what we hear day in and day out from survivors is that once the door closes and money is exchanged, that there's an extraordinary amount of violence," Hersh said.

"What needs to change in order to prevent something like this from happening again?" Bauman asked.

"Enacting laws that work to ensure that we are holding accountable sex buyers, holding accountable pimps, holding accountable traffickers," Bernard said.

New York City and state have made policy changes in recent years to lessen arrests and prosecution of sex workers, but advocates say that's not enough.

"New York state is the center of human trafficking for the east coast of this country," Rep. Liz Krueger said.

The state senator sponsors a bill to remove the criminal liability from prostitutes, while increasing penalties for pimps and traffickers, but it's stalled in the legislature.

"Because most people who are going through these experiences are not likely to show up to their legislator's office and say, this is happening to me, do something," Krueger said.

Without change, Bernard and Hersh believe another Gilgo Beach is inevitable.

"These guys are gonna continue to kind of get off the hook with it," Bernard said.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.