NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s just past midnight and a man walks out onto the second-floor balcony of a decrepit motel located in one of the few neighborhoods in Nashville not frequented by bachelorette parties. Perched on a hill across the road that overlooks the motel and looking through a monocular, Aaron Spradlin immediately asks if the man is smoking.
Smoking, Spradlin explains, would be one explanation for why the man would be lingering outside at this time of night. Other reasons would include taking a phone call or just getting fresh air. More nefariously, the man could be waiting for a child or adult to be dropped off for illicit sex.
Spradlin, who has spent seven years fighting human trafficking in Tennessee, says that this motel is a known spot for trafficking and he has had investigators from his organization, the Mission America Foundation, surveil the location before watching for suspicious activity or individuals from missing person lists.
The overwatch location was just one place visited during a Daily Wire ride-along with Spradlin where he talked about the kinds of behaviors investigators look for when it comes to human trafficking. Investigations of this nature require diligence, patience, time, and an inordinate amount of resources.
And driving through the streets of Nashville not named Broadway or Titans Way makes it clear that the city appears to have more cops occupied with drunk tourists than patrolling the streets where the homeless hang out strung out on drugs.
“Overwhelmed and undermanned,” is how Spradlin describes the situation when asked for a count of how many cops we see during the ride-along.
Many policemen could be seen around Nissan Stadium, thanks to a monster truck event. But very few cops were noticed just off of the interstates near the motels, known trafficking venues.
According to Not for Sale Nashville, an initiative created by the Metro Nashville Police anti-human trafficking division, “Most sex trafficking situations occur in hotels or motels due to the privacy and anonymity of the hospitality industry.”
During the ride-along, Spradlin drove through several motel parking lots looking for cars that didn’t fit in. “The smart ones back in,” Spradlin says, pointing out that it didn’t make sense for the owner of a new Mercedes, registered locally in Williamson or Davidson County, to be staying at a motel costing $45 per night. What it could indicate, however, is someone who is only renting the room for illicit purposes.
Spradlin, an Army veteran, said that people often think trafficking is a major issue in some Eastern European or Latin American countries, but don’t realize that it is frequently an issue in their own backyards.
For Nashvillians, all it takes to see signs of the problem is to drive down Dickerson Pike, Murfreesboro Road, or Trinity Lane late at night. Human trafficking is often affiliated with drugs, and parents will sometimes traffick their own children to get a fix.
The signs of drug use are even more clear during the ride-along as there were many people, some acting erratically, who appeared to be under the influence of drugs. They had to get their fix somehow, Spradlin says, pointing out that people would do anything for a dollar.
Spradlin says some people are trafficked out of homeless encampments, some of which are not far from the motels we drove by. When looking for a missing person, the homeless can be valuable sources because “they see everything,” Spradlin said.
The Mission America Foundation employs military veterans to help investigate, research, and locate missing people throughout Tennessee. He says the benefits are twofold: Soldiers get to use their unique skills and abilities, and it gives them a purpose in post-military life. He hopes to one day build a shelter for victims, where veterans can help provide security.
With the movie “Sound of Freedom” making waves at the box office, the issue has come even more to the forefront of public conversation. While most Americans are not able to do investigative work, they can be on the lookout for the indicators of human trafficking.
For example, Spradlin says when people are at hotels or gas stations they should pay attention when they “see that person walk in with a child that does not look like they belong there.”
Human trafficking is a major issue in the state with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) saying that there have been reports of human trafficking in every Tennessee county.
According to the agency, there are up to 600 kids who go missing in Tennessee each month. Some of these are runaways or children in remarkably complex situations. Others are swallowed up in the dark world of human trafficking, quickly becoming a statistic or generic face on a Walmart poster.
And many of the victims of child trafficking aren’t foreign nationals as is commonly believed, but children born and raised in Tennessee.
“As far as child sex trafficking is concerned, we’re not seeing foreign nationals here, not a lot of them. The majority of the complaints that we get and the cases that we work where there is a child being trafficked, the majority of them are kids that are from Tennessee or from other states,” Jason Wilkerson, an assistant director at the TBI, told The Daily Wire.
The problem, Wilkerson said, is both a rural and urban problem, with parents sometimes facilitating the trafficking of their own children for sex to pay for their drug addiction.
Across the whole state, TBI says it has about 10 officers devoted mainly to working trafficking cases, a number that advocates and lawmakers say should be increased because of the scale of the problem and the problem in large cities like Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga. Wilkerson said that there are an additional 10-15 police officers that TBI can “badge over” to help with trafficking investigations.
Increased funding for anti-human trafficking efforts is one of the policy areas that the Tennessee Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative group of which Spradlin is chairman of the board, is working with state lawmakers on.
Aaron Gulbransen, the executive director of the group, told The Daily Wire that both the coalition and the Mission America Foundation are working with legislators to craft legislation related to human trafficking to bring forth in the next session of the General Assembly. He said that the groups are “going to war” to end the scourge of human trafficking through non-profit work and political advocacy.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition also met with the office of Governor Bill Lee on July 17 to discuss in part “mutual conceptual agreements to working together in common purpose and commitment to eradicating child and human trafficking in the state of Tennessee.”
“Human trafficking is an attack on the dignity of every human being, and it has no place in Tennessee. Since taking office, we’ve strengthened criminal penalties for human trafficking and made significant investments to equip law enforcement and support nonprofits that serve victims across the state. As the federal government’s failure to secure the southern border fuels organized crime across the country, Tennessee will continue leading the fight to end human trafficking, and we commend the Tennessee Faith & Freedom Coalition for shining a light on this horrific crime,” Tennessee Governor Bill Lee told The Daily Wire in a statement.
In recent years, the Lee administration has designated $11 million in funds toward non-profit groups that fight human trafficking and worked with the General Assembly to increase penalties for trafficking.
Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), the majority leader of the state Senate, told The Daily Wire that he expected the General Assembly to consider a “robust package of legislation to attack this issue head-on” soon, most likely when the new session begins in January.
“I think we have a real opportunity here to not only attack it with more resources, more law enforcement, and more prosecutions [for] those who are trafficking the people and those who are patronizing the traffickers, but also to heighten awareness and make people aware,” Johnson said.
Potential legislation would include providing increased funding for anti-trafficking efforts, increasing punishments for the facilitators of human trafficking, and mandating more frequent reports on human trafficking in the state.
The discussions on policy and procedure can seem abstract when made from cozy offices in the halls of power. But when sitting on an old picnic table outside of a dimly-lit taco shed in the middle of a neighborhood frequented by MS-13 members, they take on a whole new level of importance. This is precisely where Spradlin took The Daily Wire in hopes of speaking with one of his contacts, a homeless illegal immigrant who had given him info in the past.
Though the man was not around, the stop did illuminate the kinds of neighborhoods most people have driven through but never stopped in. This was an area where gang activity, drug deals, and human trafficking all mixed together and an area where the lack of a strong police presence could be felt. Yet this was only part of the picture that makes up the dark world of trafficking.
As both Spradlin and Johnson note, it’s also happening in the wealthier areas as well.
“It’s happening right here in Tennessee, it’s happening right under our noses, it’s happening in Williamson County, [the county] I represent, which is one of the wealthiest, highest educated counties in the nation,” Johnson said. “It’s wrong regardless of where it’s taking place, but people need to know that is happening right in our backyard.”
Suspect someone may be a victim of human trafficking? Call the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-55-TNHTH.
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888