May 25, 2023 A Virginia State Police trooper and Marine Reserve officer staying at an Alexandria hotel for a drill weekend spotted an out-of-place young girl in the lobby, leading to the discovery of a gang’s human trafficking operation.
By Corey Dickstein Source Stars and Stripes Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
A Marine Reserve officer’s quick thinking is credited with busting a gang’s alleged human-trafficking operation in Alexandria, Va., where the lieutenant colonel was staying during a recent drill weekend in nearby Washington, according to service officials.
The Marine Corps dubbed the lieutenant colonel “a hero” in a news release this week announcing he had been awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for his May 5 actions after he noticed a young girl who seemed out of place in his Alexandria hotel lobby. The Marine, an infantry officer whose identity was not released because of his work in civilian law enforcement in Virginia [Editor’s note: The commander of the Marine unit told WJLA-TV that the officer is a Virginia State Police trooper], said the girl showed signs of distress and had the number 13 tattooed on both of her arms.
“I came back from drill and noticed a young girl acting strangely and dressing out of place in and around the hotel lobby we were staying at,” the officer said in the Marine release. The Marine Corps did not identify the hotel. “The way she was walking back and forth, in and out, it almost seemed like she was hoping to be noticed by someone.”
The officer was familiar with human trafficking activity and the gang known as MS-13 from his law enforcement job. He said MS-13 members often brand their “human property” with a 13. MS-13 is a brutal criminal street gang founded by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s, and it has grown into an international operation involved in illegal weapons and drug trade and human smuggling among other crimes, according to the Justice Department.
After some internal debate about what to do about the girl he saw, the Marine said he contacted the Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, thinking, in part, about his own daughter of a similar age. He reported apparent MS-13 handlers nearby who kept “the girl in their sights.”
It would lead the Marine into a seven-hour operation with local police officers that ended in the discovery of “a handful of young teenage girls” and drugs in an Alexandria residence allegedly used by MS-13, according to the Marines.
“We constantly educate our personnel on how to spot and respond to suspected human trafficking situations,” said Col. John D. Cowart, commander of the Marine Corps Advisor Company A, the unnamed Marine’s unit. “I never stop reminding Marines that human trafficking often manifests as prostitution, and if Marines are against it, the criminals cannot win.”
When a car came to pick up the girl from the hotel, the Marine got in his own vehicle to pursue. The car took the girl to the nearby residence — a “ritzy condominium building in Alexandria.” On the phone with Human Trafficking Task Force, he directed law enforcement officers to his location.
“Disregarding his own safety and despite the late hour, [the Marine officer] and other law enforcement entered the building and spoke with the bellhop confirming suspicions that the girl and handler were out of place,” the Marine release stated. “They then proceeded to the residence where the driver and girl entered to perform a welfare check.”
Inside they found the girl and other young women, one believed to be just 13 years old, alongside drugs and drug paraphernalia, which the Marine said the gang uses to control or sedate the girls they traffic.
Human trafficking is believed to be the fastest growing source of profit for criminal organizations worldwide, including in Virginia, especially via forced prostitution, the Virginia Commission on Human Trafficking Prevention and Survivor Support reported in January.
The Marine returned to his hotel at about 1:30 a.m. after helping with the operation. The investigation into the human trafficking ring is ongoing, according to Virginia law enforcement officials.
Early the next morning, the lieutenant colonel completed his official Marine Physical Fitness Test at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, scoring a stellar 278 despite little sleep. A perfect score is 300.
“His judgment and initiative in this situation are perfect examples of how Marines should feel about human trafficking,” Cowart said. “He demonstrated that Marine leaders are part of the solution to the world’s problems. Marines are always on duty, observing everything that takes place within sight or hearing, and this Marine exemplified that.”
Victims of human trafficking or those with information to report about this kind of criminal activity should call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 888-373-7888.