A man is sitting behind bars in Florida thanks in part to one Roanoke County Police officer.
Luis Sifuentes-Botello, 45, is charged with several things, including smuggling people into the United States.
Roanoke County Police say human trafficking is happening in our area. Local police officers have been taking classes lately on how to spot it and they say those classes are paying off. Some officers say they've seen it firsthand. Roanoke County has even talked with other agencies about forming a regional human trafficking task force. A lot of times we talk with police about facts on cases, but this story shows you how personally difficult their cases can be.
"Modern day slavery, exactly what human trafficking is," said Jessica Price, a Roanoke County patrol officer.
"It was just unbelievable to us that this was actually occurring, and we didn't think we would stumble across it in Roanoke County," said Price's supervisor, Roanoke County Police Sgt. Chris Kuyper.
On a rainy day in May, Price was headed back to the police station. She was driving north on Interstate 81 and spotted a van with Texas plates.
"What I noticed that was strange was the tint on the van was so extremely dark you couldn't even see the driver through the back end," Price said. "The whole van just kind of shook. I stayed behind the van and noticed again there was some movement in the van and it just seemed abnormal."
After both vehicles got off the interstate on Electric Road, Price says she pulled the van over at a gas station.
"I approached the vehicle, started talking to the driver and instantly there was a strong odor coming from the vehicle like it was bad odor of sweat and urine," Price said. "It was just one of those gut instincts that something was going on."
Price says Sifuentes-Botello was driving a 1990s van and 16 people were inside with him including 13 males and three females. She says some of them may have been younger than 18, but none of them had identification, extra clothing, or toiletries. She says there were so many people inside they were laying on top of each other.
"I determined this might be a human trafficking situation. We were able to interview the driver of the vehicle, who had told us each one of these individuals had been sold for $200 and they were going to be traveling to an unknown location," said Price. "We were able to determine most of them were under the assumption they were going to get a job to talk to the President, to possibly get a visa to work here in the United States so they could pay for their families that are off in different locations. They had no idea, they had no idea they had been sold."
"[Interstate] 81 is a location in which people are being smuggled to different locations around the country," said Kuyper, who came as backup that day.
Kuyper says people come through southwest Virginia from Texas or Florida and drop people off in cities like Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and New York City.
"It was probably the hardest thing I've ever been a part of," Price said while trying to hold back tears. "The females showed me pictures of their children and that's all they wanted to do, they just wanted to work, to provide for their children. So it was very hard case to work."
Price says they had to let them all go. Virginia doesn't have any laws that specifically use the words "human trafficking" and because U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement wasn't available to come help with an arrest and charges they had to let everyone back in the van and drive away. She has no idea where they were going. The officer says they contacted other law enforcement agencies across the country and the FBI, putting the information into a database.
"It's very difficult to let those people go, and we will carry it with us forever," Kuyper said. "The worst of the worst does happen in Roanoke County, but when you see it and you hear the stories of these people and you can't do anything to help them, you're failing them, that's how it feels, like you're failing them and their families."
Less than a month later, hundreds of miles away in Lee County, Fla., where they do have specific human trafficking charges, the sheriff's office made a similar traffic stop. According to the police reports, the driver was the same man, Sifuentes-Botello.
"Due to our traffic stop here in Roanoke County, they were able to determine that there was human trafficking going on and they arrested him for those charges," Price said. "At the time it was very hard to understand, you know, or to let them go and knowing that it was my job to protect these people and I couldn't, but now he's away and in prison, and hopefully it will bring awareness to the area, and that this is happening in our area, and we have to stop it."
"It was quite unbelievable, we knew sooner or later he'd probably get stopped, get arrested again, but for it to have happened so soon with a result of Officer Price's investigation, we took great pride in that," Kuyper said. "It's very heartbreaking, you can probably see it on our faces still, and it's been a few months but we will carry it with us for a very long time."
The Virginia Attorney General's Office says although there are not laws or charges using the specific "human trafficking" wording, there are charges police officers can use. For the past two years, they have been trying to educate officers on what people can be arrested for in connection with human trafficking: abduction, extortion or withholding wages.
Sifuentes-Botello is still behind bars in Florida and the U.S. Attorney's Office is prosecuting him.