Monica Phillips, Houston Airport Security and Information, found several clues that led to the identification of the victim traveling from Lubbock.
HOUSTON. An aviation veteran trained in what to look out for when it comes to human trafficking spotted several red flags that led to the victim being rescued in Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Monica Phillips is responsible for security and information at Houston airports and is trained to work with all types of people in a variety of aviation scenarios.
Part of her job is to answer phone calls from clients.
“On Friday, June 2nd, I got a call from a man who claimed to be looking for his 52-year-old mother,” Phillips said. “He said his mother boarded a flight from Lubbock, Texas to Houston on Sunday, May 28th. And that he hadn’t heard of her.”
Phillips said it was the first red flag she had noticed about the situation. She wondered why the caller waited five days before calling the airport about his mother.
Phillips then transferred the call to Houston Police Department. She later contacted the police, who told her that the caller had refused to file a missing person’s report, another red flag.
“I knew there was something wrong with his story,” Phillips said. “I had a gut feeling that this was a human trafficking case.”
On June 7, Phillips said she came to work early. As she crossed the lobby of Terminal A at Bush Airport, she noticed a woman who was struggling to contact the Houston police.
Phillips said she had a gut feeling that this was the woman the caller was looking for earlier this month.
Phillips said the woman spoke only Hungarian and struggled to communicate with police. Phillips used translation technology and asked if the woman’s name matched the caller’s name.
The woman told her yes, but she didn’t recognize the caller’s name.
Since the man called the airport, Phillips said the call was logged. However, the phone number was disconnected when the police tried to call back.
Phillips said it was another red flag for her.
“I have a friend from United Airlines who speaks Hungarian. We brought him in to translate. We learned from her account that on May 28 she traveled from Lubbock to Houston with two men. The trio ended up heading to Europe. When they landed at Bush Airport, she left and hid in the terminals,” Phillips said. “I can’t even imagine how scared she was. Finding yourself in a new city without speaking English, hiding for your life in an unfamiliar airport.”
HPD has alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials of its investigation. Investigators found that two of the men had the victim’s passport. She registered the bag in Lubbock but couldn’t get it in Houston.
Phillips said the victim was traveling with a handbag but lost it at the Bush airport. The purse was returned to the woman after it was found in the lost and found office.
“CBP officers took her to a hospital in the Houston area because she was in poor condition,” Phillips said. “Hiding in the airport for ten days – without real food – she needed medical attention.”
Philips said the woman did not want to tell the interpreter what she had been through.
“But I know that law enforcement is now investigating and classifying her as a victim of human trafficking,” Phillips said.
Phillips said she believed the victim spent days hiding in the airport toilets.
“Sometimes I have a gut feeling for things and it turns out to be right. I just knew this woman needed help,” Phillips said. “Who wants to hide in an airport terminal, fearing for their lives.”
Airport officials have said they are determined to end human trafficking at airports.
“This is not a crime committed too far,” said Saba Abashaul, director of external relations for Houston Airports. “Our hearts and prayers are with the victims. With rescue operations like the one at Bush Airport this week, Houston airports are committed to doing everything they can to end human trafficking.”
Airport officials said that in October 2019, Houston Airports became the first airport system in the country to officially partner with the US Department of Homeland Security and its Blue Lightning initiative.
They said that as part of the initiative, Houston Airports has trained more than 30,000 badged airport employees on how to identify and safely report human trafficking.
“If you have someone who doesn’t speak the language and is from a different culture and is sitting in a terminal, that’s a huge red flag to me,” Phillips said. “I would like to help the whole world. I know it’s not always possible, but if we rely on our training and trust our intuition, we can save a life.”
Signs of human trafficking
According to the DHS Blue Campaign, identifying key signs of human trafficking is the first step in identifying victims and can help save lives. Here are some common signs to help recognize human trafficking.
You can also download or order the Blue Campaign Indicator Card, which is a small plastic card that lists common signs of human trafficking and ways to report a crime.
- Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
- Has the child stopped going to school?
- Has the person had sudden or drastic changes in behavior?
- Is a minor engaged in commercial sex?
- Is the person disoriented or confused, is he showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
- Does the person have bruises at various stages of healing?
- Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
- Does the person show signs of being denied food, water, sleep, or medical attention?
- Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she reports? Or someone who seems to be in control, like where they go or who they talk to?
- It seems that a person is taught what to say?
- Does the person live in unsuitable conditions?
- Does the person have no personal belongings and, it seems, an unstable life situation?
- Does a person have freedom of movement? Can a person freely leave their place of residence? Are there unreasonable security measures?
Not all of the signs listed above are present in every situation of human trafficking, and the presence or absence of any of the signs is not necessarily evidence of human trafficking.
SOURCE: US Department of Homeland Security Blue Campaign.