Apartment building at 485 Furby where a girl was held captive. See Mike MCIntyre’s piece on human trafficking. June 10, 2015 – (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press)
By: Mike McIntyre
Alleged trafficking ring stirs up slaying mystery
She could have been the next Tina Fontaine.
The 17-year-old Winnipeg girl who recently escaped an alleged human-trafficking ring is a longtime Child and Family Services ward who has frequently run away from care, the Free Press has learned.
Police have issued at least five alerts for the girl since she turned 13, warning she is “at high risk of being exploited or victimized” after vanishing from different parts of the city.
That’s what justice officials say occurred last month inside an apartment block on Furby Street, where the teen is alleged to have been held captive for 10 days and sexually abused by as many as 50 men.
It’s the type of incident that has exposed the dark underbelly of Winnipeg to the public. But it has also raised several questions, including:
— Is there a direct connection between this case and the Tina Fontaine case? As the Free Press revealed this week, one of the four people charged with human trafficking is Tina’s cousin, Jeanenne Fontaine. And the apartment suite where the teen was victimized is the same place Tina spent some of her final days before being killed last summer. Is that just a bizarre coincidence?
— Have any of the so-called johns who exploited the teen been located? And, if so, did any of them have prior contact with Tina? Are they potential suspects? We know police are reviewing surveillance video, including those inside cabs that frequented the Furby Street block, with hopes of tracking down these men.
— What exactly occurred last August between Tina and her cousin during that visit on Furby? Other family members previously said they believe Tina, also a CFS ward, was being sexually exploited in Winnipeg. If true, who was involved?
— Who was tasked with caring for this human-trafficking victim when she disappeared last month? Given her alarming history of disappearing, what steps had been taken — if any — to try to keep her safe? Was there a breakdown or failure here? We may never know these answers, because CFS refuses to comment on any of its files.
— Why are police releasing no information about this trafficking case? You’d think investigators would want to publicly celebrate the fact they’ve busted such a dangerous ring, especially given the new human-trafficking legislation being used along with the spotlight on missing and murdered women. But there hasn’t been a peep. The Free Press learned about the case through court documents. Police cite their ongoing investigation for their silence. Does their investigation include the Tina Fontaine case, as well?
One thing this case should put to rest is the notion police don’t pour all of their resources into these types of cases.
From what we heard about this investigation in court earlier this week — courtesy of a detailed bail hearing for Tina’s cousin — officers are pulling out all the stops.
Neighbourhood canvasses, forensic analysis of phones and an escort website where the teen’s services were advertised, and the labour-intensive search for all the men who abused the girl are just some of the steps being taken.
This case also shows the continued need for the type of missing-person alerts that seem to be an almost daily occurrence. Five times, this alleged human-trafficking victim was the subject of one. And five times she was safely located within days, before police said any harm could come to her.
There was no sixth alert when she vanished last month only to fall into the grips of accused sex traffickers. Why wasn’t there one? And would it have made a difference, as it had done in the past?
The reasons for these alerts are rooted in tragedy. Years before the Tina Fontaine case was another, eerily similar, one — the Chelsea Houle homicide.
Chelsea was 17 when she vanished in 2009, turning up days later face-down in a ditch. Her killer has never been caught. At the time of her death, Chelsea had been involved in the sex trade, was a frequent runaway and had been grappling with addiction. No public alert was issued for her.
From that day forward, members of the Winnipeg police missing-persons unit vowed to honour Chelsea’s legacy by working to ensure other vulnerable young people don’t meet a tragic fate.
The result was the type of blitz you now see of missing teens. The majority involve several dozen high-risk Winnipeg youths who are being closely monitored by police to ensure they remain safe. Criteria include teens suffering from addiction issues and who are seen at risk of being sexually exploited.
Officers work in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and social services agencies.
Each officer in the missing-persons unit is assigned a caseload of between five and 10 youths who have been identified as potential high-risk victims. Most have histories that involve drug and alcohol addiction, gang affiliation, running away or being raised in the child welfare system with little family support.
Most who have been identified as high-risk are female. Officers meet with them in the hope of building a personal relationship. The officers keep close tabs on their targets and take immediate steps when one goes missing.
We don’t know if the alleged victim of human trafficking was on that watch list. It’s just another in a long list of questions that remain to be answered.