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Human trafficking close to home
Sheriff's deputy plays lead role as she works to help victims of all ages in local battle against atrocious crimes ranging from prostitution to slavery

When you hear the words "human trafficking," chances are good you think of underaged prostitutes in Malaysia or child laborers in Saudi Arabia or Guatemala.

Elizabeth Fildes wants you to think instead of Amherst, Lancaster and Orchard Park.

"There is no place tonight where human trafficking will not be happening," said the 29-year Erie County sheriff's deputy.

Few know that better than Fildes, a key figure in nearly every local investigation into human trafficking the past five years.

And no one has been as close to the victims.

"My youngest victim was 12," she said. "My oldest was in her late 60s."

The horror stories are many and the details so brutal, some investigators find it hard hearing them.

"She's told me there are times when her male colleagues have to walk out of the room," said her husband, Gerald Fildes. "Somehow, she's able to keep her emotions in check. Of course later, when she's home, she'll let it out."

As head of the Western New York Human Trafficking Alliance, a task force of local, state and federal law enforcement officials, Fildes has gained a reputation strong enough to land her in Guatemala last year as an envoy for the U.S. State Department. Her pioneering work and leadership have earned her numerous awards and honors and, even more important, the respect of police, prosecutors and judges.

"She's the boots on the ground, as we like to say," said Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman. "Where Liz is at her best is in interviewing victims. They're afraid. They don't know who to trust. And somehow, Liz can walk in that room and get them talking."

For five years, Fildes has been the law enforcement official in the room, gaining the trust of victims.

She, more than anyone else, knows that without a victim's cooperation, the chances of a successful prosecution are almost nil.

"They have to trust you," Fildes said. "They have to know you're there to help them."

And there's nothing easy about that.

Whether it's a prostitute terrified of her violent pimp or a migrant worker afraid of deportation, the emotional hurdles that stand between the victims and the people trying to help them are immense.

Talk to her for any length of time about her work and you understand why the terrified and forgotten trust Fildes.

"Her compassion and sincerity are her biggest assets," said Susan Darlak, a close friend and a former special assistant in the Sheriff's Office. "No matter what time, day or night, she is always available for the victims. She has so much motivation, and it all comes from the heart."

For Fildes, it's more than just a job.

She talks passionately and, yes, endlessly, but not about herself or her accomplishments. It's always about the victims and what they endure.

She will tell you, quite bluntly, of women who are beaten and raped and forced into modern-day slavery. And she will tell you that, even now, government and society are falling short in the mission to abolish human trafficking.

And on occasion, she too breaks down.

Back in November, she appeared before the Erie County Legislature to receive a proclamation honoring her service and, while talking about the frequent late-night cell phone calls seeking help, her voice faltered.

"We still don't see them for who they are, which is victims," Fildes said last week. "I mean a 16-year-old, a 14-year-old, a 12-year-old doesn't wake up one morning and say, 'Oh, this is a career I want to be in. I want to be a prostitute.' "

Even now, five years and 30 investigations later, she can recall every single victim. Some of them she helped. Others fell through cracks.

One of them was a 23-year-old local woman, a U.S. Army veteran with a biker-boyfriend who eventually became her pimp.

At the time of her arrest, she was turning seven or eight tricks a day, always fearful of another beating at the hands of her boyfriend-turned-pimp. Fildes got her some help, but in the end, it wasn't enough, and she returned to the tricks and beatings.

"I didn't have enough to offer her," she said. "And that was not the first time. There have been many girls who have showed up, and I haven't been able to help."

One of the biggest reasons is what Fildes and others see as one of the great outrages of her work here.

Thanks to a federal grant and the work of the International Institute of Buffalo, a wide range of programs and services are available to foreign-born victims of human trafficking.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true of victims born here.

"It makes you angry," Fildes said. "It's pretty hard when you have a victim in front of you and you want do the right thing but you can't."

Not surprisingly, Fildes is part of a group trying to fill that need. The goal? Raising money to finance and open United Hands of Hope, the region's first safe house for U.S.-born victims of human trafficking.

"You have to have someplace here for them," she said. "It's like a victim of domestic violence. Somebody's got to be there for them."

There are some happy endings, and those are the men, women and children who keep her going, who get her up for work each morning.

"It tends to be a roller coaster," said her husband, Gerald. "When things are going well, she's on a high. But there are bad times too, and I can always tell."

Ask Fildes about the victories, and she'll reel off a list of cases, some of them high-profile investigations such as the massage parlor prostitution operation run by Len Wah "Lisa" Chong.

Chong, who admitted that she recruited the prostitutes, was sentenced to six years in prison. Prosecutors said that the women made $60 for sex acts but that Chong took $50 of it off the top.

Fildes said the Chong case was satisfying because of the close working relationship she developed with the FBI and Border Patrol agents working on the case.

It also confirmed two little-known facts about human trafficking -- women, as well as men, can be traffickers, and each culture tends to exploit their own.

"Americans traffic Americans, Chinese traffic Chinese, and Mexicans traffic Mexicans," she said.

After five years, Fildes admits there is little that shocks her anymore. One of the few exceptions was her visit to Guatemala last year as a representative of the State Department.

She went there with the intention of meeting with judges, law enforcement officials and legislators but took time out to tour some of the country's poorer regions.

"It was worse than anything I could have imagined," she said. "To actually see little kids in child labor. That was a rough day for me. To actually watch 4-year-olds pounding rocks into blocks. That was horrible."

In some strange way, it's those brutal images that motivate Fildes.

Even now, you can sense the anger when she talks about the people she helped put behind bars. Near the top of the list is retired State Supreme Court Justice Ronald H. Tills of West Falls.

Tills was sentenced to 18 months in prison for transporting an illegal immigrant named Coco across state lines to serve as a prostitute at a Royal Order of Jesters convention in Kentucky.

"I will never forgive myself for the possible harm I've caused to the victims in this case," Tills told a packed courtroom.

Possible harm?

For Fildes, that was a chilling reminder of Tills' lack of remorse.

"I'll never forget that," she said. "I remember sitting in the back of the courtroom, completely numb."

As she looks ahead, Fildes admits that her time as an investigator is coming to an end but that she will leave confident others are there to pick up the slack.

"On the whole, it's the most satisfying work I've ever done," she said. "And I know I've made a difference."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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