Human trafficking happens everywhere—even in Erie. Because Erie is located on the intersection of I-90 and I-79, is two hours from I-80 and the Canadian border, Erie is considered a “pass-thru” city for traffickers. Handlers bring their victims to Erie for short periods of time to be sold multiple times before moving them on to a new location.
Just recently, Erie successfully prosecuted the first two defendants charged with trafficking of two girls, ages 15 and 16. Both defendants eventually pled guilty to the charges. In September 2017, Devonte Lucas was sentenced to 13 years in jail and 10 years of supervised release on his conviction of sex trafficking a child. His co-conspirator, Thomas Petoff, pled guilty in November 2017 and in April 2018 was sentenced to 14 years in prison for overseeing a multi-state trafficking scheme in which he transported the victims through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia and eventually selling the girls in Florida. The girls were advertised for sale on the now shutdown backpage.com web page.
The survivors were eventually rescued at the El Patio Motel in Erie during a sting operation in conjunction with the Millcreek Police. During the sting, the agreed upon price for the sex act was $170. One of the survivors testified that Mr. Petoff knew she was under the age of 18 at the time the crimes were committed.
In an effort to bring awareness of human trafficking to the Erie area, we are collaborating with the Lutheran Women’s Association and Gannon University’s Social Concerns group to start the SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) initiative in Erie hotels. Small bars of soap with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number are left in area hotel rooms in hopes that trafficking victims will find them and call for help. To date, we have placed soaps in 20 area hotels.