11 investigates human trafficking in western Pennsylvania

PITTSBURGH — Human trafficking is something Karleigh Maide knows all too well.

She shared her story of being trafficked as a teenager in Pittsburgh with Channel 11 News nearly three years ago. Then, at Maide’s request, we only identified her as “Kate”.

Now, she’s ready to leave the shadows.

“(I’m) more open with my story with family members who didn’t know what was going on or people at my place of employment. They really wrapped around me and helped,” Maide said.

Sexual abuse is something she experienced throughout her life, beginning as a young child. Maide ran away from home as a 14-year-old to live on the streets downtown.

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“It was just something that I felt I needed to do to survive, to eat, to have a warm place. I didn’t want to sleep under a bridge no more,” she recalled.

An acquaintance recruited her offering a place to stay. But it came with a price.

“Originally, he had me start of selling drugs for him, coke on Fifth Avenue.”

But Maide said it wasn’t enough and soon she was selling her body to keep a roof over her head.

“That’s when I started being trafficked,” she said.

The arrangement lasted several months before Maide was caught up in an FBI sting at a local hotel and offered a new path.

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This happened years ago, but it’s a problem that isn’t going away.

“They themselves don’t identify as victims a lot of the time. So, it takes a lot of work just to get them to come out,” said FBI Victim Specialist Bridget Simunovic.

As of November, there were more than 1,800 human trafficking investigation ongoing nationwide according the FBI, figures that continue to rise. 90% of those cases involve sex trafficking. At this point, the agency said it isn’t clear if the problem is getting worse or if increased awareness is leading to more arrests and prosecutions.

The extent of the problem can be difficult to judge in Western Pennsylvania as well. The Pennsylvania Courts recently listed the counties with the highest percentage of human trafficking cases filed since 2015.

In Western Pennsylvania, only Westmoreland County cracked the top 10 ranking ninth. But FBI Special Agent Leonard Piccini said he has no reason to believe human trafficking is happening any less frequently in our area, even during the pandemic.

“Social media in general has been a main platform for recruitment, locating victims and grooming them. It has always been,” PIccini said.

This isn’t what put Maide on the path to being trafficked, but she knows it can easily happen to others.

She’s now using her own traumatic experience to help other young girls facing similar challenges.

“It’s happening everywhere in different forms. It’s not always what people think.”