Episode 62: Detective Alicia Bergondo, Human Trafficking Investigations
Detective Alicia Bergondo
Alicia Bergondo is a detective with the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office located in Trenton, NJ, assigned to the Human Trafficking Unit. In this episode, Detective Bergondo discusses human trafficking investigations and how her Unit serves the citizens of Mercer County, NJ.
Alicia Bergondo is currently a detective who is employed by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office in Trenton, NJ. Detective Bergondo has been assigned and investigated cases in the Grand Jury Unit, Trial Unit, Domestic Violence Unit, Insurance Fraud Unit, Economic Crime Unit, Special Victims Unit and the Human Trafficking Unit. She is currently the Mercer County liaison to the New Jersey Human Trafficking Task Force. Detective Bergondo possesses a Bachelor of Science degree in Law and Justice and a Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice Administration. In 2018, Detective Bergondo achieved Mercer County’s first human trafficking conviction for a human trafficking case she investigated involving a juvenile victim. Detective Bergondo was also the recipient of an Exceptional Duty Citation in 2018 for excellence in her investigations of human trafficking cases. She was also the 2020 New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice “Sergeant Noelle Holl Recognition Award” recipient for outstanding efforts to end human trafficking in New Jersey.
Intro Voices 00:04
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me? This is You Matter, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:36
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety Operations at the Department of Public Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today, I welcome Alicia Bergondo, a detective with the Mercer County prosecutor's office located in Trenton, New Jersey, assigned to the Human Trafficking Unit. Detective Bergondo is going to discuss human trafficking investigations and how her unit serves the citizens of Mercer County, New Jersey. Detective Bergondo, welcome to You Matter.
Det. Alicia Bergondo 01:21
Hi, thank you for having me.
Karen Ortman 01:23
What is your background in investigations?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 01:26
Sure. I went to college. I have an undergraduate degree in Law and Justice, and a master's degree in Criminal Justice Administration. I went to the Police Academy once I got hired as a detective. I went to the Police Academy in Siegert, New Jersey. The Police Academy is a rigorous 20 week program where we go through classroom experience, practical experience, physical training and defensive tactics. Once we come back to the office, you get assigned to a unit. I've been assigned to many different units within the office. I've been assigned to the Grand Jury Unit, to the Trial Unit, to the Domestic Violence Unit, to the Economic Crime Unit, to the Insurance Fraud Unit, and then, as of 2016, I went to the Special Victims Unit, as well as the Human Trafficking Unit.
Karen Ortman 02:23
Wow, what a career with all those units.
Det. Alicia Bergondo 02:26
We continue with trainings and conferences to learn different investigative techniques and updates within the criminal world for those different types of crimes.
Karen Ortman 02:39
And updates with respect to the law. In New Jersey, it's 2C, the criminal code.
Det. Alicia Bergondo 02:45
Karen Ortman 02:45
Okay. After you graduate from the Academy, you are what is considered to be Police Training Commission Certified, or PTC certified, and that means what?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 02:58
Basically, it means that you went through a program which was approved by the state and you are given state recognition that you are a sworn law enforcement member.
Karen Ortman 03:09
in New Jersey? In New Jersey, yes. Okay. So you're currently assigned to the Human Trafficking Unit. Can you explain what human trafficking is?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 03:20
Sure. Human trafficking is better described now as a form of modern day slavery, there is always a form of some sort of force, fraud or coercion on the victims. It's usually done through sexual exploitation or through labor trafficking, and of the two, sexual exploitation is usually the more common. Anybody can be victimized. You can be an adult or you can be a child. A lot of times the children are the more common ones who are victimized in New Jersey. The way the statute reads, we do not have to prove the force, fraud or coercion if the victim is minor to get help.
Karen Ortman 04:06
So, when we say minor, that is a child under what age?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 04:11
Under the age of 18. If they're over the age of 18, as an adult, we still have to prove that force, fraud or coercion in the statute.
Karen Ortman 04:22
How do you get notified that a human trafficking case is occurring, that there is a victim out there who is being victimized in this fashion?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 04:37
There are a few different ways. Many of my cases have come in as another type of crime. Working on the Special Victims Unit, I deal with sexual assaults. A lot of times the girls will report that they were sexually assaulted, so they'll go to the hospital they'll report a sexual assault, and a lot of times it's not really until we start talking to these victims where we realize there's more to it, this is more than just a sexual assault or domestic violence incident, this is human trafficking. Most times victims don't even know what trafficking is. They don't even know that they're being trafficked. They're not gonna say like, hi, I'm being trafficked, I'm a trafficking victim. So, many times they do come in as other crimes, domestic violence, FELONS (?) is also another way. I've gotten cases through our domestic violence unit. Aside from someone reporting a crime directly to a police department, there are other ways that crimes, the crime of human trafficking, would get reported in New Jersey. We have a Human Trafficking Tip Line, and that Human Trafficking Tip Line goes out to all of the human trafficking liaisons within the state. I am Mercer County's human trafficking liaison, and what happens is it gets filtered through this tip line, and they send it out to whatever respective law enforcement agency would need to be contacted. They get sent out to the county detectives, to the state police, to the FBI, to the Division of Criminal Justice in New Jersey, and whoever it falls under, whatever county or jurisdiction within the state, that's who would go out and actually respond to that. That's on a local level, because that's the state level, but there is also a National Human Trafficking tip line. I have both of those numbers, I can give both of those numbers to you.
Karen Ortman 06:32
Det. Alicia Bergondo 06:34
The national tip line is also a 24/7 hotline, and offer victims support and safety. They also receive tips through the national hotline, which get filtered out to the proper state authorities.
Karen Ortman 06:46
Det. Alicia Bergondo 06:46
So do you want those numbers now? I don't know if you want them now or later.
Karen Ortman 06:50
Sure, what's the New Jersey tip line number?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 06:53
Okay, the New Jersey tip line number is 1-855-363-6548, actually 855-END-NJHT. And The national hotline would be 1-888-373-7888.
Karen Ortman 07:13
Okay, so let's go back to something that you said earlier, when someone reports to a hospital, for example, and they're there in response to being victimized sexually, you made it a point to say, girls. Are girls predominantly, more times than not, the victims of human trafficking, as opposed to men or boys.
Det. Alicia Bergondo 07:42
It is usually more females who are trafficked, however, it's not always females. Males are also trafficking victims as well.
Karen Ortman 07:50
Okay. And when you spoke about responding to a hospital and interviewing a victim who has reported there, that there's oftentimes more to the story than what has been offered. Like you said, a human trafficking victim is not going to come out and say, look at me, I'm a human trafficking victim. Can you explain to the listeners what sort of information you are looking for when you believe that there is something going on, that is more to the story than what has been offered to you at that moment?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 08:32
Sure. A victim may report that they are held captive, that they are not allowed to leave, that they were forced to engage in sex acts, and were never given any of the money. That's a lot of times what happens with human trafficking, they will be prostituting, but they don't ever see a penny of that money, it's always turned over to the pimps. A lot of times when we have victims who are coming in from out of the country, they will have their documents withheld, meaning their passport and their birth certificates, so they have no way of leaving. If they report something like that, it's a red flag for human trafficking. Also, evicted a report that they are not free to move about normally. For instance, they were told when they can go to the bathroom, they're told when they can eat or not eat, and little things like that are red flags with human trafficking.
Karen Ortman 09:29
Sure. We've already established that these cases are not voluntarily reported by a victim with any degree of ease. It's usually a situation where it's probably an accidental disclosure to law enforcement that kind of takes you down that road and alerts you this is probably a human trafficking case. What are the challenges once you've identified a red flag and you believe that you are now dealing with a human trafficking case? What are the challenges associated with successfully investigating that case to a conclusion where you can actually make an arrest?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 10:17
So human trafficking cases are probably some of the most difficult cases to actually handle and investigate. The biggest challenge is keeping your victims on board. With most crimes, if you don't have a victim, you don't really have a case in the end. The population of people that you deal with who are trafficked, a lot of times they're homeless, they don't have working phones, they're children in the foster care system, so they move from place to place, they're drug addicted, so that is a huge challenge with these cases. Along with that, we deal with a large component of witness tampering. Because these are first degree cases, and unlike, say homicide where the victims in those cases are dead, these victims are alive.
Karen Ortman 11:10
So let me go back, you mentioned that these cases were first degree, what does that mean?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 11:16
That's the highest level of a crime in New Jersey. It's the strictest penalties that you can have, it's considered an indictable crime in which a case would have to go through a Grand Jury in New Jersey. They would have to actually get indicted, which would mean the Grand Jurors would have to find enough probable cause for those charges to stick. To keep the case a first degree case, you have to have a victim or some other corroborating evidence to move forward with a first degree conviction.
Karen Ortman 11:47
You mentioned witness tampering. Let's presume that there are victims of trafficking listening to this episode and they're reluctant to come forward just based upon the facts of their own case. Now we're talking about witness tampering. What sort of advice can you provide a listener who now might be a little nervous about pursuing law enforcement intervention as a result of witness tampering?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 12:25
Obviously, once a victim comes forward, we work with them directly to get them other assistance, we don't just say, okay, let me take your statement then you're on your own. As soon as a human trafficking victim comes forward, we hook them up with counseling service, we can hook them up with housing assistance, and relocate them. There's a wonderful program in New Jersey called Dream Free, and Dream Free works with human trafficking victims. We use them all the time, as soon as we have a human trafficking case, we call them and they are counselors who deal directly with the victims, they will link them to counseling and case management, they'll assist them with court, and they'll assist them with finding housing. That's just one of the programs that we have. There's also another one in New Jersey called the Covenant House, and they're based out of Newark. They will provide people with immigration assistance, if that's an issue, with services, and with counseling. There's a lot of help out there, it's just that a victim has to come forward with it. We would never leave somebody on their own. I can tell you, with my victims and my cases, I constantly check in with them. I will text them or call them all the time. I try to find other alternate ways of contacting them so if I know they have a family member, somewhere down the road that has a stable living situation or consistent phone number, I'll check in with that family member. I just like my victims who I deal with to know that we're there for them. I know, a lot of times these girls are afraid because what they're doing, or even the boys I mean, what they're doing is illegal. They're engaging in prostitution, that's a crime, and they're afraid because they're gonna get in trouble, but we're not there to prosecute them, they're victims in the matter, and we want to get them help.
Karen Ortman 14:15
So any victim out there who is engaging in illegal activity as a result of their position as a trafficking victim need not worry about being prosecuted for that conduct that they are essentially being forced to conduct?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 14:31
Yeah, I never chargea victim with a crime like that. We're there to help them, we're there for the bigger picture and not what they were doing.
Karen Ortman 14:39
Right. How are victims typically recruited and by whom?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 14:46
There's a lot of different ways they're recruited. These traffickers will prey on their vulnerabilities. One population will be the drug addicted, if they know your drug addicted, you're out there trying to get your next fix day to day, they will offer them a stable living environment, they will offer them the ability to get their drugs for them, a lot of times they will actually buy the drugs for them. That obviously doesn't come without something in return and the victims are then forced to work. There also recruited, the homeless population, because they obviously don't have a way or a place to live, they have nothing, they don't have food. Additionally, young girls that are in school, I've had girls whose parents were dropping them off at school normally, had no idea that the girls were cutting school to go hang out with older guys on the street. These older guys were then forcing them to work for them. These were girls who lived in normal homes, had normal parents who were there but they weren't exempt either. Once they get in this, they can't get out, they can't because they're scared. They're all scared to come forward, and when they're working, there's a thing called a choosing fee, where if you decide to leave you have to pay a fee to your pimp. hey know it's an exit fee, and they know that these victims don't have the money to pay this exorbitant fee.
Karen Ortman 16:23
What is that? What's an example of what a fee would be?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 16:27
It could be anything, any monetary amount, it could be $1000s. They can say, you owe me $10,000, and they know the victims don't have $10,000. There's different kind of recruitment that goes on with the pimps. You could have a pimp who preys on the younger females, usually, men pretend they are in a relationship with them, or provide them love if they don't have love at home. That's Romeo pimp. You could also have a CEO pimp, he will pretend to be a businessman and offer a victim a career, and a big thing for careers would be modeling or acting, or to open up a nail salon. They have no intentions of ever doing any of that for them, but it's just a way that they recruit people to come work. The other way is the gorilla pimps, and the gorilla pimps basically just use violence, and threats, and that's how they get their victims to stay and to work because they're afraid to leave because they're afraid to get beaten.
Karen Ortman 17:33
Have you ever encountered a female pimp?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 17:36
I have, it's not just men, it's females. Actually, I have a case that was just resolved, went to trial, she was found guilty, and she's serving time. She recruited another female, and that's actually a common way that traffickers will get people to work for them, they'll use a female to recruit a female because they think the females will feel more comfortable if another female comes to them.
Karen Ortman 18:03
How closely do you work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in these cases, particularly when we're talking about homeless drug addicted youth, the castaway youth who are, kind of, thrown out of their homes for various reasons, some of which might be drug addiction? Maybe they have come out of the closet, as trans or homosexual, the LGBTQ community and its entirety as youth could be castaway kids, does relationship exist?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 18:41
Yeah, so that's also referred to as NCMECS in our world that's just the shorthand abbreviation of it. We will get tips through NCMECS, they come in directly through them or through the tip lines. A lot of times it is those kind of tips are filtered through our Internet Crimes Against Children Unit, which is called ICAC. They work with child pornography, but a lot of times the child pornography also then turns into human trafficking at some point. We would work hand in hand with them and investigate any other tips that they have.
Karen Ortman 19:14
It looks like your office addresses these issues from a variety of means through different units like ICAC, through Special Victims, through Human Trafficking, all as a means by which to capture what you can through the various expertise in those units, which is I think, great.
Det. Alicia Bergondo 19:42
We all work hand in hand. Even though we work separate units, we will all join together to go out and investigate things. Whatever needs to be done we all work together great.
Karen Ortman 19:51
Yeah. So tell me why the victim stay in these situations with pimps as trafficking victims. You mentioned that there's an exorbitant fee to exit, but are there other sort of contributing factors that keep victims remaining in these environments?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 20:13
Most of the time they're scared, they know they have nowhere to go. The population whose trafficked, they have these vulnerabilities, they don't have a home life, they don't have family members that they can contact, they probably have burned bridges, you know, if they were drug addicted, like their family, let them go, and now they're on the street. So, these traffickers know they're not going anywhere, like, if I threaten them and I keep them here, where are they going to go?
Karen Ortman 20:38
Right. Let's talk about once you have gotten to the point where you're able to make an arrest. This defendant is now going through the criminal justice process, they've been indicted, and the Grand Jury has found sufficient probable cause that the suspect, now defendant should be charged with the crimes alleged. Do you ever have difficulty keeping a victim engaged and really having the courage to step forward in this process, which could involve testifying against the defendant in a courtroom face to face with their abuser? What are the difficulties associated with that once you get to that phase?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 21:37
That happens all the time. I will actually take a step back and say that these investigations definitely don't happen overnight. I mean, these cases, if someone comes forward today, it could be another year or two years. I've investigated some of these cases for three years, because what we need to do, aside from just having the victims word and taking a statement from the victim, we need other corroborating evidence, because a lot of times you don't have these victims in the end. You'll see their phones, and you'll go through all their phones, you'll go through all their social media. I mean, I've listened to 1000s of recorded jail calls because these guys are just literally in jail on the recorded line talking about all their business, talking about the whole case on the phone. That takes a lot of time, but it's also helpful in the end, because if you don't have the victim, at least you have some other kind of concrete evidence that you can also go by. These...
Karen Ortman 22:29
Can I interrupt you for one second? When you talk about seizing a phone, you're talking about the defendant or the person who has been charged with the crime, their phone?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 22:37
Their phone, correct.
Karen Ortman 22:39
Det. Alicia Bergondo 22:40
A lot of times they'll have more than one phone on them too, they'll have 2, 3, 4 phones. You apply for a search warrant for the phone, and then we have access to everything that's on that phone. With my last few cases, we've been pretty lucky where the victims have stayed on board with us, and I think it's been a lot because we put the time and attention into them. We've checked in with them and been consistent with them from the beginning of the investigation, we offer them whatever help they needed. That, I think, in these cases is the biggest thing that you can do because if something's taking two or three years, you're not gonna be able to find these people in two or three years. If you do have somebody who wants nothing to do with it, and says, I've moved on my life, I'm done with this, I'm done, I'm not testifying, I don't have the courage to do it, there are other things we can do, there are other plea agreements that we can reach. Obviously, it might not be for human trafficking offense, but when we do charge them with human trafficking, I charged them with a whole host of other things. You may get charged with the sexual assault, with witness tampering, promoting prostitution, so, there are other ways we can get a conviction, it just might not be for the human trafficking. It gives us more to work with when you hit them with a whole host of charges.
Karen Ortman 24:01
Can you share the details of a recent case or any case in which there was a successful outcome for our listeners?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 24:12
Sure. I investigated a case a few years ago, which involved a minor female, she was 17 years old at the time. The case came in as a missing person case, we had no idea at the time like where she was. Her mom was in the picture. Her mom was a loving mother. She reported her daughter missing. She had been missing for three or four days at that time. This girl had a severe learning disability, as well as severe medical issues, which required medication and her mom became increasingly worried with each day that went by because she knew she did not have her medication. This case was put in the paper because they said she's missing, we need the public's assistance, like we need to have help finding her. Once the article hit the paper her trafficker said, you got to go like you're out of here, let's go. At that point she went to the hospital because she said she was sexually assaulted. After a statement was taken, obviously, we learned it was more than just a sexual assault, that she was held captive for days, she was forced to perform sexual acts on unknown men that came in, she was not allowed to keep any of the money, and she was not allowed to leave. Every time she did try to leave, her pimp told her that he was going to kill her. So, if it wasn't for her mom being in the picture, who knows what would have happened or how long she would have been stuck in that situation. He got scared and that's when he let her go. When I talked to her, she told me that she was also given like a cough syrup type substance, which she didn't know what it was, but every time she would take it, she would feel like really sleepy and groggy. That was another way that he kept her there. She didn't eat also for those three or four days, and obviously she didn't get her medication. That was a successful outcome. He ended up pleading to a human trafficking conviction, and he is currently serving time for that conviction.
Karen Ortman 26:18
Did the victim know the trafficker prior to her disappearance?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 26:25
It was somebody that she knew, like, seeing around in the neighborhood. She would go to school and then she would come home and she'd either, cut school during the day or she'd come home after school and she'd hang around. She started talking to some older guys, these guys she started hanging around with were in their upper 20s. She was only 17 at the time and kind of felt comfortable with them, but things obviously took a turn.
Karen Ortman 26:56
I'm glad that was a successful ending. Good for you and your office, thank you. Why are we hearing so much about human trafficking today?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 27:08
I would say there is much more of a public awareness of this now due to public campaigns and increased media campaigns. Human Trafficking has always been around, it's not a new crime, it's been around forever. There's a lot more of a focus on it and a lot more in the news and the media. A lot of celebrities have also taken the time to speak about human trafficking and campaign for human trafficking victims. Some of those are Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, they formed a nonprofit organization called THORN. THORN has developed a computer program which has helped law enforcement to combat human trafficking, investigate human trafficking and through this program, Ashton Kutcher has saved 1000s of victims from human trafficking. He's spoken about it extensively. Aside from him, there's been a lot of other big celebrities as well who have spoken about human trafficking in the media, too. Angelina Jolie has been one of them. Emma Thompson, Ricky Martin, all of them have taken the time to speak about human trafficking. I think once it started becoming more of a topic on TV, and in TV shows, in the media, people started to look at it more seriously. I know even in this area in New Jersey, and in New York City, we're in such a highly populated area between New York City and Philly, Atlantic City there's a demand for sex and people are willing to pay for it, it's going to happen We have so many major roads here. You have the turnpike, you have 95, you have the parkway, you have the train systems, there's numerous airports here, so if people are willing to travel and people are willing to pay for it, there's going to be a crime of it here. Yeah. Even with the sports venues a lot of sports, when there's major events like the Super Bowl, there's always increased human trafficking at that time. Yeah. I think that's a lot of the reason why we're hearing a lot more about it, as well, I think a lot of these tip lines where you can leave anonymous tips are helpful as well.
Karen Ortman 29:32
Which is why I think it's so important to have someone such as yourself, come on the podcast and talk about it. I appreciate that. We spoke in a constructive, positive way about celebrity in the entertainment industry, speaking on behalf of human trafficking. Do you see any sort of inaccuracies in the entertainment world in movies and television with respect to how human trafficking cases are depicted?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 30:10
Sure, I mean, I can tell you with any of these TV shows, any of these crime TV shows, or court TV shows, what you see in that hour segment, in the real world takes months or years. You don't get DNA back that quick, you don't get fingerprints back that quick. Obviously, it's TV so some of it is fast tracked, or some of it is embellished a little bit more for TV and entertainment purposes, but with a lot of the human trafficking, things that I've seen, I mean, there is always, it's always, most of the time, they are based on a true account from a victim or a true story. So the underlying like aspect of it is usually true. There just maybe a few details, which are, you know, embellished a little bit more for TV.
Karen Ortman 30:54
Yeah, which primarily, I guess, is the timeframe in which the matter is resolved. Correct. Right. Is there anything that you would like to add, that I haven't asked in terms of resources, in terms of information for anybody who's listening who might be a victim themselves, or know someone who is?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 31:17
The only thing I can say is, just don't be afraid to reach out for help. If you yourself are a victim, or if you suspect that someone else may be victimized, call the tip line, go to local law enforcement. You can leave anonymous tips on these tip lines, just if you leave an anonymous tip, from a law enforcement perspective, please just give as much information as you possibly can so that we can actually follow up on it. If it's something that you see on social media, make sure that you give what social media account it is or what platform it's on, user names, things like that. Sometimes people are afraid, they don't want to turn somebody in for human trafficking, because they're not sure; leave that up to us. We'll be the ones to look into it and see if something's legit or not. There's so many resources out there for victims, like, once someone does come forward we can help with so many different things in her life whether it be legal services or counseling, but we just need people to take that first step. Don't be afraid, we're all here as law enforcement to help you.
Karen Ortman 32:28
Can you give an assurance to a victim who's listening who might be engaging in criminal activity, because they are being trafficked and forced to do so that they do not have to worry about being charged with that criminal offense that they are engaging in?
Det. Alicia Bergondo 32:48
Yeah, I can tell you again, I've never charged any of the victims with any crime involving human trafficking. We're here to help you. We're not here to charge you. We're here to assist you, even though we are law enforcement and we arrest people for doing the wrong thing, we're here to look at the bigger picture and as long as you come forward and can help us we're there to help you.
Karen Ortman 33:11
Okay. Thank you, Detective Bergondo.
Det. Alicia Bergondo 33:15
Karen Ortman 33:15
I appreciate you coming on to You Matter. And to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter if any information presented was triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999 or NYU's Department of Public Safety and their Victim Services Unit at 212-998-2222. Before I continue if you could give the human trafficking tip line in New Jersey one more time as well as the National tip line.
Det. Alicia Bergondo 33:48
So the National Human Trafficking hotline is 1-888-373-7888 and Human Trafficking tip line in New Jersey is 1-855-363-6548.
Karen Ortman 34:06
Thank you. Please share, like, and subscribe to You Matter on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Tune in or Spotify.