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CHICAGO -- Alex Campbell was an expert in his field, according to authorities.
His "field" was the underground world of human trafficking, known familiarly as pimping and prostitution, and Campbell, according to investigators with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was a master pimp.
"On a scale of one to 10, he’d be a 12," said DHS investigator Gary Hartwig. "I’ve been in law enforcement for 24 years, and he is actually the worst case of human trafficking we’ve identified in Chicago. Probably nationally."
Prosecutors call Campbell a "predator" and say he targeted foreign-born women with questionable legal status. They say he’d use their precarious status, coupled with heavy doses of violence and intimidation, to control the women and force them into "a form of modern-day slavery."
Last November a federal judge sentenced Campbell to life in prison. It’s believed to be the first time a "pimp" has been sentenced to life in prison for human trafficking in federal court in Chicago.
The federal case against Campbell was bolstered by four women who came forward to testify against him in court. In an effort to protect her identity, NBC Chicago will identify one woman only as "Sarah."
'It still hurts so bad'
In a sit-down interview late last month, Sarah said was completely controlled by Campbell to the point where she felt she might lose her life if she dared to disobey him.
"He told me many times that he would kill me," she recalled.
Prosecutors believe Campbell was grooming Sarah to become a prostitute. It started, they say, with Campbell giving her a legitimate job at one of his Chicago-area massage parlors. They say he then became her friend and eventually her boyfriend. Attorneys say he then began to isolate her and beat her. Then he literally branded her.
"I still have those tattoos, and I can’t get rid of them," Sarah said. "I’m trying to remove them for a long time -- like two years -- and they are still not coming off. It still hurts so bad."
Investigators say Campbell branded most all of his victims. On one woman, they say he tattooed an manifesto so long it covered almost her entire back.
"For him, it let the world know that these women belonged to him," said assistant United States Attorney Diane MacArthur, part of the team that prosecuted Campbell.
Steve Grimes, another assistant U.S. Attorney, said the women would have to explain the markings on their bodies for the rest of their lives anytime they met someone new.
"That was part of his plan," said Grimes.
In court, prosecutors also alleged that Campbell would exact fines from the women he controlled. In the case of one victim, he levied a fine of $14,000 for her to get a green card. She got another $5,000 "fine" simply because she didn’t call him.
A recording of a phone call between Campbell and that woman was played in open court:
Woman: "You telling me that I didn’t call you, that’s why I have to give you $5,000?"
Campbell: "I said you got to give me $5,000 ... and you gonna pay it ---."
Woman: "Yes. You told me --"
Campbell: " ... because you are -- listen! This is my last word to you, and you’d better be glad I’m giving you up to f---ing Sunday to f---ing bring a f---ing-a-s payment in. If you don’t f---ing bring in at least $500 mother-f---ing dollars, we will go to f---ing war. Now get my mother-f---ing money."
Sarah said that in Campbell’s world, beatings were common and intimidation was constant. He even used blackmail, she said, taking a page right from one of two books investigators found in his possession: "The Pimp’s Bible."
"[Sarah] tried to get away," said Grimes. "He forced her to drink alcohol and made her have sex with another woman while he videotaped this. He then threatened to send that video to her family, to expose her, if she did not come back into his grasp."
In court documents, attorneys for Campbell said he maintained his innocence and challenged the allegation that Sarah and others were being held against their will.
"Each expected something from him," Campbell’s attorneys state in the court documents. "Each was more than happy to accept what he gave; all this before the relationships turned ugly."
Prosecutors and investigators said they're pleased with the fact that Campbell received a life sentence in court.
"In the truest form of the word, he is a predator," said Grimes.
Sarah eventually escaped from Campbell and reported him to police. She is now married and doing well.
And if someone thinks it can’t happen to them, Sarah says to think again.
"It happens," she said. "It can happen easily to anyone."
Indicators of Human Trafficking:
- Is the victim in possession of identification and travel documents? If not, who has control of the documents?
- Was the victim coached on what to say to law enforcement and immigration officials?
- Was the victim recruited for one purpose and forced to engage in some other job?
- Is the victim's salary being garnished to pay off a smuggling fee? (Paying off a smuggling fee alone is not considered trafficking.)
- Was the victim forced to perform sexual acts?
- Does the victim have freedom of movement?
- Has the victim or family been threatened with harm if the victim attempts to escape?
- Has the victim been threatened with deportation or law enforcement action?
- Has the victim been harmed or deprived of food, water, sleep, medical care or other life necessities?
- Can the victim freely contact friends or family?
- Is the victim a juvenile engaged in commercial sex?
- Is the victim allowed to socialize or attend religious services?
If you have any evidence of human trafficking, or if you are aware of anyone who is being exploited for prostitution, you should call investigators at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at 1-866-347-2423.