PORTSMOUTH — Spurred by a victim who contacted police, authorities in Portsmouth are investigating what they believe is an organized prostitution ring with ties across the Eastern Seaboard, from New Hampshire as far south as New Jersey.
The investigation began when a Manchester woman contacted police in that community and reported she was forced to work as a prostitute at a hotel near the Portsmouth traffic circle, according to Deputy Portsmouth Police Chief Stephen DuBois. DuBois said the incident occurred sometime in October 2011.
Portsmouth detectives launched an investigation into the woman’s claim on Tuesday, and are now coordinating with police departments in several states to uncover evidence, according to DuBois.
Asked to describe how the ring operates, DuBois said women are “essentially forced into the sex trade because of certain controls that another person would have over them … like possession of all their worldly belongings, and/or a debt that’s owed.”
With the investigation only days old, DuBois said it’s unclear what length of time the prostitution ring was allegedly operating in the Portsmouth hotel. He said police believe other female victims were also forced into sex work at the hotel. It’s also unknown whether any other New Hampshire communities were touched by the operation, he said.
“I think, when you’re talking about multiple jurisdictions over state lines, eventually there’ll be a federal [law enforcement] component to it,” DuBois said.
In recent months, Portsmouth police have turned their attention to an apparent increase in prostitution activity in the area. A sting operation conducted at a Portsmouth hotel in the spring resulted in the arrest of three men who allegedly tried to pay for sex, including a former Massachusetts police officer.
At the time, a Portsmouth police official attributed the illicit activity to rings based in Boston and New York, which use area hotels while moving women to other locations.
While individual cases of prostitution are not uncommon in the Seacoast area, DuBois said human trafficking of this nature presents a new challenge for the department.
“Prostitution enforcement is not a foreign thing to us, as far as, we’ve had cases of prostitution in Portsmouth in the past,” DuBois said. “It does happen. This is a little different in that it’s part of a larger, you know, a larger ring.”