On April 8, 31-year-old Thomas Petoff  of Erie, PA was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for overseeing a multi-state sex trafficking operation involving two teenage girls. Senior U.S. District Judge David Cercone, who issued the prison sentence, also ordered Petoff to serve ten years on supervision and to register as a sex offender after his release from prison. Back in November 2018, Petoff plead guilty to two felony counts of sex trafficking of a child and one felony count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. One of Petoff’s victims was trafficked from age 16 to age 17, and the second girl was trafficked from age 15 to age 16. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said the crimes constituted “extremely serious conduct” and asked Judge Cercone to adhere to the plea agreement that Petoff and his lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Christopher Brown, came to with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The agreed-upon sentence falls within federal sentencing guidelines, though Judge Cercone recommended that Petoff serve his prison term in a federal medical center, as he is confined to a wheelchair.
According to GoErie.com, Trabold recounted at the plea hearing back in November 2018 how Petoff and his co-defendant, 24-year-old Devonte Lucas,  were taken into custody after Millcreek Township Police conducted a sting at an area motel on October 19, 2015. According to Trabold, an undercover officer set up a meeting with the first child victim, while Petoff and Lucas observed the meeting at a nearby gas station. Lucas, who served as an “enforcer” for Petoff, “brought the girl to meet with the undercover officer balanced on the handlebars of his bicycle,” according to the information presented by Trabold in court. The girl then told police that Petoff was her pimp and that he collected all the proceeds from commercial sex acts that he forced her into. Police also recovered text messages between Petoff and the girl that demonstrated Petoff’s knowledge of her underage status.
Investigators later found ads posted on Backpage.com that linked with Petoff’s email account, which revealed that Petoff used the alias “Tank Hoffa” online. Ads that were connected with Petoff under the title “Hoffa’s Angels,” were posted on Backpage offering services in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Florida. In fact, the first child victim that police met in the sting was seen in Florida with Petoff back in April 2015, only a few months after she was reported missing by her Erie, PA mother. The second child victim that police later located told authorities that she had also been trafficked by Petoff and Lucas. The government charged that both men recruited the young girls to engage in commercial sex acts. Lucas was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison in September 2017 after pleading guilty to the same counts of sex trafficking a child and conspiracy to commit sex trafficking as Petoff.
The CSE Institute applauds the anti-trafficking efforts carried out by Millcreek Township Police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Pennsylvania in this case. The CSE Institute encourages both law enforcement and the justice system to use a victim-centered approach when investigating and adjudicating crimes of sex trafficking and prostitution.Judges, law enforcement officers, and attorneys should be conscious of victims’ experiences and their accompanying traumaand pursue legal action against those engaging in sex-buying, as was done in this case against traffickers Petoff and Lucas. It is important to stress that sex buyers drive the market that makes commercial sexual exploitation so profitable for traffickers. This is why the CSE Institute advocates for the adoption of the Nordic Model, which penalizes those who buy and sell persons for sex instead of vulnerable and exploited women, or in this case, children.
This case also highlights the unfortunate prevalence of underage persons, specifically young girls, involved in sex trafficking. Children that are subject to certain vulnerabilities, such as race, child welfare involvement, refugee or migrant status, LGBTQ+ identities, and homelessness are statistically more likely to fall victim to sex traffickers. These disadvantages make children targets for traffickers, who use predatory tactics to manipulate, recruit, and exploit them. According to Polaris, traffickers use threats, lies or psychological coercion to engage victims; in other cases, they may kidnap victims, engage in physical violence, or use substances to abuse and control them. Victims of trafficking frequently fall into “the life” because they are runaway or homeless persons, have mental health issues, have substance abuse problems, struggle with past abuse or trauma, or do not have access to basic necessities, such as money, food, or shelter because of socioeconomic hardship. These reasons are often the motivations behind selling sex, if not to avoid violence or certain death at the hands of their trafficker.
The CSE Institute emphasizes that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. Children cannot consent to be sexually exploited; therefore, they should be treated as victims of sex trafficking and child abuse, not criminals. The CSE Institute tirelessly advocated for the passage of Act 130 of 2018 in Pennsylvania, which is also known as the “Safe Harbor” law. This statute protects sexually exploited children by immunizing them from criminal prosecution for prostitution and related crimes. Safe Harbor also imposes a duty on child services agencies to establish adequate victim services for these children, require police training to identify child victims of sexual exploitation, and establishes a fund that provides services for child victims of sex trafficking.
The CSE Institute commends the Millcreek Township Police for identifying the juveniles involved in this case, and emphasizes that all prostituted persons, especially children, are victims of commercial sexual exploitation who are best served through interventions with social services or exit strategies, rather than criminal punishment, judicial admonishment, or victim-blaming of any kind.
 U.S. v. Petoff et al, No. 1:15-CR-00043 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 8, 2015).
All viewed expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.