HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- It began in late January, with a lost car in the parking garage at Huntsville International Airport, and ended with several airport employees stopping what the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration confirmed as an attempted human trafficking incident – the first known incident of its kind at HSV.
"It was a normal day, I was walking back to the office," said Jana Kuner, customer services manager for the airport.
That's when she noticed a woman in the airport who appeared panicked and lost.
"It was a lady who had lost her car in the parking garage," Kuner said. "She couldn't remember what floor she was on, she was frantic."
In helping her find the car, Kuner and the woman struck up a conversation in which the woman shared how excited she was for her daughter who had answered an ad for a modeling job in Phoenix. The “modeling agents” had bought her an airline ticket, and her mother had just dropped her off at the terminal to go meet them.
Kuner has been trained to recognize that human traffickers often use manipulation or false promises of fame and fortune, well-paying acting and modeling jobs, or romantic relationships to lure vulnerable victims into trafficking situations.
Following her gut feeling, Kuner called public safety to go with her to find the woman’s daughter.
Kuner approached the young woman at the gate, let her know she’d met her mom, and about her about the modeling opportunity. As they talked, the young woman was being inundated with texts from the supposed modeling agency. "Where are you? Have you boarded? Are you alone?"
Kuner was unable to convince the 21-year-old that there might be a problem. She and the public safety officer encouraged her to get reassurances from the agency that they were legitimate, and in the meantime, offered to have a police escort meet the young woman at her destination.
Kuner spoke with a woman from the modeling agency on the phone, letting them know they had arranged an escort.
“The intent was hopefully, if it wasn't a legit operation, they won’t go through with it," Kuner said.
And that's exactly what happened.
Almost immediately after the victim boarded the flight, the young woman received texts from the agency saying they'd canceled her flights.
“They knew that people were watching, and they canceled," Kuner said.
Authorities are now certain she was walking into a human trafficking trap and believe she had already been sold before boarding the plane.
The victim got off the plane, and the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and police got involved right away. Authorities later confirmed that the supposed modeling agency this young woman was in contact with was connected to human trafficking.
Airport employees are thankful for the training they've received that alerted them to question this situation, and the moral of this story is to look out for each other, and if you see something, say something.