PROVIDENCE — All four young women said they were scared, and feared for their safety. One said she was forced from her home at gunpoint.
They came from cities across Massachusetts, and said they were held against their will to work as prostitutes out of a decrepit apartment in a seedy West End neighborhood here.
Police arrested a Dorchester man over the weekend on charges of forced sexual exploitation of the women, ages 18 to 22, and for allegedly sexually assaulting and kidnapping them in a brazen form of human trafficking that has become a law enforcement priority in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and across the country.
“This is a tragedy against these girls,” said Kim Harris, cochairwoman of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, which has advocated for tougher laws against the exploitation of women.
Javann Hall, a 27-year-old with a history of assault and drug crimes in Boston, was ordered held without bail after his arraignment in District Court on Monday. He pleaded not guilty and is slated to return to court Sept. 10.
One of the women told the Globe Wednesday that she remained fearful of him, but added, “I am coping as best as I can.”
The Globe does not identify victims of sexual assault without their approval.
“These are young, vulnerable girls . . . they’re victims,” police Captain Michael Correia told ABC6 News in Providence, which first reported Hall’s arrest.
Hall’s neighbors in Providence said Wednesday that they knew nothing of him and what was allegedly going on inside his apartment on Cranston Street.
The West End is a neighborhood where multiunit apartments are anchored by depressed convenience and retail stores.
No one at the stores, including a food market and a hair salon, said they knew any of the women.
Neighbors have spent the days since Hall’s arrest early Saturday wondering if the alleged victims were among the prostitutes who regularly walk the community at night.
According to court records, some of the women may have originally been recruited by Hall, willing to work for money. But then he allegedly kept them captive.
One told authorities that once she moved in with Hall, “everything changed, as he took all her money, constantly threatened to harm her and her family if she went to police or attempted to contact friends for help/escape.”
Another woman told police she was unwilling all along — that she was kidnapped at gunpoint and that “he pulled out a black firearm and pointed it at her, ordering her into his vehicle.”
“He has had complete control over her, as he threatened to kill her child and her family if she made any attempt to leave,” police said in an arrest report.
Authorities were alerted after the woman was somehow able to contact her mother, who reported to police that the woman was being held against her will.
That woman and another of the alleged victims both had a child living with them in Hall’s apartment, according to court records.
After police arrested Hall, the four women were reunited with their families in Massachusetts.
Victim advocates praised police for making the arrest, but said more needs to be done to deter the sexual exploitation of women as prostitutes by so-called pimps, in brothels as well as in spas and massage parlors secretly operating as brothels.
Harris called for tougher punishments for human trafficking and said that in the next year, her group plans to propose a law that would prohibit bringing prostitution charges against any minor, saying no one so young should be considered a willing participant of commercial sexual activity.
“We would consider them a victim,” Harris said, arguing that the young women who are charged with prostitution for working in brothels or engaging in sexual activity in spas are the victims of their pimps.
She also argued that police should work more to charge their exploiters and the customers who use their services.
“There’s a false assumption that these women want to be there,” Harris said.
“This happens all too frequently. The reason it’s so brazen is because there needs to be more enforcement of it, and men and traffickers need to spend more time in jail.”