By Ally Hamzey, Erica Marra, and Katie Dudlets
The Meridian Times Staff Reporters
In the aftermath of the arrest of Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III, Ingham County residents are left acknowledging the presence of human trafficking within their community.
Mason resident Denise Maurer said the Dunnings arrest put the issue of human trafficking in perspective.
“I think we just want human trafficking to go away and to not think that could be really happening in the United States, that our own people are trafficking our own people,“ Maurer said. “But I know now that it’s happening here.”
A state-local-federal investigation revealed that Dunnings allegedly engaged in commercial sex hundreds of times with multiple women over the course of five years.
Dunnings is facing 10 counts of engaging in the services of prostitution, one count of prostitution/pandering and four counts of willful neglect of duty in the counties of Ingham, Clinton and Ionia as a result of this investigation.
Laura Swanson, human trafficking advocate and co-director of the soon-to-be released human trafficking documentary “Break the Chain,” said that residents commonly feel that their “easiest option is to turn away and not address human trafficking.”
“I believe people tend to ignore the issue of human trafficking because of their connection to it. The food we eat, restaurants we frequent and clothes we wear are heavily tied to labor trafficking,” Swanson said. “Therefore, so are we. It’s easiest not to look or accept that reality.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
Swanson said that through his actions, Dunnings actively participated in the act of human trafficking.
“Stuart Dunnings’ alleged involvement in prostitution and sex trafficking rings is where the connection to human trafficking lies. Someone can choose to sell their body independently, and it will be deemed prostitution. When you have so-called ‘pimps’ or people in control of individuals selling sex, that is when you end up with human trafficking cases,” Swanson said.
“If the women Dunnings was seeing were a part of a sex trafficking ring and had pimps, then Dunnings is a solicitor of sex trafficking,” she said. “This can be incredibly confusing for a lot of people.”
The case’s affidavit states that Dunnings allegedly coerced a mother who approached him in financial distress to agree to enter a sexual relationship with him in exchange for money. Swanson said these actions further involved Dunnings in the trafficking process.
“In addition to soliciting services, Stuart [Dunnings] is also being charged with recruiting one of these women to sell her body for sex. If he successfully recruited a woman to have sex for money, he is in a sense trafficking women himself,” Swanson said.
According to the official affidavit of the arrest, one of the sex workers involved with Dunnings was allegedly under the control of a “pimp who provided her drugs in exchange for her work, imprisoned her in his house, and beat her”, sometimes so severely that she was unable to walk for several days. Additionally, the affidavit states the sex worker frequently had “bruises on her body that would have been visible to her customers.”
Dunnings, once called an “outspoken advocate for ending human trafficking and prostitution,” was elected and reelected by county residents since 1997. Community members were taken aback by his alleged abuse of power and disregard for the law.
“We put these people that are in charge of the law on a pedestal,” Maurer said. “Then, when they fall from grace, we’re so surprised.”
County residents were not the only ones surprised by Dunnings’ alleged actions. Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth said the news of the arrest was not only unnerving, but disappointing.
“[My friendship with Stuart Dunnings] was a longtime relationship that I cherished, quite frankly, so that made the disappointment even greater,” Wriggelsworth said.
“When [the department] found out that it was true, in our opinion, I was stunned,” Wriggelsworth said. “I never in all my lifetime believed he would do something like this. He’s married, has three children, is a pillar in the community… all those things that would make you shocked.”
Even so, Wriggelsworth said that word of allegations towards Dunnings had been circulating throughout the county for a few years.
“Over the years, and I’m talking about several years, we would pick up what I would call ‘locker room talk.’ In other words, we’d arrest somebody and they’d say ‘Hey, you know Stuart Dunnings is doing this, that,’ but they would never offer any proof,” he said.
“They never gave us a name of somebody to interview. You would tend to dismiss it because of the stature and the community,” he said. “But you had to start wondering after you hear a few hundred times if there wasn’t something to it, but we never had any proof until roughly a year ago.”
Wriggelsworth said several arrests connected with a human trafficking ring were the original catalysts for this case.
“When we finally got a couple of women to come forward and say, ‘Hey, this is what you need to know;’ that’s how the whole snowball started rolling downhill,” Wriggelsworth said.
Even in the wake of the charges, Wriggelsworth said that it is not necessary for Ingham County residents to distrust their government.
“I would say fear not. It was the system that detected this and arrested [Dunnings], so we did our job,” Wriggelsworth said. “As I said at the press conference, I took an oath, the attorney general took an oath, and Stuart Dunnings took an oath. Two of the three upheld that oath.”
While Maurer said that the Dunnings case does not lead her to distrust the entirety of the Ingham County government, she does question whether or not the county prosecutor was the only local official involved.
“It takes a whole village of people to make up Ingham County, and that’s only one piece of the puzzle,” Maurer said. “However, it would be interesting to see in this trafficking ring, who else is doing it? Are other officials doing it? It’s usually just not one person.”
To report a suspected case of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233733.