Chillicothe, Ohio, is a family-oriented community of about 25,000 people, approximately 50 miles south of Columbus. It has endured six cases of women reported missing since May 2014, which is astonishing for a town of that size. And even worse, four of the missing women, all in their 20s or 30s, have been found dead. Three of them — Tiffany Sayre, Tameka Lynch, and Shasta Himelrick — have been found in or near bodies of water, and one, Timberly Claytor, was found shot to death. Two women, Charlotte Trego and Wanda Lemons, remain missing.
The cases are all still unsolved, although there is a suspect, Jason McCrary, for the murder of Claytor, but he has not been connected to any of the other victims at this time.
It’s been established that the women had known each other in life. Despite any other differences among them, many of the victims shared an involvement with prostitution and heroin. Because of the lifestyles the women led, families say it’s been tough to get the police to take their cases seriously.
Ross County is plagued with an opiate problem, and addiction is what leads some to sex work to raise money to support their habits. At least one of the victims, Tiffany Sayre, had been determined to kick the drugs and had been on the waiting list of a rehab facility when she disappeared.
Julie Oates, chairperson for the Ross County Coalition in Human Trafficking and a counselor and forensic interviewer, is convinced that human trafficking is the cause of the fates of these women. She defines “human trafficking” as “the victimization, exploitation of somebody for financial gain and/or other forms of gain.” Of the trafficking situation in southern Ohio, Oates says, “What we are finding in this area, the drug use is huge. The trading with the drugs, and the money that is obtained from the drugs, is astronomical. It’s amazing. And so, what’s happening is you may have somebody who is getting girls addicted and using that addiction to keep them in the life.”
Many in the town think that this is a case of women who live a high-risk lifestyle meeting a bad end because of the crowds they ran with, but authorities have said that a serial killer targeting the women of Chillicothe has not been ruled out.
Oates acknowledges that the lifestyle of the victims has affected the investigation, but emphasizes that the women are not to blame for what was done to them. “Unfortunately, some still believe that … many of these women, because they’ve had lives of addictions, arrest charges, etc. … that these women got what they deserved, that if they weren’t hanging out with who they were hanging out with or doing the things that they were doing, that they wouldn’t be in this situation. Unfortunately, anybody can be in this situation. It’s not just people who do bad things. We have many victims who are from amazing families, and their families have victimized them…. So, anybody can become a victim, no matter what happens.”
It’s important to remember that even if the victims had drug addictions, whether they were driven to sex work to support their drug habits or forced into it by others, or were sex workers by choice, that they are not defined by their actions. “We’re going to have victims who are thought of as objects, and they’re not seen for the real person as they are. Bad things happen to really good people and that’s what’s going on in this case. There are really good people who are a product of their environment … And that’s what’s happening with … human trafficking.”
Because of the nature of Oates’ job, and other agencies that she has worked for, she knew the victims. She acknowledges that in many cases, the women had actually made some pretty bad life decisions. But, as she points out, “We’ve all made bad choices. And I really hope that [on] the days I made my bad choices, that bad things don’t happen and that’s what I’m remembered for.”
She knows that the women were daughters, sisters, and mothers, and many of them were struggling to deal with difficult circumstances. “We have to look at the women as individuals … I don’t know if many of us would have been strong enough to endure like they did,” she says. “They had a lot of problems, a lot of them did. At times they were working really hard to get past those problems, but they were also in situations that were really devastating that I don’t know who could survive and come out without some wrinkles and some trauma.”
She states definitively, “I believe that these are human-trafficking cases and I believe that these are girls who have been killed or given large amounts [of drugs] or forced to kill themselves – because of the life – because of human trafficking.”
She argues that in a way, it would be easier for the community to deal with having a serial killer among them than the truth of the issue of ingrained human trafficking. If it’s one serial killer, who is captured and imprisoned, then the town can rest easy, feeling as if the streets are safe. But if what is going on is an endemic, systemic culture of trafficking, then putting away a pimp or two, arresting a john or a sex worker, or busting up one organization, is not going to make the ongoing issue go away. Oates remarks that if a serial killer were found to be to blame, “then, you don’t have to look inward at the community and see all the negativity that really is there and accept the fact that we permitted this to go on.”
She points out that the reality of who in the community is paying for sex is also difficult for people to believe. “You know, we have people who are purchasing sex who are community leaders, who are in the churches, who are in the schools, who are in the community functioning,” she says. “Who wants to accept that the people that we think have great assets are the ones who are victimizing women?”
Oates feels that the Chillicothe human-trafficking issue is not a new one, and knows that the town authorities have a lot of hard work ahead of them to keep the people of the town safe.
“Tiffany Sayre is not the last body that we will find in Chillicothe, who have been human trafficked and/or killed because of this. We will have more – numerous more,” Oates states. “I don’t think these were the first six, either. I think we’ve had this a lot longer and we’re just starting to identify them because we’ve had so many. This has been going on a long time.”
If you have any information that could help, call the task-force hotline at 740-774-FIND (3463) or email findme@RossSheriff.com. You can also find more information on the Ross County Coalition to End Human Trafficking Facebook page.