Zebulon, North Carolina -
A German woman who came to the US to meet a man she found online was stripped of her money and phone, threatened with death and kept within arm's reach by the man now charged with human trafficking, police said on Tuesday.
A first court appearance was scheduled on Tuesday for Robert Whiteside, 45, who lived in a hidden bedroom inside the North Carolina warehouse where he refurbished bathtubs. He was charged with sexual servitude involving an adult victim and assault by strangulation.
Whiteside called the case a misunderstanding.
“I don't have a record for this type of thing. All I do is work. I have my own business. I work,” he said. A judge reduced his bond from $250 000 to $90 000, secured with the condition that Whiteside submit to electronic monitoring.
Whiteside kept the 34-year-old, Russian-born German woman at his side after she arrived last Wednesday, Zebulon Police Chief Tim Hayworth said.
“I think she probably came here willingly, but with the idea she's coming to America and she's met this nice guy on the internet,” the police chief said. “Then when she got here, things were not as rosy as depicted online.”
Police said the hidden bedroom was accessible by pushing on a warehouse wall. It was part of a small apartment and had a lock on the inside, but none on the outside that would allow it to hold a captive.
“If he left her alone in that apartment, I think she could have gotten out,” Hayworth said. “We found some ropes in the apartment, but we didn't find any chains. We didn't find where somebody had been secured to a bed or anything like that. So she could have left. But the information we have, I think he kept her with him at all times.”
Investigators seized firearms, pornography and travel documents indicating Whiteside had travelled widely to countries including Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Mexico, Peru and Colombia.
Whiteside had warned the woman that he had killed others, but police believe that was likely just a threat to keep the German woman compliant, Hayworth said. Police nonetheless had a cadaver-sniffing dog search the property.
“We don't have any evidence that there's any other victims or that there's a bigger case than we think,” Hayworth said. “We want to make sure that there's no other victims out there, that there's nobody that is currently in danger or that has been victimised by our suspect in the past.”
Nick Tabron, who drives trucks for another business on the property, said he never saw or heard anything suspicious from the warehouse that Whiteside rents. Tabron said he saw police talking to the woman on Monday.
“She looked like she was a little shell-shocked, you know? But she didn't look like she had any bruises or anything, as far as I could see from where I was at,” Tabron said.
Police became involved after the woman emailed her estranged husband asking for money and he became concerned and contacted police early on Monday. Officers asked Whiteside to meet them at the warehouse, and when he did about an hour later the woman was with him.
Officers questioned the two separately and arrested Whiteside. The woman was in good health, Hayworth said. - Sapa-AP