DENVER — A passenger’s claim that a human trafficking ring tried to abduct her at Denver International Airport (DIA) doesn’t square with how anti-trafficking advocates say the crime occurs.
Several human trafficking experts in Colorado say the sensationalized depiction of people grabbed from public places by strangers tends to be online rumor and Hollywood plotlines. Human trafficking, they say, is far more commonly done by acquaintances through manipulation, forced labor and coercive behavior.
Madison Herman of Rocky River, Ohio, said she was targeted at DIA on Jan. 6 by a human trafficking operation involving at least four to five people.
“I just really want to use this event that happened to be as a way to spread awareness and prevent it from happening in the future,” Herman told 9NEWS.
Herman told 9NEWS she believes she was targeted because she uses crutches. Herman said she was injured by the COVID vaccine in 2022. In a May 2022 video posted to Facebook, Herman’s legs shake in a similar manner to videos posted on social media with the hashtag #ThanksPfizer.
Herman said she believes she was drugged on Jan. 6 by a bartender at the airport who was working with a woman and at least three men. Herman said the men determined which flight she was on, purchased tickets, and sat around her in first class. Herman said she believes a flight attendant may also have been involved in the human trafficking ring.
“They had something set up behind me and the man beside me was controlling it with his phone,” Herman wrote on Facebook.
Herman said she notified another flight attendant of her concern and left the plane safely. Herman said a drug test found Benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety drug Herman says she does not take. The drug can cause drowsiness.
In her online post, Herman is wearing a shirt with the logo of the controversial anti-sex trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad. The group, known for its undercover stings, has faced years of scrutiny for its methods and claims.
Herman told 9NEWS she learned of Operation Underground Railroad’s work, and human trafficking in general, from Facebook posts.
“I really liked what they're doing and how they're trying to spread awareness,” she said.
Denver International Airport said Herman called DIA on Jan. 8 and was referred to the FBI. The FBI declined to say if it was investigating. Herman says the FBI told her it is investigating her claims.
“I don't care what anyone else thinks. I know what happened to me,” Herman said. “It is a thing and people do need to be aware.”
Several anti-trafficking experts in Colorado, speaking about the topic generally and not this specific claim, said that stranger abductions are rarely seen in human trafficking and that sensationalized stories complicate their work.
"I think it does fuel misconceptions about human trafficking and make it more difficult for people to understand what human trafficking does really look like,” said Maria Trujillo, head of Colorado’s Human Trafficking Program.
Trujillo said advocates are frequently batting down myths and online rumors about strangers abducting people from parking lots to force them into servitude or people being trafficked in bizarre schemes, like the conspiracy theory that people were being moved around in furniture sold by an online retailer.
“Common myths that we see about human trafficking make a really good Hollywood movie,” Trujillo said. “But not really the reality of human trafficking.”
Kara Napolitano, research and training manager for the Denver-based Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking said the work of fighting human trafficking is more difficult if the public is fixated on sensational claims.
"That's not really happening, it's not what the evidence shows us,” Napolitano said. "We know that it means that they're not looking for what actually is happening out there. And they're likely missing it when it doesn't fit that narrative that we see on social media or in Hollywood."
There are resources available in Colorado to assist survivors of human trafficking. The Colorado Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 866-455-5075 or via text at 720-999-9724.
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