Mary MacCarthy and her daughter Moira were disembarking from a SouthWest Airlines flight from San Jose to Denver International Airport when they were met by two armed police officers and airline staff.
Grief-stricken and sleep deprived after the sudden death of her 46-year-old brother Michael the previous day, Ms MacCarthy initially thought the officers were there to deliver more bad news.
Ms MacCarthy, who is white, was then informed that the officers had been contacted by airline staff who saw her “acting suspiciously” with her biracial daughter.
“When I heard the words ‘acting suspiciously’, I was immediately on guard. I knew perfectly well that Moira and I had not exhibited any unusual behaviour,” Ms MacCarthy, a 44-year-old single mother from Los Angeles, told The Independent in an interview.
The former journalist described how her media training kicked in and she began filming the 22 October 2021 encounter.
Ms MacCarthy later obtained bodycam footage which she provided to The Independent that showed the Southwest flight attendant who reported her telling officers that she thought “something was off”.
The flight attendant informs the officers she isn’t sure that Ms MacCarthy is actually Moira’s mother, and questioned why she had asked other passengers to move so they could sit next to one another during a time of intense distress.
“What I found most upsetting was her claims that I was dishonest,” Ms MacCarthy says. “She questions why I would point out that Moira is ‘only 10’, repeatedly saying ‘she’s overtly lying’.”
The flight attendant also suggests that Ms McCarthy fabricated her brother’s death, telling an officer: “We don’t even know if her brother died.”
“Instead of seeing us as a grieving family headed to a funeral, the flight attendant decides that Moira is ‘fearful’ of me, and that it’s strange that she never hears Moira never directly address me as ‘Mom’,” Ms MacCarthy told The Independent.
Moira, now 12, is seen breaking down in tears in the bodycam footage, as Ms MacCarthy refuses to allow the officer to question her alone.
They are eventually allowed to leave after she produces her daughter’s birth certificate, traumatised from the experience.
Ms MacCarthy said she “didn’t have the bandwidth to express what an injustice this was” at the time.
Ten days later, she was contacted by an officer from Denver Police Human Trafficking Unit informing her that they were following up on suspicions that she was involved in human trafficking.
She then hired a lawyer to try to clear her name and in August filed a lawsuit in the District Court of Colorado against Southwest.
Ms MacCarthy alleges in the lawsuit that allegations of child trafficking came “for no reason other than the different color of her daughter’s skin from her own”.
The family are seeking economic damages, compensatory damages, as well as punitive and exemplary damages for the “extreme emotional distress” suffered in the incident.
Southwest Airlines did not respond to a request for comment by The Independent.
It’s a scenario that is playing out with alarming regularity, as airline staff tasked with being the first line of defence in combatting human trafficking routinely make accusations that turn out to be false, advocates and lawyers say.
‘This is a joke right?’
According to figures from the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking prosecutions spiked from 729 in 2011 to 1,343 in 2020, an 84 per cent increase.
The DHS trains workers from industries including airlines, hospitality and hotels, to ask staff to keep their eyes peeled for warning signs. It launched the Blue Lightning campaign to raise public awareness and instruct airline staff to recognise the danger signs.
In 2021, the DHS reported that the Transportation Security Administration received 40 requests from law enforcement for Secure Flight Passenger Data on individuals suspected of human trafficking offences over the previous year. This led to six suspects being “located and detained”.
Airlines also routinely train staff to be on the lookout for potential red flags.
The “see something, say something” approach to human trafficking has seen increasing incidents where parents are accused of trafficking their own children.
Florida father-of-two Jonathan Marcu told The Independent how he was falsely accused of human trafficking by another passenger while returning home on a Spirit Airlines flight from New York to Fort Lauderdale in December 2022 with his two daughters.
He said his two daughters, Hayley aged 21 and 17-year-old Caroline, are of Hispanic appearance, while he is white and Jewish.
Mr Marcu, 54, said he was approached by airline staff upon landing in Florida and escorted from the plane, where he was met by three Broward County sheriff’s deputies.
“I said ‘this is a joke right?’” Mr Marcu told The Independent in a phone interview. “It was terrible, it was a horrible experience, it was handled the wrong way, it was racial profiling in my opinion,” he said.
“I understand that human trafficking is a horrible thing, but there has to be some kind of precautions. There’s no rules and regulations on airlines to handle it. You can’t just take a guy who looks different from his children and accuse them of human trafficking.”
Mr Marcu is planning to file a lawsuit against Spirit Airlines over the incident, who did not respond to a request for comment. He said his daughters had been left deeply affected by the incident.
His attorney Willard Shepard, of Miami-based Willard Shepard Law and Media, told The Independent in an interview that airlines needed to improve practices around human trafficking reporting.
“We all understand that human trafficking is a very serious problem, and especially in cities like Miami, New York, Los Angeles, where you have people from all backgrounds coming there.
“However, the airlines must have in place a set of procedures to follow to make sure that people like the Marcu family are not unfairly victimised.
“And the information that airlines have and have access to prior to flight and during flight, gives them a vast amount of information to determine whether any trafficking is actually taking place.”
Trumped-up accusations of parents being involved in human trafficking often make headlines.
In 2016, an entire plane was detained while Asian-American woman Kathleen Chan and her Puerto Rican husband Jay Serrano were questioned by New York Port Authority police officers at JFK Airport for suspected sex trafficking.
In 2020, a Black social worker filed a lawsuit against American Airlines, alleging that crew members suspected her of kidnapping a one-year-old white boy who she accompanied on a flight.
Shannon Murphy claimed that American Airlines employees separated her from the toddler who she was escorting on an October 2019 flight from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to Ontario International Airport in California. She was allegedly removed her from the aircraft for about 40 minutes out of suspicion that she was abducting the child.
In May, a father was pulled from a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina, accused of trafficking his 13-year-old daughter in May this year.
The latest incident came when musician David Ryan Harris was falsely accused of trafficking his own children on a flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles on 15 September after a member of the cabin crew became suspicious.
Mr Harris told how he and his two sons were met by police officers and an airline employee at the airport after touching down. While they established that he was the boys’ father, he said he was left angry at the “harrowing” experience.
Mr Harris, who has toured with Pearl Jam and performed with John Mayer, said in a video posted to his Instagram accountthat he suspected racial profiling had been involved.
“If this had been a white dad/mom with two little black kids, they would probably [have] been offered an upgrade, not an interrogation,” he wrote in an Instagram caption.
He had since complained to American Airlines, where he has racked up nearly one million miles in air travel touring the globe.
“No one said ‘sorry sir, there’s been an uptick in human trafficking and our policy is …….’. Nothing,” he wrote.
“Maybe it isn’t a race thing, but when you don’t respond at all, I’m left to make sense of the altercation on my own.”
An American Airlines told The Independent they apologised for “any misunderstanding that may have occurred” and were in contact with Mr Harris.
Fears about child human trafficking appear to have heightened in 2020 when “rumors began circulating online about complex schemes involving child sex trafficking”, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that combats sex and labour trafficking.
“These rumors, though proven false, ignited the use of #SaveTheChildren/#SaveOurChildren, further circulation of misinformation including false numbers about the problem, and even in-person events around the country,” the Polaris Project states.
The Polaris Project wrote that the “barrage of misinformation, hashtags and online chatter” left many people who care deeply about this issue confused.
The Independent submitted a list of questions around the number of human trafficking convictions arising from commercial flights, and how the Blue Lightning campaign guards against racial profiling.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond by the time of publication.
Ms MacCarthy told The Independent that since her case made headlines, she has been contacted by 40 to 50 other parents who had been in similar situations, all of whom were from mixed race families.
She said that racial profiling appeared to be commonplace among airlines, and believes the obsession with human trafficking is akin to the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s.
“Kidnapping is actually extremely rare. Why would you as a human trafficker bring your victim into the most secure form of transport in the world?
“Certainly some is happening, but it doesn’t look like what they think it looks like, and it’s not happening on flights like this.
“Everyone of course wants to be anti-human trafficking,” she says. “You can save the children without harassing people.”
Ms MacCarthy says she hopes her lawsuit will put airlines on notice.
“I’m calling for accountability from any airline that flags passengers for suspected human trafficking. Clearly something’s missing in that training if the people being targeted are mixed race families.”