The covert operation started with the opening of a sliding-glass door. Mark Derr peered through his binoculars. He spotted his mark. In minutes Derr’s team swooped in.

With the girl by their sides, the men flashed their guns when guards approached. The men backed off.

They escorted her to the car and headed toward Charlotte.

A tale like one you’d read in a page-turning novel, Derr experienced while rescuing victims of human trafficking — modern-day slaves.

A Lincolnton bail bondsman, Derr also heads up a rescue team called RPR Services, which stands for “rescue, protect, recovery.”

The four-man team mostly serves as bodyguards for special events. But their services expanded when Derr was contacted by a church in California. The church had got-ten messages online from an enslaved woman in Atlanta. She and other women spent months in a condo where they were forced into prostitution.

“If any of them tried to leave, they were threatened with being hurt or killed,” Derr said.

She pleaded for help. The church put Derr on the job.

Derr communicated with the woman online, devising a plan to “pull her out.”

It was the first time Derr was exposed to the reality of human trafficking. He and his team rescued the woman from the secret prison and flew her out to California where she was linked to an organization that helps victims of human trafficking.

Women ‘for sale’ online

Derr said he was amazed at the business set up where the woman was kept.

“It was very crazy how big of an operation this guy had — from Atlanta to Texas,” he said.

Derr videoed the rescue and turned information over to local police.

He interviewed the young woman who said she’d been held captive for two months. She told Derr that her captor planned to sell her, posting her picture on Craigslist.

Derr did some investigating and saw where women’s pictures were being posted online with “for sale” stamped across their faces.

Many of those ads were on Craigslist, according to Derr. Craigslist cracked down, but if people in the human trafficking business get pushed off one website, they’ll just find another, Derr said.

“It’s crazy. These girls are being advertised for sale on the Internet,” he said.

N.C. among top-10 worst states

And if those sales cross international borders, it’s virtually impossible to get the women back home, he said.

Derr’s team has only worked a handful of similar cases, but those few instances opened Derr’s eyes to the disturbing multimillion-dollar sex-slave industry.

N.C. has consistently been ranked in the top 10 states for human trafficking. That number could jump significantly when the Democratic National Convention comes to Charlotte in August.

Human trafficking victims’ advocacy groups are spreading the word to hotel workers to be on the lookout. The thought is that with world travelers coming in for the big event, pimps will bring in more enslaved women than ever.

An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 American children are trafficked into the commercial sex industry each year.

The life expectancy of someone involved in human trafficking is five years.

“Once these girls are used up, they’re killed or you don’t ever see them again,” Derr said. “They think they’re going to be taken care of, and they get forced into slavery.”

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