For more than nine years, federal officials say, a couple with access to homes in the greater Lewes and Rehoboth areas used those properties to run a lucrative sex trafficking operation in Sussex County and into Maryland. And when their main social media advertising source was shut down, investigators say the two developed a theft ring that brought in even more cash.
Clifton Gibbs, 66, and his alleged co-conspirator, Brooke Waters, 44, both of Lewes, were indicted by a federal grand jury in April on 17 counts, including charges for sex trafficking and forced labor, and other charges in connection with 13 victims. The two are now in custody, with Gibbs in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia and Waters in Salem County Correctional Institution in New Jersey.
A 25-page memorandum filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware by U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss and three other attorneys details the investigation that led to the arrests.
In 2015, Homeland Security Investigations began an investigation into the couple after their arrest by local police in Ocean City, Md., for drug possession. Also arrested that day was a woman who voluntarily spoke with local police and a special agent. A second woman later corroborated her story, court documents state.
Both women told police that the couple had posted photos of them on the website Backpage.com, soliciting them for commercial sex. In exchange, the women told police, Gibbs and Waters gave them drugs and a place to stay.
“These initial statements … raised suspicions that Gibbs and Waters might be coercing the women to engage in commercial sex,” records state.
Nearly a year later, in January 2016, an undercover officer looking into Backpage.com responded to a woman advertising her services in Salisbury, Md. The same night, a second woman was arrested for solicitation-related charges. The Backpage woman initially denied Gibbs was forcing her into a commercial sex ring, records state, but in 2021, she contacted the undercover officer through the National Human Trafficking Hotline to confirm it. “She believed she had, in fact, been trafficked by Gibbs but had been too afraid to disclose her victimization in 2016,” records state.
Backpage.com was shut down in 2018 following an investigation by several federal and state agencies.
The second woman told police she used to work for Gibbs, giving investigators a story similar to what the two women had told police in 2015. She also gave police the names of other women who she said worked for Gibbs.
But the fate of the second woman, who died in 2017 from a suspected heroin overdose, was the same as many of the women investigators tried to contact. Others had relapses, medical or mental health complications, or became homeless and difficult to find.
Criminal links to Gibbs and Waters grew quiet and the case got cold.
That is, until a string of high-end retail thefts, known as boosting, hit the area.
In 2018, records state, three women involved in Gibbs’ boosting ring told investigators that Gibbs and Waters would give them a list of items and drive some women to the outlets or home improvement stores, where they would steal power tools or electronics.
In an April 2020 text, records state, Waters told one woman to “get things on the lists I write and things that we can sell … a generator, miter saw, lawn mower.”
The couple would resell items on Facebook, eBay, to existing customers, or sometimes keep things for themselves, records state.
Investigators allege the couple made more money from their boosting ring than from their sex trade operation. One woman said she stole about $100,000 in goods, and others said Gibbs and Waters drove them to stores every day.
“This was an organized and well-executed scheme that the defendants carried out like clockwork for years,” records state. “They took the same model employed in their early years of sex trafficking and, after Backpage was taken down by law enforcement, switched their tactics to forced labor, all the while maintaining their predatory recruitment of vulnerable victims that they could easily control.”
Armed with the testimony of nearly a dozen victims, investigators allege Gibbs and Waters targeted vulnerable young people — primarily women — who were addicted to heroin or cocaine, or in the early stages of recovery. Victims were poor, unemployed, homeless and had suffered physical trauma such as sexual abuse, domestic violence or illness, records state.
According to court documents, Gibbs had more than one way of recruiting new women to his operation. Some he met through his current workers, while others he found at local drug locations or trap houses. He also recruited some women through social media, mostly Facebook, records state. He even went to gas stations and diners where he would ask women if they used drugs and how they paid for them.
“Gibbs would then attempt to continue the conversation from his home on Jimtown Road, or at one of the properties to which he had access, including property on Dusty Road,” records state.
One woman told police she was coerced into doing commercial sex dates at Gibbs’ Dusty Road property, records state, and another woman independently corroborated it. Dusty Road is south of Harbeson between Cool Spring Road and Route 5.
“Once the victims were on Gibbs’ properties — many of which are in rural, more isolated areas — he gave each of them drugs for free and promised them they would be taken care of, meaning that he would supply more drugs, as well as [provide] housing and food. For the victims, that promise initially sufficed to have them stay with Gibbs,” records state.
But that didn’t last long.
After a few days, records state, he would tell them the drugs, housing and food were not free, and would enlist them into the commercial sex trade or his boosting operation, or make them do manual labor for him.
According to court documents, Waters would photograph new recruits and post the photos on Backpage, before the site was taken down. She would give a list of items to boost to some women, while others would be directed to panhandle. Others would be told to take care of children, do housecleaning or burn trash on Gibbs’ properties, records state.
“On the rare occasion that Gibbs and Waters allowed the victims to keep money they earned, Gibbs then required them to pay cash for drugs ... and/or rent to stay on his property,” records state. “The amounts he charged were generally the same, if not more, than the amounts the victims had earned that day. Thus, all the money returned to Gibbs and Waters.”
Gibbs would strategically dole out heroin and other downer drugs to women to put them to sleep at night, and conversely give them stimulant drugs such as cocaine, crack or crystal meth before sending them out to work, records state.
He would withhold drugs from women who did not get enough dates, steal enough items or do their jobs to his satisfaction, records state. All feared going through drug withdrawal and the physical effects of dope sickness. One woman told investigators that the pain was excruciating.
“She said that she had creepy crawlers on the skin, hot and cold flashes, knots in her stomach, vomiting, diarrhea … where you just can’t move,” records state.
Gibbs belittled some women, calling them pitiful, stupid or lazy junkies, and some said he choked and assaulted them, records state.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars
Courts records estimate the commercial sex work brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. One woman said her rates were $150 per half-hour and $300 per hour. When she started adding up her hours, she said, she made close to $30,000, all of which she gave to Gibbs. Another woman told investigators she made more than $2,000 in two days and gave it to Waters.
According to court records, Waters’ involvement with the sex trade dates back to 2014 when she was arrested outside an undisclosed hotel with another woman’s Social Security card because that woman was in the hotel doing a commercial sex act.
Gibbs, likewise, has a previous criminal record that included prior state convictions for assault, sexual assault and drug possession. He previously served prison time for a federal conviction on charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.
After the grand jury indictment of the two, investigators searched Gibbs’ properties and found handwritten notes referencing “Ten Pimp Commandments,” “Portrait of a Pimp,” and “Gangster Paradise,” and found an email address called email@example.com. Hundreds of emails and texts were seized by law enforcement detailing criminal activities.
One woman told police that Gibbs made her watch a documentary on pimping because he wanted her to be his new “bottom girl.”
No drugs were found on the properties, records state, but agents seized about 350 condoms in boxes with an expiration date of 2024.
Investigators also found documents pertaining to a nonprofit Gibbs created to provide housing for low-income people. In June 2022, the Tax Exempt and Government Entities office of the Internal Revenue Service wrote Gibbs informing him that his nonprofit Help Our People Elevate — HOPE, for short — had been approved as a 501(c)(3) public charity, exempting it from federal income tax and qualifying the group to receive tax-deductible gifts.
In April 2022, records show, Gibbs submitted an application for $33,000 in funding from the Sussex County Housing Trust Fund. In the application, records state, Gibbs claimed he was the president of HOPE, which would “develop multifamily units for affordable rentals to those at 80% or below area median income.” Gibbs also said HOPE was operated out of a property at 32295 Jimtown Road west of Lewes, which is adjacent to Gibbs’ residence and one of the properties where victims resided and worked.
Sussex County Communications Director Chip Guy said Gibbs applied, but he was not a qualifying applicant. Delaware State Housing Authority spokeswoman Laurie Stovall said she had no record of Gibbs applying for or receiving funds from DSHA over the past two years.
In May, the U.S. government began proceedings to seize five properties owned or connected to Gibbs under federal code. These properties include 32295 Jimtown Road, 32287 Jimtown Road and an unimproved lot at 17659 Stingey Lane, Lewes; 28668 Dusty Road, Milton; and 37162 Burton Ave., Rehoboth Beach.
According to recent real estate estimates on Zillow, the 32295 Jimtown Road property is estimated at $485,000 and the property next door is $407,000. The Burton Avenue property has no listing, but an unimproved building across the street has a value of about $500,000.
The lot on Stingey Lane is estimated at about $200,000, and, Zillow notes, there had previously been a manufactured home on the property. There is no recent value available for the Dusty Road property, a remote lot.
The U.S. government moved June 8 to seize a property at 28687 Dusty Road under federal forfeiture law, another property with no recent estimate.
As the case winds through the U.S. court system, officials say, Gibbs and Waters may face hefty sentences.
The sex trafficking charges carry a mandatory minimum penalty of 15 years in prison with a maximum of life imprisonment. The forced-labor charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and interstate transportation for the purposes of criminal sexual activity charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show that Gibbs owned or was connected to properties that the U.S. government is seeking under federal forfeiture code.