During my law enforcement career I spent about 5 years in an undercover vice unit doing stings and operations to address violent crime in the urban city I worked for. My work focused on narcotics, guns, and street robberies that were on a statistical high at the time. Our city, population 400,070, had 1 vice unit for each of its 5 precincts as well as 3 city wide vice units for Narcotics, Gangs, and Street Crimes that often worked with our Federal partners.
As a police officer you get very familiar with what your city looks like, who lives where, and what looks “normal” for your area of patrol. You also get very good at spotting and reading behaviors that indicate current or preparation for criminal activity, someone who needs help, medical conditions, or someone who is lost and could use some directions. There are other people and professions, outside of law enforcement, that also have this ability, to notice and discern behavior. As a police officer, with our observation of certain behaviors, we have a responsibility to act for the protection of people, the community, and to serve those in need. I have to confess I had an advantage starting my career, because I grew up in the same urban area I now worked as a cop. I started the job knowing the neighborhoods, a lot of the people, and both the strengths of a community as well as the crime trends and criminal hotspots. I had a pretty good eye for what was “normal” activity in these neighborhoods. However, it doesn’t take long for anyone to figure all this out when patrolling and spending time on the street.
Driving through my hometown streets, on duty one night, something caught my attention. It was a week night, about midnight, in a residential area, with not a soul on the street except for these three individuals. A girl who looked about 13 years old walking with a purse and cell phone and two adult males, in their 30’s, walking together, behind her, at a distance that struck me as close enough to not lose sight, but far enough to not look like they were with her. I was working with a partner and we stopped our car to watch for a moment. When they got to the next intersection, with four different directions to go, the girl turned left to go west, and the males followed right behind her. It didn’t take much intuition to notice that at the very least this girl was in violation of the city curfew, but making contact with her for that purpose, would prove or disprove my hunch that this girl was in a much deeper situation.
We approached and made contact with her. The two adults took a sudden turn and started walking away. She said she did not know the males who were following her which may or may not have been true. She was definitely not interested in a conversation with the police, but agreeable enough to sit in the car with us and talk about violating curfew and to find out who she was and how to get her home.
She told us she was 14 years old and gave us a name that she spelled out for us. When nothing came back under her name in a couple different system checks, which would not be uncommon for a 14 year old who usually does not have a state ID or driver license yet, but my gut was saying that this was not her real name. I ran the name she gave me a couple more times, confirming the spelling, but nothing under that name was found. Then like perfect timing, as to solve the mystery for me, her cell phone rang. Looking down at her phone to see who it was, she quickly answered and said, “They got me…OK” and then hung up.
“They got me” ?? “OK” ?? Not quite a normal way to answer your phone. From these words, to whoever was on the other end of that line, I knew that there was someone, not a concerned parent or guardian, in charge of her whereabouts. Someone who never once asked to clarify, “Who are they?”, but knowing she was caught by “they”, only gave some sort of instruction to her, to which she responded, “OK”.
I now had a child on the street, late at night, under an unknown persons control or oversight, and I was unable to identify her. In an attempt to find out who she was, a phone number for a mom or dad, and to look into what kind of situation she might be in, I asked for her cell phone. When she handed me the phone, the first thing I saw was a photo of a naked adult male sent to her in a text message that said, “Where are you? Hurry up.” Apparently she had passed the phone too quickly without getting out of the text message she was about to send back to him. Or perhaps, God in His plan to rescue this girl made sure I saw the photo. If I did not see this photo, I would have had nothing to confirm my suspicion that I had more than a girl out past curfew.
Although this was not my introduction to knowing and understanding human sex trafficking, this would be my first criminal case as a Police Officer. It all started with a girl out on the street past curfew and a feeling in my cop gut that something deeper, more ominous was going on. The case would end one year later, with the arrest, prosecution, and prison time for a 24 year old male sex trafficker who had been selling her since she was 12 years old.
So, who is this girl? And how does this happen? It’s easier to believe that a market for child sex slaves only happens in some dark corners of the earth away from civil society, in places we will never go to, or ever see in our life time. It’s easier to believe that there are no victims, but individuals, who for greed and sexual desire, have chosen a career of sex for money, making business arrangements, that mutually satisfy the needs of the one selling and the one buying. It’s easier to believe that those who buy children are the Boogey man and would look horrifyingly obvious if they ever tried to live among us in normal society.
What’s not easy to understand is that a girl, who lives in suburban America, with her mom and little brother, attends public school, and plays at the park, is being sold on the weekends by a family member to a dozen different men per day in the Midwest Heartland of the United States. And that her story represents the situation for many children, both boys and girls, being sold right under our noses in America.
It would take months of investigation and several conversations with her to build a relationship and gain the trust she needed to want my help and to disclose the details of the betrayal, abuse and violence she had endured. And it wasn’t until her trafficker refused to spend time with her that did not involve selling her to a customer for profit that she decided to tell me who he was.
She is a Midwest American girl. She lived with her biological mother and younger brother in a nice house in a first ring suburb of the cities. She attended public school and had good friends. In her preteen years, like all girls, she began to struggle through the new developmental challenges like puberty, peer acceptance, and self-esteem. For her unfortunately, her ability to navigate these challenges was effected by loss, grief, and the rejection of a Dad who was no longer involved in her life. This had created a hole in her heart longing to be filled by a Fathers love and acceptance.
Her mother also had a similar hole in her heart and the desire to fill it with a relationship. By the age of 12, her mother found a boyfriend to fill her hole, or should I say, he found her. He found a single mom, with a nice home, a need for love and attention, who had a beautiful, young daughter who also needed attention from a male fatherly figure. But it would not be him that would fill the daughter’s need, he was just the doorway into the family, it would be his adult son. Mom’s “boyfriend” would choose mom on purpose, lay on the loving comments and affection, move in to the household quickly, and introduce his son, the new step brother, to the family.
Her step brother was 22, charming, attractive, and a full time sex trafficker. He made thousands of dollars a month selling young girls just like her. His grooming and manipulation of her into a relationship started right away. She was 12 years old and soaked up all the attention, “dates”, rides in his new expensive car, and kind words he would tell her. His attraction to her and the blooming romantic relationship would be their secret. It was all a lie, but not to her.
It would only be a couple months of grooming her into a loving “relationship” with him that he introduced the idea of her working “with” him in the business; in “the life.” She would be his favorite and most protected. She would be the best because of her beauty and personality. He would be so proud of her. “Together” they would make tons of money and live a rich and daring lifestyle.
The first time she was sold was out of a hotel room in the suburban family town of Roseville MN at age 12. Multiple men throughout Minnesota would come to buy a half hour of sexual slavery with a 12 year old girl. Afterward, he comforted her, spent money on her, and told her she did great.
Over the next two years she would be sold every weekend and sometimes for two weeks straight out of several hotels in Minnesota cities including Roseville, St Cloud, and Brooklyn Park. Her “Boyfriend”/Step Brother/Father figure whom she called “Daddy” would also drop her off and pick her up for outcall services at the homes of men who had ordered her online.
Over the years she was sold to men throughout Minnesota and some who came from out of state for a chance to meet a child for sex in a city where no one would recognize them. Most of them had careers, wives, and children so the stakes of discovery were high. She collected about a dozen of their personal cell phone numbers so they could exchange pornographic photos via text message and have direct access to her. It gave her a false, but felt, sense of power over her situation by having them go directly to her and not through Daddy.
She would meet other girls he was selling. Through a mix of jealousy, that she was not the only girl, and yet comfort, that she was not the only girl being sold, these other girls became her teachers in the sex trafficking game, mentors for survival and her “friends.” There were thoughts of leaving early on when the plan of being together started looking like a lie. She felt more like property and the money was never hers to keep. However, the idea of escape was gone when sensing her unrest, he made her watch him physically beat another girl and hold a gun to her head, for disobeying him. A girl who had been with him longer, had been kind to her, and whom she considered a friend. Daddy also reminder her, that if she disobeyed, or left, there was always her little brother.
Daddy put a tattoo on her shoulder of his “stable” name. A “stable” is what a pimp calls his collection of human slaves, like a barn of animals, and the tattoo is a branding that lets other traffickers and pimps know that he or she already has an owner.
He also gave her plenty of drugs and alcohol to keep her feeling like she was older than she was, a false sense of freedom from authority and power, to get her through the pain and sometimes torture fantasies played out on her body by the buyers, and to keep her coming back to medicate a growing addiction.
After a week or weekend of being abused, raped, often hungry and dehydrated, she would get dropped off at home Sunday night or at public school Monday morning. All that the police were told by family was that she had runaway and with her return she would be taken off the warrant list and given a court date. To the court, she was one of many teens who did not heed the warning to stay safe and off the streets and listen to her mother. To her teachers she was chronically tardy or absent, a distraction in class, and could not stay on task. As for her mother, I would see in time, she had made the decision that filling her own hole with a boyfriend was more important than the abyss this man and his son were digging in her daughters’ life.
At age 14, it was at the home of a buyer she would decide to make an escape. Daddy dropped her off with a man, at his north suburban Minnesota home, who had ordered her through an online escort ad offering a “New” Girl. (After 2 years, she was not new, but it is ad code for under age) She arrived and met the middle aged male, a fulltime Taxi driver, who locked the door behind her, and said, “Hello, you can get undressed.” After he took what he had paid for, he decided to ask her name. She refused a name, but asked if she could please use his shower and have something to eat. He allowed her to shower and eat. This stroke of humanity from him, despite the rape that preceded this kindness, compelled her to cry out for help. She told him that she was being sold against her will and did not want to be released back to the man that dropped her off. As if receiving a revelation that a 14 year old child would not be a willing participant in slavery, rape, and violence, he agreed to help her escape. While the trafficker flashed a pistol at the front door demanding she come outside or they both would be dead, the buyer snuck her out the backdoor and she fled.
This is where we met. Hours after fleeing that buyers’ home, I had spotted her walking the street to another buyers’ house who offered to give her shelter for the night; shelter with a sexual price. The man who called while she was in our squad car was that buyer. He was the nude man in the photo I saw on her phone. His instruction to her when she had answered the phone and said, “They got me” was, “Well, don’t tell them about me.” She said, “OK.” He knew “they” were the police.
This 12 year old child’s ordeal in the American sex trafficking market is a common scenario for the 300,000 boys and girls vulnerable to trafficking in the United States every year. Worldwide estimates are 2.5 million children a year are victims of sex trafficking. She is in plain sight. So are the traffickers and the buyers.
Unexpectedly, after 12 years in law enforcement, I felt called back into ministry with a purpose I can see God designed since I was a kid on the same streets that I would later patrol as an Officer. In law enforcement when you rescue a child from trafficking or pornography, you see with 20/20 hindsight the vulnerabilities, life circumstances, and factors that led to a child being targeted for exploitation. You see who is in the market for buying a child. You also see who along the way had contact with this child and had an opportunity to interdict. My mission is to take this hindsight and make it your foresight; helping the church and community become aware, equipped, and deployed working together for the protection of children and youth.
Jessica Bartholomew A.C.T. United Founder and Executive Director