Friday, August 05, 2005

AT WAR WITH THE PIMPS OF CHILDREN

The FBI is launching a campaign against the predators who control 325,000 child prostitutes in the U.S.

By David Heinzmann
Tribune staff reporter
Chicago Tribune
Published August 5, 2005

Two of the girls--a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old--had "Mr. Cream" tattooed on their bodies.

It was just one of the ways that Mr. Cream, whose real identity is Victor Powell, told the three girls he pimped that they belonged to him, federal prosecutors say.

He also is accused of moving them from motel room to motel room, raping and beating them. All of it kept them in line for months as he peddled their bodies on a South Side "stroll," where men drive by trolling for prostitutes, according to the FBI. Like most pimps who traffic in underage girls, Powell, 22, also took his juvenile prostitutes on the road to Minnesota, St. Louis and Arizona, prosecutors allege.

And they say when he crossed state lines, Powell opened the door to federal prosecution. The FBI and U.S. attorney now plan to make an example of Mr. Cream.

The case is the first-ever federal prosecution of juvenile sex trafficking in Chicago. FBI agents hope it will prove a powerful symbol to criminals who are now the top priority of the bureau's criminal investigation division, said FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker, who heads that department.

The Justice Department set sex trafficking of children as a top priority two years ago, but many of the plans are just beginning to emerge this summer. The government identified the 13 American cities, including Chicago, that have the biggest problems. They demanded that multiagency task forces be set up in each community to investigate pimps and coordinate therapy and housing for the victims. Although efforts in some cities are now well developed, Chicago's groups have lagged behind and are still working on their plans, members say.

Now the FBI is getting ready to dedicate teams of agents in each of the cities to focus solely on busting the traffickers, Swecker said.

"In the post-9/11 period in the criminal division, we've had to really do some searching as to what's at the core of our criminal mission," Swecker said in an interview. "If we have a choice of working a violation--being a major theft, bank robbery or working a child abduction case--we're going to go after this type of egregious exploitation of children."

Swecker said that even if the girls are runaways, they do not have the capacity to consent to prostitution. "In an essence, these kids are abducted," Swecker said.

For far too long, FBI officials and advocates for prostituted children say, stereotypes of exploited children as wild kids or bad girls have colored the way society views the problem.

"It's too easy to say of young girls who are out there, `She's wild. She wants it, I don't care about her,'" said Claudine O'Leary, founder of the Young Women's Empowerment Project, a Northwest Side day shelter and center that offers a temporary haven and a sense of community to girls involved in the sex trade.

O'Leary, who began working with victims of the sex trade after being a juvenile prostitute herself, said that even the existence of a chronic problem "is sort of shocking for people in this town. They're saying, `Where are these girls? They're not walking down the street.'"

In fact, many are. But they are dressed and made up to look older, don't carry valid identification and are trained by pimps to give false information, said Special Agent Mark Wallschlaeger, who heads investigations of child-sex trafficking in the Chicago field office. He agreed that biases against the victims have been part of the problem.

Too often, "even professionals don't see them as kids," he said. "I've seen the kid in these girls. Some of them still hold teddy bears and draw Crayola pictures. The problem is that they've been exposed to street culture--the language, drugs, sex at an early age--and it's not their fault. They've been made to believe they are worthless, and all they can do is try to please their pimps."

In the Powell case, which is expected to have a trial date set next month, the FBI became involved after one of the 18-year-old victims called 911 from a pay phone and begged police to come arrest her.

After picking her up, Chicago police contacted Wallschlaeger's group of investigators and they launched an investigation. They watched Powell keep the girls in the Baymont Inn in Matteson, and then park his Cadillac in an alley off 47th Street night after night as his girls walked along 47th, a notorious stroll or track, prosecutors said.

The girls were forced each night to walk at least two "rips" of 47th--traversing the 2 miles between Western Avenue and Pulaski Road in high heels and tight skirts--earning at least $500 per rip. At rates of $70 for oral sex and $150 for intercourse, that meant the girls had to have sex with at least four men per rip.

Powell was charged last October with transporting a minor for prostitution. Federal law considers anyone 18 or under a juvenile.

Prosecutors have charged a man in a second case, as well. David Phillips of Sauk Village was charged last year with prostituting two girls, 16 and 14, who were runaways from a group home for troubled youth.

"There's no shortage of cases, to be honest ... There's more than you can imagine," Wallschlaeger said. "They range from small-time pimps, where they might have one, two or three girls, to pimps that are running 20, 30, 40 girls."

A federally funded 2001 study by University of Pennsylvania researchers found that at least 325,000 American children are victims of some form of prostitution. A local study in 2002 estimated the number of prostitutes in the Chicago area at 16,000. Of those prostitutes interviewed in the Center for Impact Research's study, a third said they started trading sex for money before the age of 15.

The FBI estimates the average age of a prostituted child is 13, and most investigators have seen preteens peddled by pimps.

Some investigators say tougher enforcement of other crimes, especially drugs, may have made selling girls an attractive alternative.

"If you're caught with a kilo of cocaine, you're caught," said Sgt. Andrew Schmidt, a Minneapolis police investigator who has specialized in child prostitution for several years. "If you get caught with a girl, she can lie for you."

Schmidt, a nationally recognized expert on the issue, said he has seen an increase of pimps housing girls at extended-stay motels in suburbs, including around Chicago, and prostituting them through escort service advertisements.

Prostitution of children also is on the rise in rural areas because law enforcement there is even less aware of the problem than in cities, he said.

"You can go to any rural area and find somebody with training to find drug [crimes], but no one ever gets training in how to look for prostitution," he said.

Documenting the size of the problem is difficult because the youths involved have learned to be mistrustful of authorities. Their childhood has been so traumatic, experts say, that it is difficult for them to imagine accepting help from adults.

Researchers say that while the international trafficking of children is mostly economically driven--by organized crime and impoverished families willing to sell their sons and daughters--child prostitution in the United States is different.

Sexual or physical abuse in the home more often motivates children to run away, and they end up selling their bodies on the streets to survive, said Richard Estes, who authored the 2001 study.

"In the U.S., we found the primary motivation for kids was psychological and not economic."

Because going home is often not an option for prostituted children once they are off the street, experts agree that coming up with housing specially designated for prostitution victims will be key to helping the children recover.

"A large percentage of these children left home because of physical, sexual and psychological abuse," Swecker said at a congressional hearing in June. "These runaways become a prime target for pornographers and pimps. Prostitution is a continuation of the victim's sexual exploitation, not the beginning."

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dheinzmann@tribune.com

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