Sunday, October 16, 2005

Young Lives for Sale

Why more kids are getting into the sex trade--and how the feds are fighting back
By Bay Fang
U.S. News and World Report

LOS ANGELES--Kristie was 13 when she met the first of her four "daddies." She had run away from home in the Southwest, and friends introduced her to a tall, good-looking man, who said the red-haired teenager was sexy and had potential. Pretty soon, he had her prostituting herself on the streets of Las Vegas--and then Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Phoenix. She and her "wifies," the other girls working under the same pimp, most of whom were also in their teens, would be brought to a city, work from 7 p.m. until sunrise, then move on. The now 15-year-old (who, like the other girls, doesn't want her real name used) stopped only after she was arrested, in July. From the beginning of the year until then, she estimates, she had over 100 sex partners--but she had long since stopped counting.

The trafficking in children for sex was once thought to be a problem beyond America's borders. But the FBI and the Justice Department have now started focusing intently on the issue--and what they've found is shocking. Thousands of young girls and boys are falling victim to violent pimps, who move them from state to state, which makes it a federal matter. The younger they are, the more they're worth on the street. "There is a greater and greater demand for younger and younger kids," says Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "America doesn't look. People are shocked and horrified when they hear these girls' stories. They say, 'That doesn't happen here. It happens in Thailand. Or the Philippines.' But once you start shining a light on it, you find it everywhere."

Getting serious. Two years ago, the FBI and the Justice Department launched something called the Innocence Lost initiative. More than 40 FBI agents have been dedicated to task forces in the 14 cities with the highest incidence of child prostitution--places like Atlanta, Detroit, and Minneapolis. Since the campaign's inception, the feds have obtained almost 40 federal indictments of accused sex traffickers and pimps.

Earlier this month, a federal grand jury indicted Jaron Brice, 29--also known as "Jay Bird" and "Daddy" --in Washington, D.C., on 17 counts related to the sex trafficking of minors. And "in a few months," says David Johnson, director of the Crimes Against Children unit of the FBI, "there will be a round of cases that is bigger than anything that's happened before. We are not looking just to do a quick arrest; we are trying to remove an entire enterprise."

The roots of Innocence Lost can be found in investigations begun in Oklahoma City back in 2003, after a series of murders of prostitutes who worked at truck stops. "We went out and said, 'Is there some federal intervention we could do to combat all this violent crime?' " says Mike Beaver, the FBI Crimes Against Children coordinator in Oklahoma City. "The more we looked, the more we determined that we needed to work child prostitution." The investigations led to the discovery of a loose network of more than 45 pimps and over 100 prostitutes, who recruited girls from Oklahoma City and followed trucking routes to Denver, Miami, Houston, and Dallas. Fourteen pimps have since been convicted on federal charges as a result of the Oklahoma City probes, with sentences as long as 210 months. Three major interstates cross Oklahoma City, and the truck stops here, such as Pilot and TravelCenters of America, are like little cities, with everything from restaurants to TV lounges. The parking lots can cover acres. The back row of each lot is known as "Party Row," and the truckers know that's where the girls are. Law enforcement officers monitoring CB radio traffic regularly hear girls ask, "Hey truckers, anyone want some commercial company?" If someone responds, they switch to a different frequency, then get down to business. "I'm blond-haired, blue-eyed, 34C . . . if you want to play with this baby doll, tell me what color your house is," she will say, referring to his truck. He will often flash his lights so she knows where to go. A girl can have dozens of "dates" a night but will not stop until she has made her "trap," the amount of money she has to bring home to her pimp.

Ownership. Cindy (not her real name) is 14, with dyed blond hair and an $800 trap. Her pimp was Michael Thomas, FBI officials say, whose street name was "1-8," a reference to time in an Oklahoma City gang. He had tattooed on his girls' bodies the letters POE, for "Pimpin' One Eight." He would buy girls from other pimps, for as little as $50, give them names like Orgasm, and send them out to truck stops, charging $60 for oral sex, $80 for intercourse, and $100 for both. When Cindy told Thomas she wanted to leave his "stable," he had another girl stab her in her arms and hands, according to the FBI.

A University of Pennsylvania study from 2001 estimates that close to 300,000 children nationwide are at risk of falling victim to some sort of sexual exploitation. Outreach workers concur, saying that of the 1 million to 1.5 million runaway children in the country, about a third have some brush with prostitution. "When we began initiating investigations around the country," says Johnson, "we found it everywhere we looked."
On the "strolls" of Sunset Boulevard and Figueroa, in South-Central Los Angeles, girls step out from the shadows in tiny skirts and stiletto heels. Detective Keith Haight sizes them up. He doesn't bother stopping unless they look underage, but it's hard to tell nowadays. Haight has been working these streets for 25 years and has seen the girls getting younger. This drop in age is due both to the rise of the Internet, which provides ready access to child pornography, and to the fear of HIV/AIDS. "Back then, if you found a 15- or 16-year-old, that was a big deal. But now, they're 11 or 12," he says. "If you go to the bus station, you can see the runaways coming off the buses, and you can tell the pimps waiting for them."

Many of today's pimps have gang ties, and they've moved from murder and robbery to pimping. "There has been a trend of organized crime moving away from traditional commodities like drugs, tobacco, and arms, to kids," says NCMEC's Allen. "They are reusable, inexpensive, with a huge consumer market that is enormously profitable with next to no risk. Nobody cares. Nobody is looking for them. They are the forgotten."
Kristie has a ponytail and eyes that dart around the room. Sometimes, it's easy to forget that the articulate teenager prowling for johns is just that--a teenage girl. She glibly instructs a visitor on how to outsmart the vice cops. "You never offer anything until you're up in the room with him," she says. "You tell them you're a private dancer. When you hug him, make sure he only has one wallet--if he has another lump, it could be a badge. Check to see that there's luggage in his room, with the tags still on it. And always, always, say you're 18."

Eyes and smiles. At truck stops in California, girls often wear jeans and carry a backpack, looking as if they're studying. "But there is something about their eyes, and the way they smile at you, that tells you they're not just regular kids," says James Morrow, an outreach worker for a nonprofit called Children of the Night, who used to frequent truck stops to educate both the girls and the truckers--until threats from the pimps made that too dangerous. Sometimes the same girls will travel to Texas, Arizona, and Oklahoma, greeting truckers in each place by name.

The girls' stories sound scarily similar. Kristie's parents are divorced, and she was raped at the age of 8 by one of her mother's boyfriends. Linda, a 14-year-old from Arizona, never met her father. She was raped repeatedly by her stepbrothers when she was 6 and 7, and she fell in with a pimp who convinced her to start prostituting herself when she was 13.

Because of their backgrounds, many of the girls just crave attention. "I wanted someone to look out for me," says Fay, who grew up in a wealthy family in New York City but was left by her parents to be brought up by strict grandparents. "I needed a father--someone older, who could figure out my little tricks." Pimps play mind games to make their prostitutes compete with one another for attention. "I felt wanted all the time--by somebody," explains Kristie. "I felt like I was good at something."

Baptized. Pimps also use the promise of riches to entice girls into "the Game." But while the girls can make thousands of dollars a night, they never keep much of it. If they do, they get "baptized," or beaten by their pimps. Kristie's pimp would rape her if she did not bring in enough money, saying things like, "I know you don't want Daddy to do it like this, but you have to be punished." "The average life expectancy of a child after getting into prostitution," says Johnson, citing homicide or HIV/AIDS as the main causes of death, "is seven years." Tom O'Brien, the criminal division chief of the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office, describes a conversation he had with one 14-year-old prostitute who was testifying against her pimp. "I told her, 'When I was your age, I thought I'd live forever.' She looked me in the eye and said, 'Mr. O'Brien, I'll be dead before I'm 21.' "

Children of the Night is housed in a nondescript building in the San Fernando Valley. A big teddy bear on the counter greets visitors, and the dorm-like rooms are plastered with posters of pop stars. The difference between this and a regular boarding school is that the teenagers here are all former prostitutes. They have parole officers, social workers, therapists. They are tested every week for HIV/AIDS. A list in the office keeps track of when and where each girl has to testify against her pimp. When Lois Lee started this program 26 years ago, local government social services agencies told her they couldn't take in prostitutes. She says that the new federal interest is a step in the right direction. "But what do you do with them once you've got them?" she asks. "Where's the love, the family, the programs, the schools?"

Kristie has been at the shelter for three weeks, and she says, with a toss of her head, that she thinks she'll stay. She has been arrested twice, she says, but the first time, she said to her parole officer, "I'm not going to stay here. I know California like the back of my hand. You won' t be able to find me." When she was released from juvenile detention hall, she immediately cut off her parole bracelet and ran away, back to the streets. Haight, sitting in his car on Sunset Boulevard, says he has seen hundreds like her--and more coming in every day. "It's like America has lost its innocence," the detective says. "Little girls just aren't little girls anymore."


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