POSTED ON AUGUST 14, 2013:
Doorway to Victimization
Sex traffickers use fear, but the vulnerable are getting help
Officers broke down this fortified brothel door as part of a 2012 investigation into Tulsa sex trafficking.
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The 15-year-old being sold for sex didn't make things any easier for prosecutors.
"Our victim in our federal case testified against the government when we got this conviction," said Sgt. Todd Evans with the Tulsa Police Department. "And that never happens in any other case."
But human trafficking isn't like other crimes, experts say. Victims frequently won't cooperate with law enforcement, influenced instead by fear or coercion. No one really knows how often it takes place in Oklahoma, though those who do the math paint a sordid picture of a highly-profitable enterprise.
And while sophisticated criminals may be involved, other times it need not be an overly complicated scheme.
Tarran A. Brinson, 24, was found guilty by a jury in May of crimes related to human trafficking. His sentencing is scheduled for September, with guidelines calling for a sentence of at least 21 years and eight months in prison, according to U.S. Attorney Danny Williams.
The case began with a fairly typical scenario, by Tulsa Police Department vice squad standards. An undercover officer in December responded by phone to an online escort ad, arranging to meet someone at a budget motel.
There, police found a young girl with a cell phone. Money changed hands, though at one point the girl's "demeanor changed and she became quiet and closed off," court documents state. Texts had been sent warning her -- too late -- it was a set-up.
The bust made, officers then rolled in to check with motel clerks about room records. Brinson had been renting different rooms for about two weeks, and a clerk handed over a photocopy of his driver's license.
Keeping a lookout around the area, police saw him on foot nearby. "Based on probable cause of his participation in the prostitution of a minor, Brinson was arrested and searched incident-to-arrest," the trial brief states. On Brinson's phone were the same text messages sent to the human trafficking victim.
The girl, described in the case brief as "very young looking," had only turned 15 less than two weeks earlier.
It wasn't a case of foreign nationals ruled by force -- a case like that appeared on the Tulsa federal docket last year -- but using underage girls in the sex trade counts as trafficking all the same under both state and federal law.
As with anyone under 18 sold for sex, the girl trafficked by Brinson held the status of victim rather than prostitute. It's part of a series of changes in the law designed to aid the vulnerable.
But officers often find that traffickers have effectively turned the girls into allies, victims nevertheless loyal to those who recruited them into the lifestyle.
"I don't think there's like a 100 girls in Tulsa being trafficked every night," Evans said. "I think there's probably between five and 10, maybe."
Why would even one girl follow a man like Brinson? It's the psychology of the "finesse pimp," Williams said -- "a guy who preys on the young ladies' emotions, preys on the fact that they have a very difficult home life, provides them with material things, clothes, a little money, and then affection."
It's interpreted as love, but there's one other twist revealing the cunning nature of traffickers. While the federal case centered on one victim, prosecutors also identified a 17-year-old girl who "used to be in a romantic relationship with Brinson," court documents state.
This person "sent out multiple messages on Facebook asking girls if they wanted to make some money by participating in her and Brinson's escort business," the court document states.
She, too, is a sex trafficking victim in the eyes of Williams, , who said she was used by Brinson in an effort to shield himself from the repercussions of recruiting girls into the sex trade.
"We viewed her as a victim as much as the young lady that was actually participating in the prostitution act," Williams said, noting that there was no law anyway to prosecute such an underage recruiter.
"And after interviewing her -- she understood the consequences of her actions," Williams said. "But we think she was swayed by this grown man to act on his behest to get these little girls into this lifestyle."
With sex trafficking, it's hard to not start with demand.
Evans recalled when Tulsa police first began to post bogus online escort ads about four or five years ago in stings to net arrests.
"The first ad we placed, we posted an ad, within 10 minutes we had our first call. Within two or three hours, we probably had 80 calls to our phone. We literally had people on hold while we were talking to people," Evans said.
Not every prostitute, of course, is a trafficking victim, but the appetite for sex-on-demand comes from men in pretty much every walk of life, Evans said.
In building the Brinson case, a court document describes how police spoke with "a local Tulsa businessman who had purchased and received commercial sex services" after responding to the underage girl's online ad. The man paid with a check, earning him the name "Check Guy" in Brinson's cell phone contact list, according to court documents.
The trial brief states that this man, along with recalling writing out a check to a "Tartan Brinson," also identified a black SUV -- a description that seemed to match Brinson's vehicle -- used to drop the girl off at his house. He and others testified and helped convict Brinson, Williams said, and they escaped prosecution in the process.
Demand translates into dollars. Craig Williams, a trafficking investigator with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, in May told a group of attorneys that sex trafficking is a highly profitable criminal business.
"I don't like talking about people as a commodity but the reality of it is, in human trafficking -- and to make it make sense -- people become commodities," he said, speaking at a May training session in Oklahoma City organized by the Oklahoma Bar Association.
"That's the way a trafficker looks at a person, as a straight commodity. They don't look at a personality or their individual value. That's one of the things that makes trafficking so evil," Williams said. He described how trafficking victims might work 15 "events" per day, with a potential profit of $200,000 per year, per victim.
"In every debrief I've been to, they don't get days off," Williams told the group.
In March, six people were sentenced for their roles in a Tulsa trafficking case dubbed "Operation Poker Chip" that seemed to illustrate the frequency victims can be forced to have sex.
"The operation derives its name from poker chips that were given to the customers who paid a 'caretaker' to have sex with a sex trafficking victim," according to a statement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "The customer then turned in the poker chip to the victim. The sex traffickers or 'caretakers' collected the poker chips at the end of the day to keep track of how many clients they had."
All this took place in Tulsa, but had faraway roots, at least according to ICE officials who described one victim as being smuggled into the United States from Mexico.
Upon arriving in Atlanta, she was beaten and forced into sex work in different states, according to ICE, with her journey to freedom taking over eight years. Investigators painted a vivid description of how she was never told where she was or even allowed to go outside, but managed to contact an Atlanta-based law enforcement officer and continue with texts while in Tulsa.
Salvation came in the form of a pizza parlor mailer, allowing the woman to share her location with police. She placed a black high-heeled shoe in the window as a further signal to officers of her location.
This time, it all came together in a case that included uncovering information about brothel locations in Oklahoma City and Kansas City.
But Danny Williams, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, admitted that, "how prevalent it is, say in the Northern District or the Eastern District or even the Western District of Oklahoma, in terms of foreign nationals being trafficked, I don't know."
Evans with Tulsa police said any such trafficking is difficult for police to investigate -- though he has suspicions, including some related to sex workers from East Asia.
"There's a network we really haven't infiltrated," he said. Arrests happen, but in these cases the prosecution of illegal commercial sex "doesn't really get to the people that are probably behind it," he said. He added: "We don't have the interpreters to help us get where we need to get, and there's no cooperation whatsoever from the victims."
Craig Williams told the group of attorneys that human trafficking can also involve people toiling in forced labor situations, with scenarios including door-to-door sales and domestic labor, to name just a couple.
If those situations involve foreign nationals or if it's a sex trafficking situation, the victims can receive special immigration status.
Jasmine Majid, an immigration attorney with the firm Phillips Murrah in Oklahoma City, described how the changes in the law to benefit victims resulted from advocacy work done mostly by nonprofit organizations.
Go back 12 or 14 years, "we weren't calling it human trafficking at all," Majid said. At that time, young immigrants trapped in a trafficking scenario could only hope for "the F-visa, which was also known as the 'snitch' visa," she said. Only by providing the government evidence helping to prosecute criminals could trafficking victims have a chance to stay in the United States and avoid a return to what might be a danger-laden home.
"Rarely were the victims able to do all that, and once the U.S. government would get the information, they would revoke the F-visas and put those people into deportation proceedings," Majid said.
She worked for an East Coast nonprofit at the time helping immigrants, and said advocacy led to changes in attitudes.
"I think it was important to realize they were not volunteering to be victims," Majid said. That view came to be common only after "about a five-year period of pushing and pushing and pushing, and education and writing letters and advocating on behalf of the victims," she said.
Now, trafficking victims can at least potentially stay in the United States through what are known as T-visas, though such visas are limited to 5,000 victims annually, according to the U.S. Department of State.
It's a way to provide safety, according to Majid: "We had to protect them from going back to a system of human trafficking and servitude."
She also praised changes in the U.S. State Department, including the creation of position serving as an ambassador-at-large against human trafficking. The department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was created after federal legislation was passed in 2000.
The office releases a yearly report examining trafficking conditions in more than 180 countries, a report filled with examples of governments not devoted to clamping down on human trafficking. China and Russia were the largest countries to receive Tier 3 status, denoting that their "governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards" set forth in the 2000 anti-trafficking legislation.
"So this report is tough, because this is a tough issue, and it demands serious attention. And that's precisely what we intend to provide," Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress on June 19, according to a transcript provided by the State Department. "It's tough because in the last year roughly 46,000 victims of trafficking were brought to light worldwide, compared to the 27 million that we know are enslaved."
In Oklahoma, Craig Williams, the human trafficking investigator, hesitated when asked whether sex trafficking of foreigners or Americans is more common.
"I don't think there's a huge disparity between the two," he said, though he added that non-foreign victims are perhaps more common.
Federal law states that anyone "forced, deceived, or coerced" into commercial sex qualifies as a trafficking victim, regardless of age. Danny Williams said trafficking may happen more often than people realize.
"I think what you're going to start seeing though is more what I would call the home-grown, local traffickers," he said. "Trafficking is not just bringing in these undocumented ladies and making them sex slaves. It's the guys that live right here in the district that are using underage girls. Now, we're not going to make what is a local crime, a municipal crime, i.e. prostitution, a human trafficking crime. But it starts getting into that realm when you start using minor kids , when you use minor girls -- or boys -- for the purpose of commercial sex, that's human trafficking."
Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris said trafficking is "really difficult to uncover." His office, along with that of Danny Williams, participate in a task force focused on trafficking.
"If it's a young girl, and she gets arrested for prostitution, is that automatically a human trafficking case? No, but I think you better start asking questions," Harris said.
Helping raise awareness
The billboards could be seen along various Oklahoma highways, put there by a group known as Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans.
But the group disbanded as a nonprofit last month, though a rebranded Facebook page includes a statement that volunteers will continue to try to raise awareness in Oklahoma about human trafficking.
Nationally, the Polaris Project, founded in 2002, works to advocate for policy changes to combat trafficking. Other groups have also become involved in raising awareness, including the American Bar Association, which recently began a campaign against trafficking.
"We will develop business-conduct standards and best practices to help corporations ensure they are not using slave labor unknowingly to provide goods or services," ABA President Laurel Bellows wrote in an online message to members. "We will contribute to the development of a uniform anti-trafficking state law to make certain that there is a strong legal basis to prosecute human trafficking in every state."
Oklahoma City attorney Jimmy Goodman co-chairs the ABA's task force on trafficking. The group is proposing a uniform law that would, among other things, ensure those being trafficked are treated by the legal system as victims "so they can develop a life outside the world of trafficking, which in some instances is all these people have known since they were barely teenagers," Goodman said.
He said many states are paying more attention to the problem of human trafficking, but having a uniform law might help them.
"States looking at starting something up, they don't have to start from scratch," Goodman said.
Along with the law, the effort is also about education the public.
"We're developing some public service announcements on how to spot someone that might be trafficked and what to do about it if you do," Goodman said.
About 80 lawyers attended the May training in Oklahoma City, where Goodman told them about 500 lawyers nationwide had attended a similar training.
"Lawyers in Oklahoma now can assist trafficking victims to get cleared of a criminal record because that criminal record is a bar to their reentry and their progress out of trafficking," Goodman told the group.
"This is hard for me..."
Oklahoma has one women's shelter designated for victims of human trafficking, DayspringVilla.
Wilma Lively, the executive director for the Tulsa-area shelter, also spoke to the crowd at the May training.
Trafficking victims have "multiple layers of trauma," she said. The center, a faith-based effort started by women involved in Tulsa-area Baptist churches, began in 1980 to serve victims of domestic violence, only recently taking on the challenge of helping human trafficking victims.
To help create a comforting environment, the women are referred to as guests rather than clients. The length of stay is not capped, and Lively said the average time spent at the shelter is 123 days.
She described some of the characteristics of the human trafficking victims the shelter has helped. So far, almost all of the women have been American, with one foreign national helped.
Fifty-three percent spent some part of their childhood in the custody of child welfare authorities. Women helped have ranged in age from 17 to 45. Most don't report having much education, though some have attended college and one even had a master's degree. Half had children. Eighty-three percent reported using drugs, though at least one woman described being forcibly shot up without her consent.
Lively spoke about how the women "always feel on guard their trafficker will find them."
One statistic might illustrate their plight more than any other: "Of 30 women, 22 had attempted suicide," Lively said.
She told the story of how one woman became a trafficking victim.
"At 13, her mother took $5,000 for her," Lively said. She then lived with a couple "where she was groomed to work in sex clubs as a stripper and forced to prostitute herself."
She ultimately had been married four times, but Lively described how one husband had literally chained her up and beat her. "She was only 16 at the time," Lively said.
The woman wrote a letter while at the shelter, portions of which Lively read aloud: "The hardest thing is trying to figure out who I am besides a human trafficking victim. My whole life, I've been passed around like trash. My life has never been my own. Do you know how hard it is to be free, at 35 when I never have been?"
The letter continued: "I've never done anything on my own since I was 13. This is hard for me. When I'm outside with the ladies, I see myself at times, mimicking my behavior, trying to fit in, be accepted."
Lively said the woman came to the shelter after having literally been put out on the street by her husband.
"I just want to let you know that I am scared and this is hard, and no matter how busy I try to keep myself, these memories keep haunting me, because 57 days ago, that's all I knew. And as sick as this may sound, that was my comfort zone."
The staff does encounter defiant attitudes initially, Lively said. "They will tell you to 'F'-off, but they don't use the letter 'F,' to see what you will do or what you will say. We know they aren't cussing at us, they are just testing us to see what our reaction will be, because if they spoke to their trafficker like that, they would probably be beaten," Lively said.
The past is not far from their minds, according to Lively. "They continually wonder what they could have done differently to escape their circumstances," she said.
The shelter is raising funds to expand and help more trafficking victims.
"Getting victims to trust and accept help both from law enforcement and service providers is a huge obstacle," Lively told the group.
It takes time -- something law enforcement doesn't have, she noted.
"I believe this is the first step that we as service providers have to realize, that it's going to take long, on-site stays or treatment that will allow adequate time to establish trusting relationships needed for a victim to open up and begin to address the trauma," Lively said.
More than half of the center's guests reported being strangled or choked, and physical scars and malnutrition are not uncommon, Lively said. She stressed that it's also trauma-related psychological problems, like post-traumatic stress disorder, that make their recovery difficult.
"For some, it's going to take years to find freedom," Lively said.
Craig Williams told the crowd that the state has recently invested in more resources to combat human trafficking.
He began working for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs about seven years ago.
"We were starting to see at the bureau human trafficking-related crimes when we were investigating drug crimes," Craig Williams told the group.
Now, the bureau has a full human trafficking unit. For the last two years or so, police recruits undergoing training at the state law enforcement academy undergo four hours of training to learn about human trafficking. Cadets in Tulsa's police academy also have four hours of trafficking training.
In recent years, the FBI has been reporting on "Operation Cross Country," an effort to combat human trafficking. Last month, they reported the results of a three-day sweep, with 105 juveniles recovered and 152 traffickers arrested.
Danny Williams said there were no cases "Operation Cross Country" cases in the Northern District, but his office wants to work with the FBI and is committed to prosecuting human trafficking cases.
The office also works closely with Tulsa police's vice unit, he said.
Evans, the vice sergeant, said the police stay on the lookout to catch traffickers.
As far as prevention, "the biggest deal is parents paying attention to what their children are doing," Evans said. The ubiquity of social media makes it much easier for would-be traffickers to recruit dozens of girls at a time. "Laws and law enforcement have fallen behind," he said.
But computer forensics can help build cases that link the sex traffickers to the crime, he noted.
In Dallas, police have taken to studying runaway reports to try to identify youth at risk of being trafficked. The department flags such runaways in their computerized records as well as the National Crime Information Center, according to a 2010 article written by an assistant district attorney in Dallas County.
This makes it so "that any law enforcement officer anywhere in the country who contacts the child will know that she has been identified as a high-risk victim," wrote Brooke Grona-Robb for the journal The Prosecutor.
The Polaris Project is pushing for more attention to be paid to the child welfare system, advocating for a piece of legislation known as the Strengthening Child Welfare Response to Trafficking Act of 2013.
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"Recent reports have shown that the majority of identified child trafficking victims have had contact, often multiple times, with the child welfare system," the Polaris Project states on its website. "To ensure the proper identification of and assistance for these children, this bill amends the Social Security Act to require state child welfare agencies funded under the Act to report within their annual plan on current efforts to address the human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children in their care, or alternatively to report on future plans to address the issue."
Academics have also been focusing on the issue, with various inter-disciplinary conferences held on the topic of trafficking.
Katherine Cunningham, a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Tulsa, is researching public perceptions of human trafficking. Faculty member Lisa Cromer is also involved in the project.
"People's attitudes can affect how victims are treated," Cunningham said. Her research involved having fellow TU students read a narrative related to trafficking, then answer questions about it.
"In our research, we found that people who believe myths about human trafficking, they're more likely or more willing to blame the victim for the situation," Cunningham said. "Even if they believe someone might be trafficked, they're still willing to assign some sort of blame to the victim."
These "myths" might involve the ideas that trafficking requires transportation across state lines, or that it's something that involves undocumented immigrants -- both not true. Cunningham said another myth involves the idea that trafficking always involves obvious physical abuse. In reality, the psychological can be just as powerful, she noted.
In the May training session, Kiera Samantha spoke to the crowd about her experience as a trafficking victim.
Her voice at times quivering, she described how she was the victim of sexual abuse at an early age -- and how she decided to run away with a friend from a foster care facility.
"We were 16, 17 years old," she said. "We thought we would be OK."
But she wound up being taken to a lair for the Crips street gang, where she was led into a room with bars on the windows and a dirty mattress. She was told she would be a prostitute.
"If I did not want to comply, they would hit me," she said.
Gang members would drop her off and then pick her up later. One day, a man put his hand on her leg while she was in his vehicle -- but he had an aura of menace that led her to fear for her life. At a stoplight, she opened the door and fled.
Others would attempt to do the same thing to her, she said.
But she found the strength to fight for her life. Now in her 30s, she has worked as a domestic violence counselor.
As far as trafficking, "I did not know that I was a victim of trafficking," she said. "I had no idea that's what it was."
Some days are still struggles, she said, emphasizing a need to provide help for trafficking victims.
"I went 22 years thinking it was my fault," she said.
She described the first time she was put out on the street and forced to sell her body.
"This guy looks at me and goes, 'You're so young, why are you doing this? I can't believe you're doing this,'" she said. "All I'm thinking is, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not doing this -- you're doing this to me.'"
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