April 18, 2012

Derby traffic

Louisville’s premier event puts police and advocates on alert for human sex trafficking

It’s a cool, breezy April afternoon in Louisville, still a few weeks before the Kentucky Derby drums the city into a delightful weekend-long stupor. The preparatory pace will soon pick up to a frantic stride as this pallet of spring pastels, bourbon, lost wages and long-shots approaches.

Today in west Louisville, at a Catholic Charities outreach center, planning is under way in a back parking lot. Amy Nace-DeGonda isn’t busying herself with festivity arrangements, but rather a sinister side attraction to Louisville’s premier event.

Nace-DeGonda, a member of Louisville’s human trafficking task force, along with three volunteers, load the back of her Hyundai with boxes of soap, about 3,500 complexion bars total. Each is individually wrapped in paper with red rectangular stickers fastened across the front. The National Human Trafficking Hotline pops out in bold text, coupled with a message:

Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Have you witnessed young girls being prostituted?

The S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) campaign stocks a couple soaps with the above note in motel and hotel bathrooms during crowded, high-demand events: Kentucky Derby, Super Bowl, Indy 500, the Republican and Democratic national conventions, just to name a few. Basically, any place where visitors with ample wallets and a penchant for partying gather. Horse racing attracts both in spades.

S.O.A.P. is the brainchild of an Ohio-based anti-trafficking advocate, Teresa Flores, who was coerced into prostitution for two years as a teenager.

“I really felt compelled to reach the girls that are in it right now, to do more than just tell my story and educate and bring awareness. And so I started thinking, ‘How would somebody have reached me? How would somebody have called out to me?’” Flores says in a video posted to her website.

It dawned on her that her only peace came in the minutes she was allowed to wash in between clients.

This is the second year the S.O.A.P. campaign has descended on Derby. Last year, only eight motels and hotels in Louisville agreed to participate. (Officials with the National Human Trafficking Hotline say the S.O.A.P. campaign has resulted in a few calls during targeted events.)

While one may assume prostitution relegates itself to Dixie or Preston Highway, police say the Hurstbourne area has become a hub for commercial sex activity, thanks to its effortless transition from interstate to hotel parking lots, with only one or two stoplights between.

“If something happens, they can load up, get back on the expressway, and get out of town,” says Sgt. Andre Bottoms, who investigates human sex trafficking with the Louisville Metro Police Department.

It’s not yet determined how many hotels will accept the soaps this year. Nace-DeGonda is still recruiting participants before she heads out with deliveries.

“Our hope is to put them everywhere, but with the chains, that’s just not yet happened,” she says, adding that large hotels either have contracted soap vendors or blanch at the idea of being associated with such sordid acts.

Marissa Castellanos wants these uncomfortable conversations to educate. She is Catholic Charities’ human trafficking program manager and applauds the attention the issue has gained over the last decade — first, with the passage of federal anti-trafficking legislation in 2000. Since then, 49 states have adopted their own statutes, spawning steady news coverage. Crime shows like “Law & Order” also have featured trafficking.

Yet Castellanos says many still don’t know the scope of the crime. It is estimated that a couple million human sex trafficking victims exist worldwide. And historically, large sporting events increase commercial sex activity.

“And part of that commercial sex unfortunately often involves sex trafficking, mostly in regards to minors,” Castellanos says. “So I would think Derby would be no exception.”

About a week or two before Derby, Castellanos expects to see the typical surge in ads for “escorts.” They’ll file in for the weekend from near and far. Most are likely consenting adults who choose this path out of financial desperation, or as episodes of HBO’s “Real Sex” have asserted, enjoyment. But just like so many modern industries, commercial sex exploits, especially the vulnerable, poor and young.

In 2009, according to Florida’s Department of Children and Families, 24 minors were pushed into prostitution during Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl. Still, it’s impossible to attach hard statistics linking sporting events with increased sex trafficking given the crime’s inherent secrecy.

But it’s happening, even without a swarm of out-of-towners.

In the United States, the number of trafficking victims varies depending on the source. In 2004, the U.S. State Department estimated that up to 17,500 people were trafficked into the United States. Five years earlier, the Central Intelligence Agency put that number at 50,000.

In Kentucky, 67 cases have been identified since the state’s anti-trafficking law went into effect in 2007, making the crime a felony. Castellanos says Kentucky Rescue and Restore, a coalition of advocates, has identified and assisted 135 victims.

Just within the last two years, disturbing stories have emerged. In 2010, a grand jury indicted a Berea couple on human trafficking charges for prostituting their 13- and 14-year-old daughters at Walmart and Kroger. Kathy and Anthony Wayne Hart are accused of approaching men in the stores’ orderly, fluorescent-lit aisles and showcasing their provocatively dressed children.

A pending case out of Columbia, Ky., involves a juvenile prostitution ring.

Last summer marked Jefferson County’s first human trafficking indictment, centering on a 17-year-old girl.

It happens here

The Louisville teenager’s alleged victimization ends on a Tuesday afternoon along a commercial stretch of Taylor Boulevard in south Louisville. Cars snake into fast-food drive-thru lanes. Cash registers gulp each sale at the Dollar General. Only a timid 84 degrees, it’s a pleasant August day.

At about 3 p.m., a tall, 36-year-old woman with thick brown hair swerves a silver Ford Explorer into the parking lot of a strip club — white, windowless, sealing all the carnal displays within. A violet awning lures passersby with a promise: “Déjà vu … where the party never ends.”

But the woman, Rebecca Goodwin of Shepherdsville, isn’t here for the strip club, according to police: Behind her sits a 17-year-old, in tow to prostitute. Justin Ritter, Goodwin’s 22-year-old cousin with a significant rap sheet and a thin frame, fills the passenger seat. A beard spreads like kudzu down his neck and up onto his cheekbones.

Neither Goodwin nor Ritter know it, but several LMPD officers have been discreetly woven into their comings and goings over the past week and now sit waiting for a cue from Lt. Richard Pearson — an undercover “John.”

Just a few minutes earlier, Lt. Pearson arranged the tryst via cell phone. When he spots the Explorer, he steps out of his own idling car.

He approaches Goodwin, whose blue eye shadow fans out beyond her dark, narrow eyes. According to a police report, Goodwin initiates the negotiations involving sex with a young woman.

The backseat window rolls down, revealing the youthful face of a 17-year-old. A 12-year-old girl, Goodwin’s niece, also sits in the backseat.

“Is the price still $75?” Pearson asks the teen.

“Yes,” she replies, rolling her window back up.

“I don’t want to pay $75 for just a blowjob,” Pearson states.

Goodwin allegedly counters, “… you get the full package for $75.”

Police say Ritter then pipes in, “Man, she don’t want to suck your dick, but she will fuck you.”

Pearson signals the officers. Handcuffs open and latch like talons gripping the wrists of everyone in the car: Goodwin, Ritter, the 17-year-old, and the 12-year-old, though hers are quickly removed once it’s learned how young she is.

A detective isolates the 17-year-old for questioning. She says she’s been living with Ritter and Goodwin for about a month. In that time, she says the two have compelled her into having sex with 15 separate men for money.

According to Shared Hope International, a nonprofit dedicated to abolishing sex slavery, it’s not uncommon for child victims to be sold 10-15 times a night, earning some pimps into the hundreds of thousands over the course of a year.

The teen claims Goodwin has injected her with heroin on numerous occasions. She says Ritter has physically forced her into prostitution to help feed his and Goodwin’s drug habit.

A search of the Explorer yields syringes, tourniquets and marijuana. As officers fill out paperwork, Goodwin flags over Lt. Pearson. She admits driving the teen to the parking lot for sex, but says, “I can’t control what she does.”

She offers intel on heroin dealers in exchange for leniency.

Later, Ritter reportedly blurts, “... I am fucked now. I’m going to prison.”

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for May.

Human trafficking, by definition, entails labor or services obtained by force, fraud or coercion. Essentially, slavery with a less loaded name. Most instances involve prostitution, though forced farm and domestic labor also occur.

Whether Ritter and Goodwin forced the teen into sex may not matter. According to state statute, coercion does not need to be proven when the victim of trafficking is under the age of 18. If found guilty, Goodwin and Ritter could face up to 20 years in prison. The punishment resulting from trafficking adult victims is slightly less.

Prosecuting human trafficking is a challenge, particularly when coercion must be proven. Despite there being 12 indictments in Kentucky at the state level (plus one federal indictment), none have ended in successful prosecutions, though many are currently ongoing.

Kristi Gray, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney who sits on Louisville’s human trafficking task force, says victims rarely leave a trail of evidence. The controlling nature of the crime prohibits it.

“Like in domestic violence cases, a lot of times there’s a well-documented history of complaints because the police have been called,” Gray says. “In these types of cases, the victims, for one reason or another, are fearful for accessing law enforcement.”

It appears the 17-year-old alleged victim of Goodwin and Ritter shares that sentiment. An affidavit filed by a paralegal close to the case states the teen has repeatedly expressed “fear of retaliation” from the defendants.

Sgt. Bottoms can recount several anxious, silent victims. Recently, officers suspected a street prostitute in town may be part of a local trafficking ring. When brought in for questioning, the woman, covered in bruises, refused to speak on any business matters, growing nervous upon realizing the time with police wouldn’t yield cash.

“She didn’t give any information,” Bottoms recalls. “She was so afraid the pimp might kill her for not coming back with money, she begged detectives for money to have something to turn over to him.”

Officers forked over dollars from their own wallets, he says.

In cases involving foreign nationals, deportation and a language barrier also heighten the likelihood of uncooperative panic.

“They come here with the promise of a job, and when they get here, the passports are taken away, they’re forced into prostitution with either (the idea that) they’re getting killed here or we’re gonna kill your family back home. And they can’t leave,” Bottoms says. “They don’t have their passports. They don’t know where they are in the country. They take them to different cities so they don’t have a clue.”

A 2007 study by T.K. Logan, a University of Kentucky behavioral sciences professor, helped pinpoint this anxiety among trafficking victims. Logan interviewed 140 outreach workers, police, shelter workers and rape crisis counselors, all individuals likely to encounter human trafficking victims. Logan posed the question: “What keeps people entrapped?”

About 90 percent of respondents said fear, 60 percent said victims didn’t know how to get help, and 23 percent answered shame.

Anti-trafficking advocates in Kentucky see better victims’ services, including outreach workers, as one way to tackle the pervasive sense of isolation. This past legislative session in Frankfort, House Bill 350 would have created a fund aimed at seeking and supporting trafficking victims. Funds collected from the seizure of a trafficker’s assets would fill the coffers.

The bill also aimed for the formation of a Kentucky State Police human trafficking unit. Supporters say the extra manpower could prove particularly helpful in times when local police must avert resources away from sex crimes to handle other duties — times like Derby.

But HB 350 didn’t make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Traffic challenges

The first weekend in May, identifiable as much for its dapper, seersucker charm as elegant horses, lacks all coquettishness once one opens the valve, or in this case a web browser, and traverses through the vast chambers of online companionship. Adult escort ads, featuring primarily women, exist all year, but flourish around Derby weekend.

Shot at contorted angles boasting maximum flesh, scantily clad figures animate the screen, paired with a range of suggestive descriptions: “open mind,” “wild, sexy and ready,” “trucker friendly,” “coke bottle Italiana figure.”

On a website notorious for commercial sex marketing, Backpage.com, one Derby-related post reads:

“California Hottie Looking For Derby Tix … I will be spending a few days in the area and taking apps.”

These ads linger outside of Backpage.com. Publications, including this alt-weekly and others like it, have carried ads for suggestive massage parlors and websites (though LEO stopped running ads overtly peddling escort services in 2008). But over the last year, Backpage.com has shouldered much of the heat for ads related to prostitution and sex trafficking. Last August, 46 state attorneys general, including Kentucky’s Jack Conway, wrote a letter demanding stronger screening. It states, in part:

“While Backpage.com professes to have undertaken efforts to limit advertisements for prostitution on its website, particularly those soliciting sex with children, such efforts have proven ineffective …

We have tracked more than 50 instances, in 22 states over three years, of charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage.com. These are only the stories that made it into the news; many more instances likely exist. These cases often involve runaways ensnared by adults seeking to make money by sexually exploiting them.”

The website has defended its monitoring practices, citing, for one, the ability for police to track any seemingly suspicious posters by credit card numbers used to pay for the ads.

At his desk inside Louisville Metro Police’s Barret Avenue building, Brian Wright scours online ads like those on Backpage.com. Wright, a detective, sits on the FBI’s local human trafficking task force. At the moment, he looks pure cop: shortly cropped silver hair, sharp blue eyes, compact frame. When clicking through posts, he searches for curious signs, like different women all marked by the same tattoo, perhaps a pimp’s name. Or a girl claiming 18 as her age, but whose adolescence bleeds through gaudy makeup and cheap poses.

With large events, like Derby or the National Farm Machi-nery Show in February, he’ll notice women advertised in other states flocking to Kentucky. Is it an adult? Is she willingly taking payment for sex? Merely a low-grade misdemeanor? Perhaps. But it could be much more.

Ideally, detectives would set up a “detail” to gather evidence that may eventually lead to an arrest. But Wright says Louisville’s signature weekend makes it impossible.

“On Derby, I’ve never worked any other detail than Derby,” Wright says. “We know prostitution is increasing during Derby, but we’ve got traffic, Derby security. We’re swamped. We use the entire police department.”

He knows it’s a missed opportunity, but there’s little he can do.

Even outside of Derby season, the investigation of sex trafficking has become more challenging, police say. A few years ago, LMPD merged its vice and narcotics units. Detectives once devoted almost exclusively to commercial sex-related crimes assumed other duties.

“In the last three years, we’ve probably put together four details,” Wright says.

Before the restructuring, they’d go out at least once a week.

“Those details were just going out on an eight- or 10-hour shift and picking up street prostitutes,” he says. “Believe it or not, a lot of those girls are being trafficked as well.”

One active step taken by LMPD came in 2010, when every officer completed 40 hours of mandatory human trafficking training conducted by Catholic Charities’ Marissa Castellanos. She taught them what to look for when dealing with potential sex trafficking sites, such as massage parlors. For instance, it’s typical that the trafficker will not allow their girls to handle money. Instead, they take payment and will hand the “John” a token or playing card.

“So if you go into an apartment building where there’s been some prostitution-related activity and you see playing cards, you know, just sort of around different rooms, not a whole set of cards … maybe they weren’t really playing Go Fish,” Castellanos says.

Detective Wright says the training incited a new awareness among officers. But he’s also found himself looking back, chronicling long-passed clues. He recalls one particular massage parlor visited several years ago. The woman in charge had a history of organized crime. When he revealed to the “masseuse,” an Asian woman in her 30s, that he was a cop, she hugged him.

“Thank you. Help me,” she said.

At the time, he admits his cynical side took this as an effort to “play” him. But perhaps there was truth to her plea. Perhaps there was more than just prostitution under way.

“We were ignorant,” he says.

As LEO leaves Wright’s office on a March afternoon, word in the hallway is that LMPD’s Derby assignments are forthcoming. Wright hopes he’s not on traffic duty, motioning scores of impatient drivers into Churchill Downs. It’s a rather dull job, made more agitating when, in between robotic hand gestures, a thought surfaces: Someone may be quietly suffering with little direction to a way out.

“If I’m a trafficker … and I know you have half-a-million people, half-a-million wealthy people going to a certain city on a given day of the week,” Wright says, “that’s where I’m taking my product.” 

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