Is sex trafficking really happening in our communities? The major crimes unit of the Washington County Attorney's Office will say, "Yes," and there are numbers to prove it.
According to research done by Criminal Analyst Aimee Schroeder, a member of the major crimes unit, a staggering 15,742 online solicitations for sex were posted to the online classifieds site Backpage.com from Jan. 1-March 31, 2016. And that's just one online classifieds site, in one region of the state of Minnesota, in one three-month timeframe.
"What I have seen in four months is real," Assistant Washington County Attorney Imran Ali said. "The stories that (the victims) tell, the experiences they go through and the physical abuse ... it is real."
Launched at the beginning of 2016, the major crimes project was originally designed to address issues like insurance fraud, retail crime and human sex trafficking in Washington County. But with those kind of numbers emerging in just three months, County Attorney Pete Orput told the Washington County Board of Commissioners in a May 3 workshop, it seems sex trafficking has become the division's main focus.
Ali and Schroeder make up the staff of the major crimes division, but the duo draws on help from the Washington County Sheriff's Office and local law enforcement agencies to investigate the thousands of sexual predators in this area.
In fact, the Twin Cities metro area ranks among the top 15 areas for sex trafficking in the U.S.
In her research, Schroeder found that the posts for sex with underage girls spiked during specific times, like during nicer weather periods, weekends, special events, and holidays. Around St. Patrick's Day, again on Backpage.com, more than 300 solicitations were posted, she said.
Ali cites the simple business model of supply and demand as a root cause of the problem. When there are more buyers, the sellers—being pimps and traffickers—are able to produce the product; unfortunately, that product is often a teenage girl or boy.
"To have 15,742 human beings for sale, that's just astronomical," Orput said.
Where they come from
The prostitutes are usually boys and girls who are bought and sold for profit, Ali said. The county considers them victims, because they are often vulnerable teens who are brought in by pimps. When arrested, some are prosecuted, while others may not be, depending upon each individual situation.
But what is for sure is that through her research, Schroeder has developed certain markers to identify where victims may be coming from, or where they may be living. Through photos posted online, she's able to pick out details that can help, and she uses things like social media to cross reference information she's found.
A number of stings have also been held during the past few months, to identify some of the johns who are looking to have sexual encounters with underage girls or boys. By answering to solicitations for sex on those websites, law enforcement is often able to dupe a would-be john, and make an arrest.
From January through March, a total of 32 johns were identified and arrested. Of them, 18 have been charged.
Backpage.com is only one of many online sites where predators go to find teens for sex. There are dozens out there, and many times pimps will list their prostitutes on more than one site.
"The bottom line here is you can order a human being as easily as you can order a pizza," Orput said. "That's how easy it is."
With the ease of using the Internet, sex trafficking has increased steadily over the years, but Orput admits no one really knew how much of a problem it was in this area until the major crimes unit started its work.
Besides taking the time to do the necessary research and identify victims, Schroeder and Ali are also being called upon to do training on human sex trafficking. Since January, they have provided training for 146 law enforcement officers, and a total of 116 people from Stillwater High School and the Stillwater Rotary Club. The team has also led discussion on human trafficking with representatives from the Republic of Korea.
The major crimes unit continues to get requests to conduct training sessions, as well, Orput said, especially as other law enforcement agencies start to see how much sex trafficking is happening in their own areas.
Calling sex trafficking "a repulsive crime," Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik asked if the major crimes unit has enough staffing to address the problem. Orput indicated there may be need for additional resources in the future but also that a lot of progress can be made by working with local law enforcement agencies, too.
In any event, human sex trafficking is in Washington County, and it's not going away, he said.
"A year ago, I didn't realize how pervasive it is in this area," Orput said.