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Sex trafficking surprises prosecutors, parents

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Cottage Grove — Imran Ali turned over a few rocks Sept. 29 at Cottage Grove City Hall.

However vile and disturbing the things that squirmed beneath, it was preferable to blissful ignorance, he told his audience.

The assistant Washington County attorney was the featured speaker at a sex trafficking forum organized by the Cottage Grove Public Safety Board. His message: It was dangerous folly to deny that the buying and selling of children for sex was taking place — with alarming frequency — in Cottage Grove, Woodbury and other communities.

"If you had asked me one year ago at this time, is this a problem in Washington County, I think my answer would have been, 'no,'" Ali said.

Ali was appointed to lead a new major crimes division last year. They were tasked with taking down organized crime operations, such as illegal drug distribution networks and theft and fraud rings.

But sex trafficking cases quickly became their priority. Ali admitted that his department is overwhelmed.

The major crimes staff includes a criminal analyst who monitors online sites such as Craigslist and Backpage, where traffickers and predators often place ads to buy or sell sex. Law enforcement agencies around the country have used these and other sites to conduct stings by posing as underage prostitutes.

"I've done a dozen of these operations," Ali said. "Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people respond. You usually have five to 10 people showing up."

Last year, one such Backpage ad brought a 43-year-old Maple Grove man to visit the house of a 16-year old girl in Cottage Grove. The girl had offered sex for money on the site. According to a police complaint, Corwin Moose paid her $80 to have unprotected sex and to pose for nude photos. A Minnesota police sergeant saw the girl's ad and a sting operation was arranged. Moose arranged to meet the girl at a Holiday Gas Station in Cottage Grove and take her to his home. When police arrested him there, they searched his vehicle and found a new tarp lining the trunk, as well as rubber gloves and an empty suitcase. Police found nude photos on his mobile phone.

In August, Moose received a one-year sentence after he pleaded guilty in Washington County District Court to engaging in prostitution with a minor, using a minor in a sexual performance or in pornography and possessing pornography in an electronic image.

Ali said he has 51 open cases of sex trafficking, which includes both the supply and demand sides. Cases range from predators trolling for underage girls or boys online, to traffickers who hire out underage victims for sex.

About 50 people attended the forum.

Connie Polly was one of several parents who brought their children. She wanted daughter Kelly Jackson, 15, to hear the straight-up facts and, she hopes, share them with her peers.

"As a mother, I wanted my daughter to be empowered with the information of what's going on," Polly said.

It was an eye-opener.

"I'm still stunned by how big a deal sex trafficking is in our county," she said.

Last year, the Washington County Attorney's Office announced the formation of the anti-sex trafficking coalition. Members include the Washington County Sheriff's Office; police departments from Bayport, Cottage Grove, Forest Lake, Newport, Oak Park Heights, Oakdale, St. Paul Park, Stillwater and Woodbury; the Minnesota State Patrol; the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Washington County's Community Services and Community Corrections departments; Tubman (family crisis and support services); and other health care and social service providers.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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