'Absence of Choice' 

Untangling captives from the web of human trafficking

The victim had been testifying for hours, and through the whirlwind of anecdotes, digressions and tears, Ada County Sheriff's Office Detective Ryan Pacheco had pieced together enough information to start verifying her story about being forced into prostitution. Her body advertised and sold to johns over the web and via word of mouth, she had escaped an organized sex ring to find safety and tell her tale--but a few traces of the life she was trying to flee remained, giving police hints they could follow back to their source.

"Some of the ads of her were still on the Internet," Pacheco said.

The information directed investigators to a ring of pimps and their female captives, held in Boise-area hotel rooms and forced to perform sex acts for money. In all, Pacheco interviewed dozens of people. When he and members of the Boise Police Violent Crimes and Gang units arrested Derrick Hicklen and Gypsie Akers in November 2013, the felony charges they were able to level against the pair included rape, human trafficking, procurement and receiving payment for prostitution, and video voyeurism.

The sex trade is one most people only see when it makes headlines. Hicklen's and Akers' arrests and ongoing trials--Hicklen is scheduled for a Thursday, April 3, plea hearing and Akers is currently undergoing a court-ordered psychosexual evaluation--are a rare glimpse into that market and how law enforcement and communities are working to combat it.

Pacheco is a member of Idaho's nine-member Internet Crimes Task Force at the Ada County Sheriff's Office, and his specialties are crimes against children and threats from the Internet. Since trafficking and prostitution often involve minors, these kinds of cases often fall under Pacheco's purview.

The black market sex trade has gotten a big boost from technology, and the Internet has proved to be one of its most resilient tools--a virtual space where digital anonymity allows johns, pimps and prostitutes to connect with near impunity. Meanwhile, human trafficking's trackers are using the web to piece together individual sex rings and a vast network of traveling pimps and their human wares.

A major Internet connecting point for the sex trade is Backpage.com, a classified ad listings site operated by Village Voice Media. Superficially it's a lot like Craigslist.org: Goods and services are divided into categories and sub categories, sometimes by city and other times by region. Backpage.com is also the largest source of adult services ads on the Internet. In Boise, that category contains "escorts" and "male escorts" sub-categories, where many prostitutes post digital lures for wouldbe customers.

Despite the role the Internet played in the arrests of Hicklen and Akers, some say these resources remain underused in investigations into lost children and those who may have slipped into the world of trafficking and prostitution. Lonnie Trotter uses the intuition and skills he honed as a bail bondsman to assist in finding missing persons. Currently he's working to find 17-year-old Molly Osswald of Meridian, who went missing Jan. 28. Trotter criticized police for failing to more actively use listings sites like Backpage.com, saying sites that display adult and erotic ads are obvious points of entry for investigations into missing girls feared to have been pressed into human and sex trafficking--and a source of easy prostitution busts for local police.

"I could call any one of these ads right now, and if I were an undercover officer, I could set up a date. If I could do it, why can't a police officer do it?" Trotter said.

In his investigations into missing minors like Osswald, however, one of the most useful tools at his disposal is social media. Updated statuses, tweets and text messages can mean the difference between a runaway and a slave, and also provide fresh leads and insights into people of interest. Some of his most promising tips, he said, have come from social media.

"Facebook's one of the best providers for me. People love to post and brag," he said.

But Pacheco said the sex trade often works too fast even for the Internet to keep up; by the time police can investigate an adult services ad on Backpage.com and other listings sites, the prostitute has likely left the state. Many times, an ad for an individual escort or call girl is concurrently running in multiple cities.

"Boise is kind of a hub stop where you have these human traffickers who travel with these girls all over the country. They may be on their way from, say, Denver or Salt Lake City. What's a natural place to stop but Boise? They may be in Boise for a day or two, but then they're gone," Pacheco said.

The mobile nature of prostitution and human trafficking makes it a particular challenge for communities. That's because specialized task forces and agents in charge of human trafficking and organized prostitution operations aren't communities' first line of defense against these kinds of crimes: Local law enforcement is. In March 2012, an Idaho State Police trooper stopped Dyrell Swinson of Tacoma, Wash., at a rest stop in Payette County, and arrested him for driving without privileges. At the Payette County Jail, his passenger, a 15-year-old girl, was found to be a ward of the state of Washington and a runaway. In March 2013, Swinson was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison for his role in a sex trafficking case.

"It's not the kind of crime an FBI agent will come across. It's local law enforcement," said Idaho District Attorney Wendy Olson. "[Trafficking] may not be what it first appears. It may be beyond what they're seeing."

As one leg of a sex trafficking circuit that runs from Seattle to Los Angeles, north through Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Idaho and back to Washington, making sure Idaho police departments and communities along the route have the wherewithal to identify commerce and sex crimes is an ongoing law enforcement goal.

"I know it's a big problem in Portland and Seattle. It's a commerce crime. People are doing it for money and they're making their way to Idaho," Olson said.

That's why, Pacheco said, taking steps now to curb the sex trade could yield long-term dividends for communities like Boise.

"We want to start working these types of cases to keep Boise a nice place to live like it is now. I don't want to be living in Boise 10 years from now and have it be like what I'm seeing in San Diego and Denver," he said.

Idaho falls roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of states that have effective legal frameworks for dealing with sex trafficking. According to the POLARIS Project, a nonprofit specializing in combating human trafficking and slavery in the United States, Idaho has met six of 10 criteria that the organization uses to determine the effectiveness of a state's legal framework against trafficking (neighboring Washington has met all 10 criteria). These include a definition of sex and labor trafficking in state statute, an asset forfeiture clause denying perpetrators access to property obtained from the fruits of human trafficking, law enforcement training and no requirement for force, fraud or coercion in the prosecutions of those who exploit minors.

Meeting those conditions places Idaho in POLARIS' Tier II. To make Tier I, Idaho would need to post the number for the national victims hot line, create a safe harbor for minors, provide resources for victims assistance and civil remedies for victims, and vacate convictions. It would also have to create a dedicated trafficking task force.

On a statewide level, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence is working to enhance communication between state and local entities that deal with trafficking and prostitution through training and information sharing. Member organizations include Advocates Against Family Violence in Caldwell, Family Safety Network in Driggs and North Idaho Violence Prevention Center in Coeur d'Alene. While CAADV doesn't deal directly with victims, it's this network that allows the organization to combat sexual exploitation and interstate sex commerce on a community level while being a statewide initiative, and an effort to lubricate enforcement against these types of crimes that doesn't necessarily move Idaho closer to meeting POLARIS' Tier I.

When it comes to fighting sex crimes and exploitation, awareness matters--it made Dyrell Swinson's arrest in Payette County more than a traffic stop--and increasing it statewide is central to CAADV's mission. As local police departments receive training on how to identify and handle cases of human trafficking, citizens are being encouraged to watch for signs of prostitution in their communities and report them to law enforcement.

"Part of raising awareness is about people and communities being more mindful of their surroundings," said CAADV Executive Director Kelly Miller.

At the March 19 International Women's Day Celebration at the Egyptian Theatre, Miller introduced international sex trafficking expert and activist Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap, an organization fighting sex slavery in India, where there are an estimated 3 million sex slaves. Worldwide, there may be as many as 27 million. Gupta's efforts have resulted in legislative action all over the world, including the United States. Her travels, she said, taught her a chilling lesson.

"Because you have tourism, you must have sex tourism, because I have never seen a situation in which you do not have both," she told the crowd.

Like in India, she said, prostitutes in America are drawn from marginalized communities like ethnic minorities, the poor and the disenfranchised, and Miller and the CAADV have reached out to those Idaho communities that are most at risk.

"Any time a girl is vulnerable because of her social location--vulnerability is something pimps often prey on," she said.

Pacheco said in the case of Hicklen and Akers, the pair "very methodically found out what the vulnerabilities were for these women and manipulated them into doing things they wouldn't normally do." They created a situation in which the women they were exploiting couldn't leave on their own accord, and he said he and his team are still searching for other victims who may be afraid to come forward. Miller said this is the essence of the negative effect prostitution has on communities.

"Prostitution really is the absence of choice," Miller said.

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