Bat­tling sex traf­fick­ing of mi­nors

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - NEWS - Ge­orge Will’s syn­di­cated col­umn ap­pears Thurs­days and Sun­days in the Tri­buneHer­ald. His email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­post.com.

PHOENIX — Three months ago, State Trooper Jonathan Otto, 33, of the Ari­zona Depart­ment of Public Safety pulled over a car that had caught his at­ten­tion by trav­el­ing 104 miles per hour long af­ter mid­night, just south of King­man. He smelled mar­i­juana in the car. It was driven by a man with an adult fe­male wear­ing only lin­gerie. Their pas­sen­ger was a fe­male ju­ve­nile whose fake doc­u­ment showed her to be 18. She was, Otto says, “not wear­ing a whole lot of cloth­ing.”

The adults had taken this 16-year-old from Cal­i­for­nia to Ari­zona and were head­ing for Las Ve­gas. The girl gave Otto the Cal­i­for­nia phone num­ber of her grand­mother, who im­me­di­ately told him the girl might have been in pros­ti­tu­tion since she was 15. Trained in in­ter­view tech­niques for such sit­u­a­tions, and ex­pe­ri­enced at notic­ing peo­ple who some­how do not be­long to­gether, Otto cor­rectly sus­pected DMST — do­mes­tic mi­nor sex traf­fick­ing.

Trooper Mitch Jer­gen­son, 46, stopped a car driven by a man whose pas­sen­ger was a 17-year-old girl he had got­ten to know via Face­book and other so­cial me­dia. He had paid for her ticket from Cal­i­for­nia to Phoenix and was tak­ing her to Las Ve­gas. She said she was go­ing to be a “model,” then said she was go­ing to work in a strip club. This, says Jer­gen­son, is “the start of a process” whereby mi­nors of­ten wind up work­ing the streets. “Las Ve­gas has strict reg­u­la­tions, but … .”

Sgt. Scott Reut­ter, 47, who watches the mo­tels near the Phoenix in­ter­sec­tion of I-17 and I-10, where pros­ti­tutes are ac­tive, ap­proached a young girl talk­ing to an older man. She said she was 22. Reut­ter, whose daugh­ters are 22 and 19, thought she was “14, maybe 15.” She had been a run­away for 17 months, since she was 13, and said that if she were re­turned to the cus­tody of child ser­vices she would run again. Af­ter a 10-minute hear­ing, she was re­turned. She im­me­di­ately ran, and did so re­peat­edly. To be in law en­force­ment is of­ten to feel con­demned to bail­ing an ocean with a thim­ble.

Frank Mil­stead, too, knows how Sisy­phus felt. When na­ture de­signed him, it had a direc­tor of the Depart­ment of Public Safety in mind. Large and la­conic, he is the 54-year-old son of a Phoenix cop and, al­though he spent some time do­ing stand-up com­edy, he knows in the mar­row of his bones that “there are so many peo­ple out there who want to take ad­van­tage of other peo­ple.”

It is un­clear how many vic­tims of DMST there are be­cause for many rea­sons the crime is not of­ten re­ported by its vic­tims. They are, Mil­stead says, usu­ally abducted, sort of, from “some en­vi­ron­ment where no­body missed them,” adding, how­ever, that traf­fick­ers can­not con­trol “peo­ple who are un­will­ing.”

But many traf­ficked mi­nors, “who no one had made to feel valu­able,” are, Mil­stead says, “chronic run­aways” with at­ten­u­ated ca­pac­i­ties for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. They are prod­ucts of poor or nonex­is­tent par­ent­ing; their traf­fick­ers pro­vide food, shel­ter, a sim­u­lacrum of car­ing, and drugs that pro­duce de­pen­dency. Mil­stead guesses that 80 per­cent are ad­dicted. Hence, they en­gage in “sur­vival sex.”

Mil­stead’s troop­ers pa­trol mo­tel park­ing lots and get to know those who do the mo­tels’ house­keep­ing and no­tice sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity. Big sport­ing events, of which Phoenix has many — the Su­per Bowl, the Fi­nal Four, NCAA cham­pi­onship foot­ball games — at­tract traf­fick­ers. Troop­ers also watch bars and night­clubs where mi­nors are of­fered for sex, and, in­creas­ingly, mon­i­tor the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia.

The web­site Back­page, whose founders live in Ari­zona, be­gan as a place for nor­mal clas­si­fied ad­ver­tis­ing but, a U.S. Se­nate in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded, found its most lu­cra­tive busi­ness be­ing a sex­ual mar­ket­place. The New York Times re­ports that law en­force­ment of­fi­cials say Back­page’s “dat­ing sec­tion” of­ten “used teasers like ‘Am­ber alert’ and ‘Lolita’ to signal that chil­dren were for sale.” Ac­cord­ing to the Times, “In the midst of a Se­nate in­ves­ti­ga­tion, a fed­eral grand jury in­quiry in Ari­zona, two fed­eral law­suits and crim­i­nal charges in Cal­i­for­nia ac­cus­ing Back­page’s op­er­a­tors of pimp­ing chil­dren, the web­site abruptly bowed to pressure in Jan­uary and re­placed its sex ads with the word ‘Cen­sored’ in red.”

Hold­ing up his smart­phone, Mil­stead, whose vo­ca­tion re­in­forces his in­cli­na­tion to look on the dark side, says: “Leav­ing your kid alone at night in his room with this? You might as well leave him or her in the city park down­town. is avail­able on a phone.”

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