SPOKANE, Wash. – Sex trafficking is among the most sickening crimes and it victimizes young, vulnerable girls. Yet, this crime is almost invisible to the public and to law enforcement.
"It's not visible. And if it was visible and everyone knew it was going on it would be easier to stop," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Christian Parker.
Parker said it is a problem big enough to warrant Child Exploitation Task Forces across the country, including here in Spokane.
"We aren't rescuing a juvenile every day but it happens more than you would think," Parker said.
He said the problem increases as more gangs get into sex trafficking as a way to generate a steady stream of cash.
Two Eastern Washington girls were rescued after the U.S. Attorney busted Roberto Llerenas, Jr. he was charged with recruiting and coercing the young girls into the sex trade for his own financial gain.
Bruce Anderson is in prison for attempting the same. Court documents said he responded to an ad for a young woman on the dark website backpage.com.
He texted the number asking, "How old are you?"
The response back: 16.
Anderson texted, “If you work for me, we'll split the profits 50/50.”
They agreed to meet at Northtown Mall but instead of a 16-year-old girl, an undercover police officer was there to greet him instead.
Just weeks ago, task forces across Washington arrested three people suspected of forcing dozens of adults and children into the sex trade. A success but there is so far to go with this heinous, complex crime and often times the victim’s afraid to ask for help.
"Often they've been threatened or their family has been threatened," Parker said.
That is exactly what happened to Rebekah. Her trafficker said he would kill her family if she did not give in to his demands. The Montana woman was forced into sex trafficking when she was just 15-years-old. Her trafficker was focused on using Rebekah to make money.
"Day in and day out you had to make a quota," Rebekah said.
Sex trafficking is a form of slavery and often the young women are not even of legal age to give consent.
So how do we stop girls from getting lured into this dark underworld? For starters, shine light on it. Talk about it.
"It's painful, it's difficult, we don't want to come to terms with the fact there are people in our community, in our neighborhood, in our offices that might be participating in it. And when we don't do that, it just allows the problem to keep going on. We have to call the problem up to the surface so that we can name it, so we can help survivors, so we can hold offenders accountable," said Lutheran Community Services NW advocate Erin Williams Hueter.
The crime thrives on the complex dance between supply and demand. Criminals make a lot of money trafficking girls which keeps the traffickers in the game. The business can only continue as long as another criminal, the ‘Johns,’ are seeking girls. Rebekah is repulsed by the entire evil enterprise. If customers out there are convincing themselves all these girls want to be with them, Rebekah knows differently.
"That's a lie. I didn't want to have sex with people," she said.
They are often forced to pretend otherwise. Just ask Nicole, a young Washington state survivor whose trafficker is now in prison.
"I got pepper sprayed and put in a shower for three and a half hours. A cold shower. And I tried to leave and it just turned out to be worse," Nicole said.
It is not a life fit for any human. Certainly not your child. This is why Special Agent Parker said we all need to be aware of the warning signs.
"If your child all of a sudden has money that isn't accounted for or they have expensive items and you don't know where they came from whether they're nice clothes or electronics, a new phone,” Parker said.
Traffickers often target runaways, and kids with a history of drug abuse and sexual abuse. Now that you are looking, you just might notice something out of place.
"If you see a juvenile with an older adult that doesn't necessarily look like a family member in places like hotels, or truck stops," Parker said.
Just know, that child will likely be too afraid of their trafficker to ask for help.
"The people that exploit children the pimps, the traffickers these are folks that are really good at manipulating young people into thinking that they have no other choices," Hueter said.
There are other choices. Lutheran Community services has a 24 hour hotline and advocates for this very reason. They work to help people find safety. Just this week, Spokane County Juvenile Courts was awarded money to reserve space in a local shelter specifically for victims of sex trafficking. Hueter said this is beyond big news.
"What's been the most challenging for children who've been sex trafficked is finding a great housing option. We don't want to put kids in jail because that's not the safest, warmest environment for somebody who's just trying to get help," she said.
Spokane's Jonah project also offers to come and rescue girls from danger. They will send someone to go get a victim no matter how scary it is, no matter how bad the bad guys are with no strings attached.
Rebekah believes she cheated death to help trafficking victims find a better life.
"I'll pray with them. I'll talk to them. To make them understand you are worth something,” she said.
It is a mission so meaningful, each flower tattooed on Rebekah's arm signifies a girl who has taken her hand in a quest to break free.
If you or someone you know is in need of help, a good place to get Human Trafficking Information and Resources is through the Lutheran Community Services 24-hour Hotline 866-751-7119.