Airline employee prevents teen girls from flying to meet suspected human trafficker

Teen girls had no IDs and one-way first-class tickets. Why that alarmed airline employee.

Employee and Police Officer

Two girls may have been sold into sexual slavery had American Airlines’ employee Denice Miracle and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Todd Sanderson not stepped in. American Airlines

Quick thinking from an American Airlines employee at Sacramento International Airport likely saved two teenage girls from lives in captivity.
American Airlines customer service agent Denice Miracle knew something was awry when two girls from the Vacavillle-Fairfield area, ages 17 and 15, came to her ticket counter on Aug. 31. The girls had no identification, were unaccompanied by adults and had two first-class tickets booked by another person with a fraudulent credit card, according to an airline news release.
“Between the two of them, they had a bunch of small bags. It seemed to me as if they were running away from home,” Miracle said in the release. “They kept looking at each other in a way that seemed fearful and anxious. I had a gut feeling that something just wasn’t right.”
When Miracle refused to let the girls fly, they walked over to a nearby Starbucks table while one of them made a phone call. Meanwhile, Miracle called the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s Airport Bureau and reached Deputy Todd Sanderson, who later reported the girls had called a man named “Drey,” whom they had previously met on Instagram.
Drey had offered to fly the girls to New York for the weekend and pay them $2,000 to model and be in music videos. But one more piece of the puzzle seemed odd: Drey hadn’t bothered to buy the girls a return flight from New York to Sacramento. That was news to the teens, who had jumped at Drey’s offer without telling their parents.

“When I told them that they didn’t have a flight home, that’s when it kind of sunk in that maybe I was actually telling the truth,” Sanderson said. “In my opinion, what was going to happen was they were going to go back to New York and become victims of sex trafficking. They said they wouldn’t have let that happen, and I said they probably wouldn’t have had a choice.”

After the girls’ initial conversation from the Starbucks table, calls to Drey’s phone stopped going through. He deleted his Instagram page within minutes.

Drey likely used photos of another person, Sanderson said, and is unlikely to be prosecuted from outside the state. But thanks to Miracle’s awareness, the girls headed home from the airport with their parents that Thursday night.

“I’m very, very thankful Ms. Miracle with American Airlines was able to use her intuition and concern and actually say something,” Sanderson said. “Without her, I wouldn’t have been called and we wouldn’t have intervened with these girls.”

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Backpage has always claimed it doesn’t control sex-related ads. New documents show otherwise.

A contractor for the controversial classifieds website has been aggressively soliciting and creating sex-related ads, despite Backpage’s repeated insistence that it had no role in the content of ads posted on its site, according to a trove of newly discovered documents.

The documents show that Backpage hired a company in the Philippines to lure advertisers — and customers seeking sex — from sites run by its competitors. The spreadsheets, emails, audio files and employee manuals were revealed in an unrelated legal dispute and provided to The Washington Post.
Workers in the Philippine call center scoured the Internet for newly listed sex ads, then contacted the people who posted them and offered a free ad on, the documents show. The contractor’s workers even created each new ad so it could be activated with one click.

Workers also created phony sex ads, offering to “Let a young babe show you the way” or “Little angel seeks daddy,” adding photos of barely clad women and explicit sex patter, the documents show. The workers posted the ads on competitors’ websites. Then, when a potential customer expressed interest, an email directed that person to, where they would find authentic ads, spreadsheets used to track the process show.

For years, Backpage executives have adamantly denied claims made by members of Congress, state attorneys general, law enforcement and sex-abuse victims that the site has facilitated prostitution and child sex trafficking. Backpage argues it is a passive carrier of “third-party content” and has no control of sex-related ads posted by pimps, prostitutes and even organized trafficking rings. The company contends it removes clearly illegal ads and refers violators to the police.

The discovery could be a turning point in the years-long campaign by anti-human trafficking groups, and Congress, to persuade Backpage to stop hosting prostitution ads, which many teenage girls have claimed were used to sell them for sexual exploitation. Lawsuits and criminal prosecutions of Backpage in the United States have nearly all failed because Backpage cites in its defense the federal Communications Decency Act, which grants immunity to websites that merely host or screen content posted by others.

An investigation by a Senate subcommittee revealed earlier this year found that Backpage was editing ads to remove language indicating underage girls were available, rather than removing the ads. “Backpage has been righteously indignant throughout our investigation,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a subcommittee member, “about how we were infringing on their constitutional rights, because they were a mere passthrough.” She noted, however, that Backpage was not only changing ads but was also guiding posters in how to conceal their true intentions.

“But that’s nothing compared to this” new information, McCaskill said after The Post described the data. “This is about as far from passive as you can get. This is soliciting. This is, really, trickery . . . So I hope this opens the floodgates of liability for Backpage. Nobody deserves it more.”

The Post provided parts of the seized data to Backpage general counsel Liz McDougall for her review. She declined to comment after seeing it. Backpage has frequently noted that it cooperates with and has been thanked by numerous law enforcement agencies for providing investigators with connections to pimps and other criminals. McDougall has said that Backpage acts as “the sheriff of the Internet” and that sex ads would be dispersed among sites in other countries if Backpage stopped posting them.
‘Everybody knows they’re doing it’

Backpage, based in Dallas, is an online classified ad service similar to Craigslist, with sites operating in at least 97 countries and 943 locations, enabling users to buy and sell cars, audio equipment, concert tickets — and “adult services,” seemingly a smorgasbord of barely disguised prostitution ads.
Though Backpage announced in January it was discontinuing its “adult services” page, the same types of ads still appear under the “dating” category. Backpage has said that content is protected by the First Amendment, a view which has been endorsed by the courts.

Most ads on Backpage are free. But ads in the “dating” section cost at least $3, and more for posting in more than one city or for periodically moving the ad to the top of the list. The Senate report said that more than 93 percent of Backpage’s ad revenue in 2011 came from its adult section, leading to $135 million in gross revenue in 2014, with projected revenue of nearly $250 million by 2019.
(The Washington Post)

Among the sex ads posted on are those for underage boys and girls, authorities and advocacy groups say. The National Association of Attorneys General has described Backpage as a “hub” of human trafficking, which involves children or adults who are forced or coerced into prostitution. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said that 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives from the public each year involve ads on Backpage.
[How a 16-year-old went from Backpage to prostitution to homicide victim]
“This is the commercialization of this crime against children,” said Yiota Souras, the center’s general counsel. “And it’s what businesses do — they grow internationally; they have marketing plans to beat the competition and offer incentives to get more clients; they seek legal protections for their business interests. This is a traditional business model, but here the transaction too often is selling children for sex online.”

In January, Backpage’s top officials appeared before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Chief executive Carl Ferrer, co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin and general counsel McDougall all invoked their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves and declined to answer any questions.

Yvonne Ambrose with her daughter Desiree Robinson, 16. Robinson was found dead in a Chicago-area garage on Christmas Eve. (N/A/Family photo)

Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin are facing criminal charges in California for pimping and money laundering, though a court there threw out similar pimping charges last year. And among six civil suits filed against Backpage this year is a wrongful-death action in Chicago by the mother of 16-year-old Desiree Robinson, who was slain in December after repeatedly being sold for sex on Backpage.

“Every single day, we’re learning something new,” said Yvonne Ambrose, Desiree’s mother. “Not just what’s going on with Desiree, but what’s happening with Backpage, what they’re doing on this site. Everybody knows they’re doing it, and they’re not being held accountable.” Backpage has not responded to the suit, which was filed in May.

In late June, federal agents arrested the man who allegedly had been posting Backpage ads for Desiree, which described her as “Nicki,” who was “new in town” and “looking for upscale Gentlemen to have a great time with.” The FBI alleged that Joseph Hazley, 33, would drive her to appointments for “commercial sex” and collected some or all of the money she was paid. “I’m in a situation where I’m being pimped,” Desiree wrote on Facebook days before her death. “He won’t let me leave.”
Hazley was charged in federal court with sex trafficking of a minor. Hazley’s lawyer, Michael Schmiege, said in an interview that Hazley didn’t know that Desiree was a minor and had no role in her killing.
Creating and posting false sex ads

The materials seized in December from the Backpage contractor, Avion BPO, a busy phone and online operation in Laoag City, Philippines, show workers focused on adding and promoting sexual ads.
One manual apparently created for Avion employees provides step-by-step instruction on how to find ads on other websites and copy them (“you can now transfer the details of your advertisement from the other Classified Site to Backpage,” the manual states). The manuals suggest that other types of ads, such as for jobs, are also targeted, but the spreadsheets seized from Avion focus largely on sex ads.

Then, after creating a fake user profile on the other classifieds site, the worker fishes for the advertiser’s email or phone number. Various translations of “Can you meet today?,” “Nice Pictures!,” “Want to have fun?” and other messages are then sent in the appropriate language to the advertiser. When the advertiser responds to the message, the workers in the Philippines either call or email with an offer to post their ad on Backpage free of charge, with the ad already created and ready to go.
(The Washington Post)

In one email, a person with a email address reminded Avion workers to search its competitors’ sites for the latest postings, noting that dozens can be added each day. In the email, the Backpage employee included a list of ads from Vivastreet, a similar classified ad website in Europe and Australia, including one titled “Hot and Sexy and Ready for You” and another called “Sweet Christine New in North harrow – all service for you.”

The manuals also discuss creating and posting false ads on other sites. When potential customers respond, Avion workers responded with emails saying the poster had moved to Backpage.
“Hey baby, Sorry i missed your email. I got locked out of my Vivastreet account,” one email said, “and just finally got them to open it back up for me . . . I have one on back page now too.” A link to Backpage is included, though the phony ad is not posted. Instead, the redirected customer is now presented with Backpage’s actual advertisers.

There are also numerous spreadsheets that track the creation of fake profiles and fake ads on other sites and the responses to those ads, as well as a list of advertisers on other sites and their contact information.

Backpage says it uses an automated program to strip objectionable words from ads, such as “lolita” and “teenage” and “rape,” the Senate subcommittee report found, while leaving the rest of the ad online. But Backpage also uses Avion to manually review ads, and the new documents show how Backpage strives to keep ads from being deleted.
“I was reviewing deleted ads,” one Backpage employee wrote to Avion. “Here are a few removals that I restored. Some only needed pics removed,” meaning that Backpage republished ads that Avion agents had taken down.
Raid in the Philippines
The discovery of the documents came about accidentally, as part of a lawsuit in Kansas City, Mo. A D.C.-based commercial real estate data firm, CoStar, claimed last year that a competing firm in suburban Kansas City, Xceligent, was delving into the CoStar website and stealing its data. Xceligent has denied the allegations in the pending case.

Avion BPO’s call center in Laoag City, Philippines, where workers allegedly sought new advertisers and customers of sex-related services for The photograph is from material seized for an unrelated lawsuit involving Avion. (CoStar)
CoStar said it believed that the actual alleged data theft was being committed by a contractor for Xceligent — Avion. In December, CoStar obtained a civil search order in the Philippines. CoStar executives say they assembled an 85-person team of Filipino officials, IT experts, lawyers and private security forces and raided Avion’s three-building complex in Laoag City, seizing 35 terabytes of information comprising some 6.5 million files. All of Avion’s computers were then bubble-wrapped and flown back to the United States to aid CoStar in its case.

While analyzing the data about Xceligent, CoStar discovered huge amounts of Backpage data on the same computers. CoStar founder Andrew Florance started going through the files.
“The word ‘Backpage’ was just all over the place,” he said. “We found organizational charts showing Avion’s two big clients are Xceligent and Backpage. So we googled ‘Backpage.’ ”
CoStar turned over the Backpage data to the FBI. The FBI declined to comment on whether it is investigating. Xceligent officials said in a statement “we do not own or control Avion’s business, we are not affiliated with Backpage, and we have no way of knowing about Avion’s purported work for Backpage.”

Avion chief executive Von Nagasangan and chief operating officer Joy Nagasangan did not respond to requests for comment.

After Ambrose sued Backpage in Chicago over the death of her daughter, her lawyers subpoenaed the Backpage data from CoStar for their civil case. Ambrose’s lawyers at Romanucci & Blandin then turned the data over to The Post.

The documents include audio files of calls between Avion employees and people who have posted ads on other sites, apparently recorded for company purposes.
“Hey Crystal,” an Avion employee said in one recorded call. “I just saw your ad you posted on Escorts South Africa and we would like to invite you to repost your ad for free at Backpage. All we need is your email address.” Crystal declined, saying she had been warned about such inquiries, “and don’t ever call me again.”
(The Washington Post)

But others agreed to the prospect of a free Backpage ad and provided their email addresses. Employee manuals and tracking spreadsheets show that in the follow-up email from Avion, a link is provided where the new advertiser can see what their ad will look like — Avion has already created it, having lifted the material from the original site, and it’s ready to go with just one click.

Invoices and call sheets indicate Backpage was pushing Avion to get as many new listings as possible, generating ads from competing sites including Locanto in Europe, Australia and South America,,, PrivateRomania, Gumtree and many others.

How the law protects Backpage
Virtually every attempt by sex victims or law enforcement to stop Backpage from facilitating such action has been shut down by Backpage’s reliance on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, written in 1996 during the Internet’s infancy. The law protects website operators from being held liable for content posted by their users.
[Websites where children are prostituted are immune from prosecution. But why?]
In recent federal appeals court rulings in both Chicago and Boston, courts have sided with Backpage, as they have in numerous lower courts for years. “Users provide all the content for ads they post,” Backpage lawyers wrote in the Boston case. “The website does not dictate or require any content.” The lawyers went further: “The law under Section 230 is clear that if an online provider has actual knowledge of illegal content posted on its site, the provider is immune even if it fails or refuses to delete the content.”
Congress is gearing up to try to amend Section 230, though it faces a powerful opponent in First Amendment proponents and websites wary of government regulation.
Regardless of the law, Backpage has always claimed it has made “extensive efforts to prevent, screen and block improper ads from users,” as it wrote in one filing in federal court in Washington in 2015. “ does not create or develop any of the advertising or discussion content,” it wrote in one presentation provided to Senate investigators, “but simply provides a forum for the online publication of users’ content.”

Nacole S. wipes away tears as she testifies about her daughter’s sex trafficking during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing into Backpage on Jan. 10 on Capitol Hill. Her last name is being withheld to conceal her daughter’s identity. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Various authorities have tried different approaches to try to shut down Backpage’s sex ads. In Chicago, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart issued a cease-and-desist order to Visa and MasterCard, telling them to stop accepting payment for Backpage. Backpage sued the sheriff and won. In Boston, three women who were sold on Backpage sued the site’s owners, but a federal appeals court, with a panel featuring former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, ruled that the Communications Decency Act shielded Backpage from liability.

But in Washington state, the state Supreme Court ruled that a suit by three victims of sex trafficking could proceed. Nacole S., whose daughter was trafficked on Backpage at the age of 15 for more than three months, was amazed by the new revelations. The Post is withholding her last name to conceal her daughter’s identity.

“I find it morally disgusting,” she said. “Not only are they exploiting young women that are clearly vulnerable, but they’re furthering their exploitation by putting them on another website. It just shows the lack of morality of this company, how little they care about the victims. Which child is going to be enough to make this end?”

This article has been updated to reflect additional comment from Xceligent. An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the ad offering “fresh young sweet simple girl” as a phony created by Avion workers to lure business. It was an authentic ad posted on a competitor’s site, the documents show, and Avion sought to persuade the advertiser to post it on

Main story from Washington Post

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Daughters for Sale: How Young American Girls Are Being Sold Online

  • By Gloria Riviera
  • Jackie Jesko

May 25, 2016, 9:56 PM ET

In an old home movie, young Natalie is laughing and running around with a soccer ball. She’s around 12 years old, and she looks at the camera and says, “When I grow up, I would like to be a doctor.”

But a few years later, that laughing, carefree young girl was sold for sex allegedly through the website, She estimates she was paid for sex over 100 times, and she firmly believes that the site made it possible for her pimp to post ads offering her for sex over and over again.

“Continuously. All day, every day. 24/7,” Natalie told ABC News “Nightline.” She has asked us to refer to her as “Natalie” for this report, and her parents have asked that we do not use their last name.

Natalie is now a 21-year-old mother with a toddler and another baby on the way. She is part of a major lawsuit against, the highly controversial online classifieds site that is currently being investigated by the U.S. Senate for its alleged connection to underage sex trafficking.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, told “Nightline” that Backpage “requires more of someone who wants to sell a motorcycle than of someone who wants to sell a child.”

When Natalie was 15 years old, she said she made a decision she would regret for the rest of her life. She ran away from home because she said she received a bad grade at school and was nervous about how her parents would react to it.

“I thought maybe things would be easier if I could just go do it on my own,” she said. “I didn’t want them to… be disappointed… I had told all my friends that I was going to run away.”

Natalie said she ran across a soccer field, jumped a fence, found a bus stop and took a bus to downtown Seattle, where she met an older girl at a youth shelter.

“She was very familiar with the shelter and the Seattle area in general and she told me… we could go hang out,” Natalie said. “I had never smoked weed before, never drank… I don’t know. I was having a good time.”

Back at home, her mother Nacole found a letter Natalie had left behind. She called her husband Tom and said they needed to go to the police immediately.

“I was in shock,” Tom said. “You know, kind of just floored that– Gone? Why? You know? Where? You know, how?”

Out on her own, Natalie quickly learned the dark side of life on the streets. She said her older friend was turning tricks right in front of her.

“We would walk on the highway and then people would come pick her up and I would sit in the back seat and then she would sleep with them,” she said. “A lot of them would ask if they could sleep with me and she would tell them ‘no,’ until a pimp picked us up and then took us to his house.”

That’s when Natalie said she was raped for the first time. She had been a virgin.

“After it happened he threw a towel at me and some carpet cleaner and told me to clean up the carpet because there was blood,” Natalie said. “That was pretty difficult. And then after that, they cut all my hair off and then put me in some really skimpy clothes and taught me how to walk in heels,” she continued. “I got really scared after that, and I ended up running out of there.”

Natalie said she sneaked out of the garage door and found a police officer who called her mother.

“I was definitely scared and I just wanted to go home. I was nervous,” she said.

Her family was overjoyed to have her back, but Natalie was still grappling with how to deal with what had happened to her.

“I didn’t know how to treat her. I didn’t know if she wanted me to hug her,” her father Tom said. “For the first time since the day she was born… It felt awkward to hold my own kid.”

At school, Natalie said word had gotten around what had happened to her, and she said she was bullied and called horrible names. This feeling of not belonging drove her to make another bad choice: she ran away a second time with the help of that older friend she had met in Seattle. Natalie was still just 15 years old.

“I ran down the street to the bus stop… and she was parked there waiting for me,” Natalie said.

Then she met 32-year-old Baruti Hopson. She said he was kind to her at first and gave her a place to stay, but then she said things took a horrible turn.

“I had started talking to him, confided in him a little bit about family life and just how stressed out I was,” she said. “He had asked me if I had ever worked before, and I told him, ‘briefly’ … I didn’t really know what I was doing.

“And then he told me that I wouldn’t be on the streets,” Natalie continued. “And I was like, ‘Well what does that mean?’ And he’s like, ‘Well I’m not going to have you walking the streets’ … And then that’s when Backpage came into play.”

Natalie said Hopson told her was “safer” and that it was easier “not to get caught.”

Backpage’s site is surprising simple, similar to Craigslist, but with a racy adult services section with categories like “Escorts” and “Body Rubs.” These are technically legal categories, but many in law enforcement say these ads are thinly veiled code for prostitution. While it is free for someone to post adult services ads, Backpage makes money by offering paid add-ons, including the ability to re-post the ad every hour and to post it in multiple neighboring cities.

“He put me in all these clothes, took some pretty provocative pictures of me and then got to Backpage, and then you can click on to post an ad,” she said. “He just showed me how to do it, so I could do it myself.”

Natalie said the website asked if she were 18 years or older, but “a simple yes click was about as far as that went.”

With Backpage ads posted with titles such as “Well worth it, 150 an hour” and “It won’t take long at all,” Natalie said she was working every single day and started earning as much as $4,000 a weekend, handing over all the cash to Hopson.

“He started getting physically abusive and really, I couldn’t even go in the bathroom without the door being unlocked,” Natalie said. “He would sleep in the living room next to the front door, so I couldn’t leave.”

Natalie’s mother Nacole said she was shocked to learn there was a website where this could to happen to underage girls, like her daughter.

“I live in an American town, how can my kid be sold on the internet?” she said.

“When you hear that your 15-year-old child is posting an ad for sex or for rape in her case, and that she’s getting 25 to 30 calls an hour, and you’re thinking, ‘Well how many of these is she having to answer? I mean, there’s 24 hours in a day… how many times a day is my child being raped?” Nacole added.

But the sad truth is Nacole is among many American mothers who have had to ask themselves the same question.

A mother who’s asked us to call her “Debbie” said her teenage daughter, who we’re calling “Crystal,” left home one night after an argument. It only took 48 hours of her being gone for Debbie to find her images on Backpage.

“I remember that she had on the see-through lacy teddy,” Debbie said. “And she’s 14.”

Crystal says that when she left home, she arranged to stay with a friend’s boyfriend’s mom. Instead of giving her a safe place to stay, she says this woman forced her into prostitution. Crystal says they were re-posting her Backpage ad every five minutes and forcing her to have sex with the men who would come to the house.

Crystal, who is now 19, told “Nightline,” “It’s hard being that young and being trapped in a room and not knowing if you’ll go home to your mom, or if you’ll come out of there alive.”

“Megan,” another mother who asked us to use an assumed name, said her 15-year-old daughter was also sold for sex on Backpage. Her daughter, who we’re referring to as “Kim,” says she went to a party hosted by a friend’s older boyfriend on her fifteenth birthday. It was fun at first, but then Kim said she was told she couldn’t leave and was forced to take racy photos to post on Backpage.

“I got a call from a friend of mine that said that I needed to check Backpage because she thinks that she had saw my daughter on Backpage,” Megan said. “So I checked, and sure enough, her ad was there.”

Megan said she called the police and told them she saw Kim on a Backpage ad, and that they needed to do something.

“I told them they had to go get her,” she said.

Both of these girls were eventually rescued by police. The adults who posted them to Backpage were convicted in court. Kim and Crystal are also suing Backpage, and they are also represented by Natalie’s lawyers, Erik Bauer and Jason Amala. Backpage denies these allegations and is fighting them in court.

But so far, every lawsuit filed by a trafficked underage girl against Backpage has been dismissed because of a law called the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The law protects Backpage, among others, from being held legally responsible for what users post on its website. Also called the CDA, the law shields websites or online publishers for information posted by third parties.

“If someone publishes a faulty motorcycle [ad on], the buyer of that motorcycle shouldn’t be able to sue Backpage merely for posting the ad, that doesn’t make sense,” said ABC News’ senior legal correspondent Sunny Hostin. “Interestingly, under the law, there is no difference between Backpage posting the advertisement for the faulty motorcycle and posting the advertisement for the underage girl being trafficked for sex.”

Backpage, which is based in Dallas, has repeatedly claimed that they are part of the solution, not the problem. The company told ABC News in a statement that it employs moderators who diligently screen ads to stop underage trafficking on its site. They added that they have voluntarily undertaken a multi-tiered “policing system to prohibit and report attempts at human exploitation and the advertisement of prostitution” that screens for words and phrases that might “suggest illegal activity” and that the company actively cooperates with law enforcement.

“While the experiences of children (and adults) who have been exploited are tragic and heartbreaking,” Backpage told “Nightline” in a statement today. “The solution does not lie in making online service providers responsible for millions of posts by third-party users (in’s case, approximately 50 million posts per year presently) – the practical effect of which is inevitably highly restrictive censorship or the total banning of certain categories of online content so that online service providers are not in constant anxiety about potential liability for the one ad that slipped through their moderation systems.”

But many in law enforcement have openly challenged these claims, including Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart, who in 2015 successfully petitioned every major credit card company to cut ties with Backpage. The only available payment methods on the site now are Bitcoin or mail-in check.

Natalie’s father Tom says his daughter’s disappearance pushed him to the breaking point. He would spend days in the car, driving around Seattle, searching desperately for his missing girl. Until one night, he said things went too far.

“I was driving down where these people hang out, and it was pretty obvious to me that this was a pimp and a girl,” he said. “I saw this, and I just got infuriated seeing this guy and this gal and I just turned my truck at him and floored it.

But Tom didn’t go through with it. “I had intended on hitting him,” he continued. “And I just figured, I’m going to get my daughter on the news, you know, um, and the way I’m going to do that is I’m going to kill this pimp, you know? I bought a fifth of good whiskey and I said, ‘I’m done.’ That was when I started drinking… I almost killed myself doing that.”

Then, on the 108th night Natalie was missing, her Backpage ad was targeted in a sting set up by the Seattle Vice Squad. One of their officers had posed as a client, and when she walked into his hotel room, he stopped her.

“He says, ‘I know who you are, Natalie,’ and I mean I can only imagine how big my eyes were when he said that,” Natalie said. “Instantly I saw hundreds of lights that seemed outside, just storms of cops outside.”

One of those officers was Bill Guyer, a longtime Vice detective who spends much of his time on Backpage trying to rescue trafficked girls like Natalie. He and Natalie instantly formed a special bond the night she was rescued.

“I remember meeting Det. Guyer, and he actually drove me to the jail, and he kind of relaxed me… almost reminded me of my dad,” Natalie said.

Det. Guyer met Natalie’s parents and started a relationship with them too. He then helped Natalie build up the courage to testify in the trial of Baruti Hopson, who was sentenced to 26 and a half years in prison for promoting the commercial sex abuse of a minor.

“I tell her and every other girl that even though they don’t want to go to court, I don’t want to go to court, but I’d like to get them to the point where they’re like, ‘I can’t wait to get on the stand and point them out to you, that’s the piece of crap that did this to me,’” Guyer said.

Guyer and the rest of the Seattle Vice Squad agreed to let “Nightline” embed with them as they set up a sting through Backpage, the kind of operation that’s become commonplace in police departments across the country. “Nightline” first met with Det. Lincoln, who’s asked that we change his name because of his frequent undercover assignments.

Lincoln showed “Nightline” the ins and outs of posting on Backpage. Lincoln says there are many commonly-used terms that may flag to him and the other detectives that a girl on Backpage is underage, like “new in town” and “eager to please.” It’s a code he says he’s learned through experience tracking down underage girls listed on the site.

But “Nightline” wanted to see what would happen if a Backpage ad didn’t just use these coded terms and instead blatantly suggest an underage girl was part of the deal. Would the ad be flagged and taken down by Backpage’s moderators?

So Det. Lincoln posted an ad for an 18-year-old escort, adding in a line that said she had “a younger friend” who was available as well. Minutes after he posted the ad, calls and texts started streaming in. The ad was up and running.

The ad remained up for about 36 hours, leading to dozens of phone calls, texts and even an arrest captured on “Nightline’s” cameras. The ad was only taken down after “Nightline” sent an anonymous email to Backpage’s dedicated email address for suspected child trafficking. It took eight hours to receive a response, which said to contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC. The ad was taken down shortly after Backpage’s email response was sent.

Backpage later told “Nightline” in a statement that even though they thought that the ad did not clearly advertise that a girl under 18 was involved, their moderators did take it down and they say they banned the account. They also reported the ad to NCMEC.

Yiota Souras, general counsel for NCMEC, said 73 percent of the reports they receive from the general public about suspected underage trafficking involve a Backpage post.

Souras told “Nightline” she is skeptical of Backpage’s claims that they are closely monitoring their site, and of their attorney Liz McDougall’s claim that Backpage is “online to fight human trafficking online.”

“I don’t think you can be in the business of providing basically an online bazaar for escort ads that includes the purchase and sale of children for sex, and say that you are online to help fight the problem,” Souras said.

In March, the Senate voted to hold Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer in contempt of Congress after he failed to appear at a hearing about online sex trafficking conducted by the Senate Subcommittee for Permanent Investigations.

“It was a unanimous vote”, said Sen. Rob Portman. “First time in 21 years this has happened. It’s a big deal.”

When asked why to specifically include Backpage in a hearing on online trafficking, Sen. McCaskill replied, “Backpage is the major player in this space. Therefore they have to be investigated. That’s as complicated as the subject is.”

A circuit court is expected to rule on the contempt charge sometime in the coming months.

Backpage also refused to respond to the Senate Subcommittee’s subpoenas for internal company documents relating to how it moderates its adult services ads, and exactly how much money they’re making off of them. The Senate is now seeking to enforce the subpoena. The nearly 200-page Senate report is available for download here.

Despite this refusal, the Senate’s own investigators say they were able to obtain company emails from Backpage to its moderators. One email in the Senate report addresses underage ads specifically, and contains a line instructing moderators not to delete an ad unless they are “really very sure” the girl is underage. Other emails in the Senate report suggest Backpage was telling its moderators to simply edit out words and pictures from posts if they did not comply with Backpage’s terms of service. They are told to then post the edited ad anyway, even though the investigators say this editing would not change the nature of the underlying transition.

“We’re talking about big money,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “And we have evidence that leads us to believe that they have edited ads in order to keep their profitability.”

Backpage declined to comment on the Senate’s findings, but their lawyers are currently fighting the contempt charge in a D.C. court. The court will decide if Ferrer will be compelled to testify and if Backpage has to hand over their internal documents. In court filings, Backpage claims the Senate’s request is a violation of the First Amendment, because it “seeks every bit of information relating to every editorial decision made in the past six years.”

Backpage’s corporate group is projected to have a revenue of $173 million dollars this year alone, although they will not say what percentage of that comes from the adult ad section, according to documents from the Senate Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations.

“I’m betting that when we get all the financials they’re not making much money selling motorcycles. But they’re making a whole lot of money selling children,” said Sen. McCaskill. “I’m betting that’s why they’re working so hard at keeping this information out of the public eye.”

Backpage, which was owned by Village Voice media until 2012, was sold to an “unnamed Dutch holding company” in December 2014, according to news articles at the time. “Nightline” discovered that CEO Carl Ferrer had opened a business in the Netherlands, which seems to be running two escort ad-based websites called and, as well as a very similar version of Backpage called “Cracker.” It is available almost everywhere except the United States.

Ferrer declined “Nightline’s” repeated requests for interview, and when we tracked Ferrer to a classified ad industry conference in downtown Amsterdam, he again refused to speak with us.

“He is in Amsterdam… because he wants to avoid the bright light of attention that we are placing on his company,” McCaskill said. “I don’t think Amsterdam is far enough for him to go to avoid that bright light.”

Back in the U.S., others, like Natalie and her family, are waiting for their day in court. Natalie is hoping her Washington state lawsuit, which focuses on the claim that Backpage knowingly developed itself into an online marketplace for illegal prostitution, will be the first of its kind to be successful against the company.

“To whoever owns Backpage, Carl Ferrer, whoever– he’s got to go home at night and know that he’s selling kids today,” her father Tom said. “He’s just as accountable as the pimp that sold her, in my mind.”

Natalie’s attorney Erik Bauer said, “Reports of child sex trafficking have increased over the last five years due to the internet. According to the AIM Group, Backpage controls 80 percent of that market… this is a big business.” AIM Group is an interactive media and classified advertising consulting organization.

Backpage responded to the allegations laid out in the Washington state lawsuit, according to court documents, stating that, “Backpage does not allow advertisements on its website to contain naked images, images featuring transparent clothing, sexually explicit language, suggestions of an exchange of sex acts for money, or advertisements for illegal services. In addition to these rules, specifically for advertisements posted in the “escort” section of its website, Backpage does not allow any solicitation directly or in ‘coded’ fashion for any illegal service exchanging sexual favors for money or other valuable consideration, any material on the Site that exploits minors in any way, or any material … that in any way constitutes or assists in human trafficking.”

For Natalie, her horrific experience also has robbed her of a piece of her high school years.

“I’ve never been to a football game. A high school football game,” she said. “I’ve never had a prom. I’ve never been to homecoming, and I see all my pictures. All my friends’ pictures on Facebook, and they have all that. They have memories… It makes me a little bitter.”

But in all the sadness, one ray of light for Natalie has been the special relationship she and her parents have now with Det. Guyer.

“To this day, six years later, he calls me on my birthday. Every year,” she said. “I actually said he’s the godfather of my little girl.”

“He’s my hero,” Tom added. “He saved my little girl and brought her home.”

ABC News’ Lauren Effron contributed to this report

Wednesday, May 25 is National Missing Children’s Day. If you suspect underage sex trafficking, please call 1-800-THE-LOST or visit

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How Do We Eradicate Sex Trafficking?

By Arina Grossu   

In the aftermath of the Super Bowl, authorities announced that they rescued 16 minors in the New York City area from sex traffickers. In addition, more than 50 women who were also coerced to work as prostitutes were saved. Police from more than 50 law enforcement agencies spanning New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut arrested 45 pimps in a two week run up to the Super Bowl.

Before the Super Bowl, The New York Times reported that the NYPD had already made 298 prostitution-related arrests this year through Jan. 26, a 30 percent increase over the same period in 2013. CNN also reported on a New York City high-end drug and prostitution bust last week.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) has cited numbers from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that 10,000 women and girls were trafficked to Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl. New Jersey Attorney General’s office ramped up for this year’s Super Bowl by setting up a sex trafficking task force. Months of investigative work and training of law enforcement personnel, hospitality workers, and airport employees paid off in the recent rescues.

Time reported that to date, the FBI and its partners have recovered more than 3,100 children and convicted 1,400 pimps.

While the issue of sex trafficking gets much more visibility around a major sporting event like the Super Bowl, we must be aware that it is an ongoing problem that scars thousands of lives every day. U.S. Rep. David Reichert (R-Washington) said in hearing last week, “The prevalence of this problem at the Super Bowl allows us to focus national attention on it. But it is a problem seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for the children who are caught up in it. We owe it to them to develop real solutions.”

If we are to develop real solutions, we must know what we are up against. Here are some facts compiled by the Covering House about sex trafficking:
•Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion yearly in the United States. (United Nations)
•Approximately 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the United States. (U.S. Department of Justice)
•The average age of entry into prostitution for a child victim in the United States is 13-14 years old. (U.S. Department of Justice)
•A pimp can make $150,000-$200,000 per child each year and the average pimp has four to six girls. (U.S. Justice Department, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children)
•The average victim may be forced to have sex up to 20-48 times a day. (Polaris Project)
•One in three teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. (National Runaway Hotline)

Sex trafficking will not be eliminated until the demand is eliminated. The demand will not be eliminated until the roots of disordered sexual desire are eliminated. One of the biggest causes of disordered sexual desire is porn viewing and porn addiction. A documentary on sex trafficking, Rape for Profit, sent the message home: “Prostitution is the main act, and porn for these men is the dress rehearsal. They see it and then they go and act it out…When a society is demanding more porn, it’s demanding more prostituted women.”

A number of studies show the link between sex trafficking and pornography. Here are some of their findings:
•A 2008 study: “Those who were the most frequent users of pornography were also the most frequent users of women in prostitution.”
•A 2005 journal: “Repeat users reported greater participation in all aspects of the sex industry than did non-customers. They were much more likely to report having purchased sexually explicit magazines or videos, and they were more than twice as likely to have visited nude establishments.”
•A 2001 “Sex Trafficking of Women in the United States” study: “Fifty percent of the international women stated that pornography had been used to ‘educate’ them into prostitution. One international woman stated that her pimp made her watch pornography in the beginning. Another reported that she had to watch pornography, because “my clients asked me to do as they did it on the screen.”

An all-male led film documentary called the Hearts of Men seeks to address the root of the problem. One of the men who speaks in the film admits, “We’re the root of this and if we’re the root of this, we have to figure out what has to change. It has to start with us.” Another man states, “One of the best things we can do for women is to get the hearts of men healthy… The way that we stop sex trafficking is by discipling middle school boys. I mean really if you think about it, the average age of exposure to pornography is eight. If we get the guys, if we get the girls at a young age and we invest in them, we can see systemic change.”

This modern-day slavery has an even deeper slavery, an enslavement and addiction to sexual sin. Pornography enslaves men physically and psychologically and this enslaves women and children literally via sex trafficking. Pornography is the gateway to sex trafficking. Men create the demand; women and children are the supply. If we transform the demand side, the supply side will also cease.

Arina Grossu is Director for the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council. Family Research Council has previously published a booklet called “Modern Slavery: How to Fight Human Trafficking in Your Community,” by J. Robert Flores, a former Justice Department official who has been active in the battle against trafficking. FRC has also hosted lectures and Webcasts drawing attention to this crisis.

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20 Beautiful Children

Twas’ 11 days before Christmas, around 9:38
When 20 beautiful children stormed through heaven’s gate.
Their smiles were contagious, their laughter filled the air.
They could hardly believe all the beauty they saw there.
They were filled with such joy, they didn’t know what to say.
They remembered nothing of what had happened earlier that day.
“Where are we?” asked a little girl, as quiet as a mouse.
“This is heaven.” declared a small boy. “We’re spending Christmas at God’s house.”
When what to their wondering eyes did appear,
but Jesus, their savior, the children gathered near.
He looked at them and smiled, and they smiled just the same.
Then He opened His arms and He called them by name.
And in that moment was joy, that only heaven can bring
Those children all flew into the arms of their King
And as they lingered in the warmth of His embrace,
one small girl turned and looked at Jesus’ face.
And as if He could read all the questions she had
He gently whispered to her, “I’ll take care of mom and dad.”
Then He looked down on earth, the world far below
He saw all of the hurt, the sorrow, and woe
Then He closed His eyes and He outstretched His hand,
“Let My power and presence re-enter this land!”
“May this country be delivered from the hands of fools”
“I’m taking back my nation, I’m taking back my schools!”
Then He and the children stood up without a sound.
“Come now my children, let me show you around.”

(Author Unknown)

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Vote Yes on Prop 35 to Stop Human Trafficking in California

File:Yes on Prop 35 California 2012.PNG

Helping you make an informed choice
by Sharmin Bock

As a prosecutor who has spent over a decade fighting human trafficking, I’ve seen the terrible human toll of sex trafficking in California. Every day, women and children are forced to sell their bodies, on the streets and online, for the financial gain of human traffickers.

I have helped to create and lead the first of its kind unit in the nation dedicated to recovering sexually exploited children and prosecuting those who profit from selling them. Since 2006, this unit has prosecuted over 200 sex traffickers and supported the rescue of hundreds of children, some as young as 11 years old.

While our efforts have made a difference, we could’ve saved and prevented many more. California’s current laws are simply inadequate to confront the growing problem of human trafficking within our state. A recent national study by a victims’ rights group gave California an “F” grade for its weak laws dealing with child sex trafficking. Prop 35 eliminates the shortcomings of our existing law that is riddled with gaping loopholes through which children literally fall into the hands of traffickers waiting to profit from them.

Drug dealers, gangs and organized crime are moving into sex trafficking because the current penalties present very low risk for them. Grotesquely, they realize that there is no better investment than selling children these days because the profit is high and risk is low. And while children and girls are increasingly sold online, current laws against sexual exploitation have not been updated to face 21st century realities. As a 23-year veteran prosecutor and proud Californian, I know we can do better.

That’s why I teamed up with advocates for victims to write Prop 35. The language of Prop 35 is carefully written to confront the growing problem of human trafficking in our state. It uses federal law as a guideline and draws on the first-hand experience of prosecutors and those who work to help victims. For too long, victims have been mistreated while traffickers escape punishment. Prop 35 protects victims in so many ways and, for the first time, clearly recognizes sex trafficking victims as victims and not “prostitutes.”

Prop 35 makes critical changes to California law by:

Increasing prison terms for all forms of human trafficking to match federal sentences.
Requiring convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders.
Requiring all registered sex offenders to disclose their internet accounts, as states such as New York already have.
Requiring criminal fines from convicted human traffickers to fund services to help victims.
Mandating human trafficking training for law enforcement.
Providing trafficking victims the same level of protection rape victims have under the Rape Shield Law.
Removing the requirement to prove force, fraud or coercion in a child sex trafficking case.

After so many years of working to stop human trafficking and strengthen our laws against this crime, it is a dream come true to see a comprehensive measure like Prop 35 on the ballot. There’s no doubt that Prop 35, once passed, will save lives. That’s why the measure has widespread, bipartisan support from survivors, anti-trafficking advocates, women’s rights groups, child advocates, faith-based organizations to major law enforcement organizations, lawmakers, and prosecutors.

The changes embedded in Prop 35 will save lives and taxpayer resources. You may have some questions about Prop 35. Here are some answers to the questions we hear most often so you can make an informed choice.

Isn’t human trafficking just an international issue?

Many think that human trafficking is a third world problem. But from my vantage point in the trenches, I can tell you that it’s a universal crisis occurring in our own backyard. Domestic trafficking is no less serious when international borders are not crossed. The risk and harm to a child is the same whether she is trafficked from China or within California, where the FBI has identified San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego as high intensity child sex trafficking areas. Prop 35 allows us to protect all children here in California.

What will Prop 35 cost?

The costs of Prop 35 are negligible. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) has reported Prop 35 will have a “minor increase in state and local criminal justice costs from increased penalties” and there would be potential one-time local costs of up to a few million statewide for police training. On the other hand, Prop 35 will generate new funds through criminal fines to pay for victims’ services to help survivors recover and become vital members of our communities.

The benefit of rescuing and healing our children far exceeds the very small expense associated with Prop 35. Moreover, helping survivors turn their lives around will pay dividends for generations. When exploited girls and boys are assisted, the criminal justice system will see savings through vast reductions in future arrests and burdens on the courts. Given how strong and clear Prop 35 is, I predict that we will also see a reduction in trafficking in our state. Trafficking will no longer be easy money and convicted traffickers will be required to forfeit their assets.

The savings are huge, and will spare children yet not enslaved.

Would Prop 35 criminalize consensual behavior?

Absolutely not. Human trafficking entails profiting from the sexual exploitation of a child (who cannot legally consent to sexual conduct) or the use of force, fraud and coercion to compel an adult into forced labor or commercial sex acts against his/her will. Prop 35 is narrowly tailored and specifically states that there must be criminal intent to violate the law. Prop 35 not only requires the showing that the trafficker causes a child “to engage in a commercial sex act” but also “with the intent to effect or maintain a violation of Section,” and it lists 12 different existing criminal sections in our state law.

Human trafficking is a brutal and clearly delineated crime that involves and requires proof of the criminal intent to exploit another human being for profit. Prop 35 is not something that could ever be triggered by mistake.

Prop 35 does not impact prostitution involving consensual adults. There are laws on the books against prostitution, but Prop 35 only covers cases where traffickers profit from the sexual exploitation of a child or the forced exploitation of an adult.

Why not address this in the Legislature?

Every year for the past five years, along with many others, I’ve been in Sacramento trying to improve our state’s human trafficking law. For instance, I worked on a bill that would update our anti-trafficking law to the national standard by removing the need to prove force in child sex trafficking cases. This bill was introduced three times, and died three times. However, the exact language of this bill, which sailed through the Assembly without any opposition, is now contained in Prop 35.

While our legislators have made commendable incremental progress, our laws are still inadequate. Californians simply cannot afford to let another day go by without a comprehensive human trafficking law that protects victims and those at risk within our own state.

Does Prop 35 broaden the definition of human trafficking?

The only change that Prop 35 makes to the current definition of human trafficking is the expansion of the list of trafficking violations to include the production of child pornography. However, the distribution of child pornography would only be included if the distributor specifically caused the child to engage in the sexual act, such as if a trafficker is attempting to sell children online by making them appear in a pornographic video. There are laws on the books to fight the possession and distribution of child pornography, and Prop 35 will not augment them. Other than this specific change, Prop 35 does not change the categories of violations currently listed in state law. The measure clarifies the definition of coercion by mirroring the definition in the federal law.

Does Prop 35 unfairly limit the ability of accused traffickers to defend themselves in court?

No. Prop 35 simply levels the playing field for victims who can currently be intimidated out of their rights. The measure provides trafficked victims the same level of protection that rape victims currently receive under the Rape Shield Law. Like the federal human trafficking law, Prop 35 removes the requirement to prove force in child sex trafficking cases. Prop 35 provides victims with evidentiary protection when testifying against their traffickers. Specifically, evidence that the victims engaged in a commercial sex act (such as prostitution) as a result of being a victim of human trafficking cannot be used to prosecute them. Victims will be able to face their exploiters in a court of law without fear of prosecution, and defendants will maintain the right to mount a full defense in court.

Final Thoughts

Prop 35 gives prosecutors, police and advocates the tools we need to fight this very important fight. Prop 35 is a comprehensive and effective response to an epidemic that plagues our state and must be stopped in order to protect our children from what is – no matter how you look at it – modern day slavery. When Prop 35 passes, we will have the clearest and best human trafficking law in the country. I predict that traffickers will flee as fast as possible from our state. By voting yes on Proposition 35, you will have done your very best to protect our state’s most precious resource, our children.

Let’s send a clear message that California does not tolerate the sexual exploitation of women and children. Please Vote Yes on 35 this November.

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PTA-supported bill helps victims of human trafficking

SACRAMENTO – Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2040 (Swanson), a California State PTA-supported bill which helps sexually exploited minors make a fresh start.

PTA supported the measure as part of the association’s focus on supporting the needs of vulnerable children and implementing the “Child Trafficking in California” resolution approved by convention delegates in 2010.

AB 2040 makes it easier for a minor with a prostitution offense to have those records sealed. Under the old law, once a person turned 18, he or she could petition a court to have juvenile records sealed if he or she was not subsequently convicted of a felony or misdemeanor and could establish rehabilitation.

According to the bill’s author, Assembly member Sandré R. Swanson (Senate District 16 – Oakland), these conditions are unreasonable in cases of victims of human trafficking charged with prostitution offenses. “It doesn’t make sense to require a person who was forced into prostitution as a minor to demonstrate rehabilitation in order to clean up his or her records,” he said.

According to Swanson, “Between 100,000 and 300,000 children — some as young as five years old — are prostituted in the United States every year. (This law) makes it a little easier for these former victims to clean up their records once they turn 18, increasing their ability to integrate back into society and a safe environment.”

“AB 2040 is an important bill for children and minors who are victims of human trafficking,” said California State PTA Vice President of Community Concerns Kathy Rabun. “It gives them a chance to seal their records and move forward in their lives without making them jump through hoops. We commend Assembly member Swanson for introducing this measure and the governor for signing it.”
The California State PTA has nearly one million members throughout the state working on behalf of public schools, children and families, with the motto, “every child, one voice.” The PTA is the national’s oldest, largest and highest profile volunteer association working to improve the education, health and welfare of all children and youth. The PTA also advocates at national, state and local levels for education and family issues. The PTA is nonprofit, nonsectarian and noncommercial. For more information:

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Child sex trafficking in Los Angeles: ‘It happens way too often’

Child sex trafficking in Los Angeles: ‘It happens way too often’
By Susan Abram, Staff Writer, Daily News
Posted: 05/05/2012 05:25:57 PM PDT
Updated: 05/06/2012 01:13:12 PM PDT

He plied her with pot and promises.

I’ll give you a car, he told her, an apartment of your own. I’ll protect you from the streets.

She was 16. He was 70.

For Matilda Evans (a pseudonym to protect the identity of a sexual assault victim) those two weeks spent in Michael Mersola’s Burbank home, manipulated into having sex with him, left a scar on her heart. Instead of learning algebra in a high school classroom, she was taught that acts of kindness only came at a cost.

“I developed a terrible distrust of people,” Evans, now 22, said. “I felt alone, because no one believed me.”

Evans told her story to the Burbank Police Department in 2007, but it was a Los Angeles Police Department detective who linked Mersola to an ongoing investigation into a larger problem in Los Angeles: sex trafficking.

Mersola was arrested for pimping and pandering runaway girls in Hollywood. One was 13 years old. He was imprisoned for those and other offenses.

“He was lending out one of the girls,” said LAPD Detective Dana Harris, the acting officer in charge of the department’s Human Trafficking Unit. “These guys use the child as property.”

Harris is also one of the supervisors at the Los Angeles branch of the Innocence Lost Task Force, a national program formed in 2003 with the FBI, Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The program has 44 initiatives throughout the country that work with local law enforcement such as LAPD and groups such as Children of the Night, a Van Nuys nonprofit that rescues children from prostitution.

While most of the public believes that child prostitution and sex trafficking are endemic to poor countries, it also occurs in areas throughout the United States.

Since it began, the Innocence Lost Task Force has rescued more than 1,800 children and arrested more than 800 pimps, madams, and associates nationwide who exploit children through prostitution, according to the FBI.

In Los Angeles, at least 33 people are arrested annually for pimping and pandering underage youth, Harris said. Among those arrests last year, four were women.

There really is no difference between pimping and pandering and human trafficking,” Harris said. “All involve the force, fear and coercion of their respective victim.”
Girls, pimps and tracks
Human trafficking is defined as the movement and control of the victim from location to location for the purposes of sexual exploitation, Harris said.

Some experts say there is a circuit of at least 17 tracks or main boulevards where pimps rotate prostitutes throughout Southern California. Many are in Los Angeles County, from the San Fernando Valley to the border with Orange County.

“We’re definitely a major hub of trafficking,” said Hania Cardenas, director of placement community transition services for the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

“It’s a very lucrative business,” she said. “A trafficker can make $140,000 on just one girl annually. No trafficker has just one girl.”

And no girl is left undamaged, Cardenas said.

She and Probation Department colleague Michelle Guymon wanted to find a better way to help girls who were in the system because they were arrested for prostitution, and learn why they were out on the streets.

They also wanted to change the perception within the Probation Department from viewing the young girls as criminals to developing a program to protect them.

“We’ve always had these kids in our system, but we were looking at them as kids who were on the streets by choice,” Cardenas said.

The two women studied those in custody in 2010 and found that 33 percent of those girls had ties to the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services.

The data also showed that of the 174 girls brought in for prostitution, 92 percent were African American, while 84 percent were from the Long Beach, South Los Angeles, Hawthorne, Inglewood, Compton and Torrance areas.

But Cardenas said they could have been trafficked anywhere in the county.

“It’s so heartbreaking,” Cardenas said. “One of the girls in our system was beaten and the pimp put a tattoo over her eyebrow to mark her, as if to say `next time you get out of line, this is what’s going to happen to you’.”

Most of the girls are also between 13 and 17, but many enter prostitution at age 12, Cardenas said. And the form of exploitation continues to grow.

“Online exploitation has increased,” Cardenas said. “I think that the pimps are getting younger. Some of them are in gangs. And many of them will promise girls to be in videos. There’s all kinds of recruitment tactics.”

Awareness, prevention and treatment
Cardenas and Guymon traveled across the United States but found no city that offered comprehensive programs that can deter youth from pimps.

“We decided to develop a model, to bring all the (service) partners all together to talk about awareness, prevention, and early intervention,” Cardenas said.

The women applied for a federal grant, and this month will start “My Life, My Choice,” a program that targets girls in the foster care system. The goal is not only to raise awareness among girls about trafficking but also to break the spell pimps may already have over them. Women from the Van Nuys-based Mary Magdalene Project, an agency that works with older prostitutes, will facilitate.

More than 500 staff and community providers also have been trained. Under the initiative started by Cardenas and Guymon, girls who wish to testify against pimps will be offered protection, even if it means they are housed in detention or sent to a juvenile camp.
More laws to punish perpetrators
Cardenas and Guymon also presented data to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. The board in April voted unanimously to support the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, a state ballot initiative to strengthen penalties against human traffickers, add fines to fund victim services, and require that all sex offenders disclose Internet accounts.

These girls should be worried about their algebra problems and not worried about how they’re going to make the money that night so that they won’t be beaten or so that they can have some food to eat,” Daphne Phung, executive director and founder of California Against Slavery, told the board.

If passed by voters in November, CASE would be the toughest human trafficking law in the country, said Supervisor Don Knabe, who supported the measure.

“What we discovered was happening was that these young girls were being arrested then getting a slap on the wrist for prostitution, then walking out,” Knabe said. “Their scummy pimp was waiting for them in the parking lot.”

Knabe acknowledged he and others likely have no idea of the extent of sex trafficking, but they know that California and Los Angeles play a significant role.

“What we know is there is an issue out there,” he said. “It’s horrible what the poor kid has to go through, especially the trauma that the kids suffer. They all have trauma.”

Burbank’s own trafficker
Evans, who wasn’t trafficked to others, said she had no idea Mersola had been pandering other girls.

Mersola, once a prominent developer in Burbank, had been arrested in the early 1990s for paying four teen girls for sex, according to published reports and court files.

In 1993, Mersola was convicted of pandering and attempting to bribe a witness. He pled no contest and served three years of a five-year sentence.

Evans acknowledged that before she met Mersola, she had been acting out, rebelling against her parents and in school. Drugs were involved and she had run away from home. A relative introduced her to Mersola.

But after two weeks with him, she realized she was being manipulated and walked away.

Still, she was unable to talk about her experiences until her parents forced her into a treatment facility in Reno, where she finally told a therapist about her encounter with Mersola.

Evans then went to the Burbank Police, but no charges were filed against Mersola. So Evans’ mom called the LAPD, and Detective Harris connected her case with Mersola’s other victims.

Mersola was eventually arrested and charged with committing lewd acts on a child and pandering.

During the criminal trial, Burbank Superior Court Judge Patrick Hegarty called Mersola “a major predator.”

“He prays on runaway girls that are in rehab,” Hegarty said in court documents.

He again served three years of a five-year sentence and was released last summer, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Mersola, who is registered as a sex offender, did not respond to requests for an interview.

After Mersola was sentenced, Evans filed a civil suit against him in Los Angeles Superior Court.

That makes the case fairly unusual, because victims of sexual predators rarely pursue civil damages, Harris said.

“It was the most interesting thing I did in my career,” said Adam Zolonz, the attorney who represented Evans. “Mersola was such a sick person, that he really didn’t think what he did was wrong. What we were doing was we were going to show this guy that we’re going to stand up to him.”

Evans said she and her parents pursued the civil trial to help pay for medical expenses that went toward her treatment.

In November 2011, three years after Mersola was sentenced, a civil jury found him guilty of negligence, emotional distress, outrageous conduct and sexual battery on Evans. Mersola was ordered to pay $250,000.

Evan said she knows she may never see that money. But what the case did was expose that anyone, even in quiet suburbs like Burbank, can come across a sex trafficker.

“I just wanted it to be brought to light,” Evans said. “People think, ‘Oh it can’t happen to me.’ But it happens way too often.

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Sacramento sisters plead guilty to pimping girls

The Associated Press
Posted:   05/04/2012 02:00:33 PM PDT
Updated:   05/04/2012 02:00:33 PM PDT

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Federal prosecutors say a Sacramento family ran a prostitution service for clients looking to have sex with underage girls.

Four sisters, their mother and another woman all have pleaded guilty to charges related to the prostitution operation.

The Sacramento Bee reports ( the latest guilty pleas came Thursday from Tynisha and Tamrell Hornbuckle, who admitted to child sex trafficking. Cherrelle Hornbuckle admitted to participating in a sex trafficking venture.

The fourth sister, Latrelle Hornbuckle, pleaded guilty Tuesday to witness tampering, and their 45-year-old mother Tammy Brown admitted to concealing a felony on April 25.

Prosecutors say Tynisha and Tamrell Hornbuckle pimped girls as young as 13, arranging for them to have sex with clients at the other defendants’ homes.

Brown will be sentenced July 12, and the others will be sentenced Aug. 2.

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Ministry Reaches Out to Mayors to Curb Child Sex Trafficking

by Karla Dial

A national organization devoted to stopping child sex trafficking has identified an effective way to thwart the industry — but says it needs the help of everyday citizens to do it.

Child sex traffickers have been known to use — an online classified web site for goods and services, run by Village Voice Media, which advertises in print publications in cities across the nation.

According to Shared Hope International, a Virginia-based ministry, ads sold for’s “Adult” section are expected to pull in $25.4 million for Village Voice Media this year.

When Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn became aware that children were being sold for sex through the site, he asked Village Voice Media either to remove the Adult Services section from, or explain how it ensures that women and children aren’t illegally sold for sex through those ads.

When didn’t respond, McGinn pulled all the advertising out of the weekly publication Village Voice Media runs in Seattle.

Earlier this year, Shared Hope International asked 54 mayors nationwide to follow McGinn’s example, even providing a sample letter to send, asking it to remove its “Adult” section.

None did.

Now, the group is turning to the mayors’ constituents, asking them to use their influence with their own elected officials, and in turn, “asking them to get a hold of Village Voice Media and tell them that they will not tolerate children being sold online and men being directed to buy those children in their cities,” said Shared Hope International President Linda Smith.

The problem of children being bought and sold for sex here in America is bigger than most people realize, she said.

“There’s over 100,000 children that go missing every year and fall into commercial sex (who are) under 18,” Smith pointed out. “The average age that children go into commercial sex and being sold to men around the United States is 13.”

Though the campaign won’t kick off for another week, Shared Hope International has sample letters available for both mayors and constituents to use in their respective lobbying efforts.

Learn more about Shared Hope International.

Read the sample letter mayors were asked to send

Read a sample letter you can send to your mayor, asking him to use his influence with

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