Criminal Justice

Against their will

On this episode of Reveal, reporters take us into hidden places – real and virtual – where people are exploited for sex. We’ll hear stories from the pot fields of Northern California to suburban Seattle. Credit: Anna Vignet for Reveal

UPDATE, March 25, 2017: Reporter Shoshana Walter followed up on what’s happened since we first took you inside the hidden places – real and virtual – where people are exploited for sex. An updated version of the original episode can be heard now.

Powered by the internet, the sex trade is reaching into all corners of the country. Reveal takes us into hidden places – real and virtual – where people are exploited for sex. Produced in collaboration with APM Reports, we’ll hear stories from the pot fields of Northern California to suburban Seattle.

We start off in Northern California, where trafficking and sexual violence is thriving due in part to the booming marijuana trade. Fishing, ranching and timber once were the big industries here, but now it’s pot. The trade is worth billions – and police say that in recent years, it’s become intermingled with the sex trade and organized crime.

Reveal’s Shoshana Walters reports from a pot-growing region known as the Emerald Triangle. There, the trade is dominated by men, and it’s a secretive world. This time of year, the big fall harvest attracts seasonal workers from around the globe.

Next, we meet a young woman picked up by police at a truck stop. APM Reports’ Emily Haavik takes us to Illinois to explore the tactics pimps use to manipulate and exploit their victims. Trafficking is hard to measure, partly because you can’t always tell who’s selling sex voluntarily. Some are coerced, some forced – sometimes the women themselves aren’t sure.

And finally, we examine a thriving market of sex buyers hiding in plain sight. Where? On the internet. Sasha Aslanian of APM Reports travels to a wealthy suburb of Seattle, where a secret community of sex buyers is taking the trade to a whole new level.

DIG DEEPER

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:


TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al: From the Center For Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Sitting in front of a glowing laptop in her small apartment, Elle Snow is typing an online ad.
Elle: You put in your title. You can be simple. You would put your height, your weight.
Al: Elle is posting an ad on Backpage.com, the classified website used by millions to sell everything from antiques to used bikes. But her ad is in the escort section, where people go to buy and sell sex. A heads up to listeners, today we'll be talking a lot about sexual exploitation and the inner workings of the sex trade.
Elle: It's the most profitable way to work, is through these ads. On the street you get paid a lot less, plus it's a lot more dangerous.
Al: Elle isn't really offering herself up for sex. What she's doing is trying to catch pimps and traffickers. She knows a lot about the sex trade because she was trafficked herself. That's why we're not using her real name. She was dating a guy who turned out to be a pimp. Elle says he lured her to Sacramento, supposedly for a vacation, then he used threats and violence to force her into having sex with as many as 10 men a day.
Elle: I was there for, now I believe it's like seven months. Seven months of pure shock. That does a lot of stuff to your brain. That's really hard to come back from.
Al: Elle escaped. As for the pimp, she eventually helped send him to prison for raping and trafficking a 16-year-old girl. This was two years ago, and it was the first and only successful sex trafficking case in this part of California. Elle doesn't live in a big city. Her hometown, Eureka, is perched in a remote corner of the state's rugged north coast. These days she runs a small non-profit called Game Over. Elle sees it as her obligation, her duty, to disrupt the sex trade which is thriving even in rural communities like hers. She keeps as many as five different cell phones by her side. There's her real phone for friends and family. Then there are the cheap burners phones. She uses them to take calls and texts from people answering her fake sex ads. Like this one from a guy in Georgia.
Elle: His initial text was, "Hey gorgeous, how are you," ... this is a trafficker, by the way ... "Look, I don't know your situation, I just know I'm interested. If you're happy, I can respect that. But if not, and you're unhappy, and lately you've been thinking about choosing or changing your situation, give me a call or text. Let's talk about it."
Al: Elle can't prove that all of these men are involved with trafficking, a much more serious crime than prostitution and involves children and adults forced into the sex trade. But after just a few months, she collects nearly 500 names and phone numbers of potential sex buyers and passes them on to police, who are starting to pay attention.
Recently she brought along one of her burner phones for a training session with police cadets at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka.
Elle: This is a $25 phone from Target. We all know what it is. Usually used for drug dealers, disposable phones. Right? I posted the first ad for this profile today. I've already gotten 15 different callers on this phone. I have it set on vibrate and here it goes again. New message right now.
Al: Elle cuts a striking figure in a sea of blue uniforms. She's 6-feet tall, with long blonde hair. Two large tattoos are stamped on her arms. One is a saint, the other a demon. Throughout our talk with cadets, you can hear the phone is buzzing with new calls and texts pouring in.
Elle: This is from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. One in five runaways in 2015 were likely sex trafficking victims.
Al: When the session ends three hours later, Elle finds that more than two dozen people have responded to her ad on Backpage.
Elle: This is not just metropolitan areas. It's absolutely in rural communities. I've seen it. I've witnessed it.
Al: Powered by the Internet, the sex trade is reaching into all corners of the U.S.. But there's another reason it's thriving in this part of Northern California. Marijuana. Fishing, ranching, and timber were once big industries here, but not it's pot. The pot trade is worth billions, and police say that in recent years it's become intermingled with the sex trade and organized crime.
Elle: We wouldn't really have the gangs here, we wouldn't have the Mexican Mafia, we wouldn't have the Russian Mafia here if we didn't have the pot industry.
Al: This region is known as the Emerald Triangle. Up here, the trade is dominated by men and it's a secretive world. That's because pot occupies a legal grey zone in California. Medical marijuana is legal, recreational isn't, at least not yet. Still, the trade is going and attracting seasonal workers from around the globe. Most show up around this time of year for the big Fall harvest. A lot of the work involves trimming. Harvesting marijuana plants and carefully manicuring their flowers, or buds, with small scissors. We made this recording with two women who were trimming on a pot farm set deep in the mountains of Humboldt County. They're hoping to make enough money to grow their own weed.
Woman 1: I like to get them at their roots.
Al: The boom is also attracting traffickers and sexual predators. And because growing and selling marijuana is semi-legal, a lot of that violence is never reported.
Woman 2: None of this is monitored. No one's going to know that you're here or not here. It's easy to go missing in this. It's easy for bad people to take advantage of you.
Al: And, that's what this hour is about. We'll go look at the hidden places, real and virtual, where people are exploited for sex. Our partner for today's show is APM Reports, and investigative and documentary unit of American Public Media.
We begin deep in California's pot country, with Reveal's Shoshana Walter. She spent months there investigating sexual violence, and found that as the pot trade gets bigger the problems are getting worse. Here's Sho.
Shoshana: This is a place that used to keeping secrets. For decades the forests have provided cover for the pot trade, but I found something else hidden in these stunning redwoods and remote valleys. Stories of sexual abuse and exploitation. I'll start with a young woman named Carmen who lived in a small town in central Mexico with her family. We don't identify victims of sexual violence, so we're not using Carmen's real name or the names of other victims in this story. Her mother had cancer and her father was unemployed. They were struggling. Then, two year ago, Carmen says she and her sister met a man named Baldemar Alvarez on Facebook. He said he had large properties in Northern California and offered them a bright future.
Translator: He told my sister and me, "Girls, when you get here you're going to be very comfortable. You're going to have a job. I talked to some friends who own restaurants and they are going to give you a job. You two only need to worry about crossing the border, and your life will change."
Shoshana: Your life will change. It's the promise so many undocumented immigrants hope to hear. It's also a common ploy used by traffickers. Carmen left her family in Mexico and a smuggler brought her across the border into the United States. But, there was no restaurant job waiting for her. Instead, Baldemar took her an isolated house about 150 miles north of San Francisco. He put her to work on a cluster of pot farms. Carmen suspected they were illegal.
Translator: All the time I was in fear. If the police catch me, they're going to arrest me. They're not going to let me explain. They're not going to believe me.
Shoshana: When Carmen wasn't working, she lived with Baldemar and his two sons. She says he ordered her to cook and clean the house. She says he also forced her to have sex with him to repay him for the $12,000 he spent smuggling her into the country.
Did he give you any idea of how long you would owe him?
Translator: Yes. He said that I should be with him, for appreciation and payment of everything he did for me, for at least two years and still I wouldn't finish paying him.
Shoshana: Carmen told me she didn't know anyone. She didn't speak much English and felt isolated and trapped. In August of 2014, after nearly five months of abuse, Carmen asked Baldemar to take her to a clinic for stomach pains. A nurse examined her and gave her some disturbing news.
Teresa: They told her she was 7 weeks and 6 days pregnant.
Shoshana: That's Theresa Borjon, she works with victims of sexual abuse in Mendocino County. She says Carmen told that nurse that Baldemar was keeping her against her will and forcing her to have sex with him almost every day.
Teresa: She was really upset. She was in tears and didn't know where to go. She didn't know nobody in this county.
Shoshana: A few days later, Sheriff's Deputies showed up at his house. They brought in Baldemar and Carmen for questioning, but from the beginning they seemed to doubt Carmen's story. She told me one detective suggested she was making it up to get immigration documents. When the questioning was over, Carmen says this is what the detectives told her.
Translator: Unfortunately, at this time we do not have any evidence to detain him. Everything you say, he denies.
Shoshana: Deputies did arrest Baldemar Alvarez for illegal marijuana cultivation, but he was out of jail in 20 minutes and never prosecuted. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office declined to discuss the case. I went to Baldemar's home a few times to talk with him, but no one was ever there.
Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Reporter: I went to Baldimar's home a few times to talk with him, but no one was ever there. Finally, just before finishing this story, I reached him on his cell phone. He told me Carmen's story was a lie.
Baldimar: I thought she was my wife. You know we supposed to be married and we planning to like a family. That was her and mine agreement.
Reporter: He admitted that he paid someone to sneak Carmen across the border. He said Carmen still owed him for that and he insisted he was trying to help her earn money for her family back in Mexico. I tracked down other women who knew Baldimar, including the mother of one of his children. She told me Baldimar had abused her too, after bringing her into the US from Mexico, and she said there were other women.
Baldimar: Whatever this person is, she's lying too. I mean I assure that's not the case. I never abused her or anything. You know how you help someone and all you get is to stab in the back, you know what I mean?
Reporter: As for Carmen, with Teresa's help, she boarded a Greyhound bus and fled to safety in another state. This story is one of dozens I uncovered in the Emerald Triangle. Undocumented immigrants like Carmen told me they had no idea they'd end up trapped on pot farms in Northern California and abused. Other women I spoke to came here specifically to work in the pot trade, earning money in harvesting and trimming marijuana plants. They're called "trimmigrants" and thousands pour into the Emerald Triangle for the fall harvest season. College students and artists, working professionals, hippies and other wanderers from around the globe.
Many had positive stories and worked here without any big hassles, but other trimmigrants had bad experiences. They were robbed, or beat up, or raped. Unlike Carmen, they never went to the police. Then I spotted a rare case that actually made it through the criminal justice system. A 21 year old environmentalist we're calling Terri moved here from Southern California to work on a pot farm. She ended up in the small remote town of Petrolia in Humboldt county.
Jen Briar-Bonpane was a trauma counselor there and said something terrible happened to Terri.
Jen Bonpane: I was really saddened, disgusted, scared. Scared for the women in the community, scared for her, scared for myself a little bit.
Reporter: Terri didn't want to talk on tape, but she agreed to let Jen tell her story. It's starts with a grower offering her a job, then a lift home late one night in his pickup truck.
Jen Bonpane: He went the wrong way in the truck, pulled up to the gate of this very dark, heavily forested Eucalyptus grove, and stopped the truck. Started touching her and said "You're my bitch. If you do anything with anyone else, I'll kill you." She said something like "What are you talking about?" He said "I'll freeze your body and break you into pieces and feed you to the animals."
Reporter: Terri said he raped her in a nearby trailer. The man's name is Kailan Meserve 00:03:01]. He's a local guy. Captain on the volunteer fire department and the son of a prominent environmental activist who moved here in the 1960s. Rumors about what happened that night quietly spread around town. Some people doubted Terri and were quick to defend Kailan. He grew up here, she's an outsider.
Sam Epperson: The initial reaction of even some of my friends were "Well, what really happened? Was she asking for it? Who even really was she?"
Reporter: Sam Epperson runs a small organic farm in Petrolia. Terri worked here trimming buds in a small shed.
Sam Epperson: We're standing in the middle of the garden. You can see at the base of each plant there's a little- there's a drip system here with an emitter.
Reporter: Sam grows a mix of fruits, vegetables and marijuana on about 2 acres. When I visited Sam's farm earlier this summer, his pot plants were five feet tall, bright green and leafy.
Sam Epperson: When I was a kid, you wouldn't have plants growing in the full sun like this because someone would come and take them away.
Reporter: Where would you be growing them?
Sam Epperson: In the partial shade and in the forest.
Reporter: Sam was raised in a hippie family that grew marijuana to get by, not to get rich. Back then, even running a small pot farm could land you in prison, so growers and their children lived like semi-outlaws.
Sam Epperson: I was taught never to talk about it on the phone. You don't talk about the industry because you never know when someone will try to harm you. What we learned maybe, my generation learned, is how to tell a lie.
Reporter: Terri's assault posed a dilemma for a lot of people in town, including Sam. He had vouched for Kailan and encouraged Terri to consider working for him. On the other hand, Kailan was known for his hot temper. Many people believed he was buying up land for large scale pot grows, and they were bothered by that too. Jen Briar-Bonpane, Terri's trauma counselor, says people were reluctant to call in the cops.
Jen Bonpane: I think of Petrolia as this little town kind of hanging off the edge of the world, and it's very remote. Often, there's a sense of not wanting to involve law enforcement because it impinges on people's rights, people might get in trouble for stuff related to pot. Then there's also this care taking part, which is the more positive part of that I think. Restorative justice, we don't want to just throw people to the wolves.
Reporter: Simply put, many of Petrolia's residents don't trust law enforcement. That's common across the Emerald Triangle, even when someone witnesses or experiences serious violence. They feel the cops won't understand or they're be treated as snitches by the pot growing community; or they might face some other kind of retaliation. Even violence.
Brenda Bishop: There's a lot of fear. There's a lot of "If you report this, nobody will believe you."
Reporter: Brenda Bishop directs Humboldt Domestic Violence Services. I meet at one of the shelters they run, a house on a quiet tree-lined street in Eureka.
Brenda Bishop: So we're at the safe haven. It's a confidential location and that's about as much information I can give you.
Reporter: More than a dozen women and their children live here in rooms stacked with bunk beds. Last year, Brenda's group took in around 2,000 crisis calls. An increase of more than 80% over the past 4 years. Brenda says much of this is due to a surge in sexual abuse and trafficking on pot grows.
Brenda Bishop: People don't just call and say "I'm being sex trafficked." It was a matter of kind of doing the intake and listening to what was going on, but the more we were seeing trimmers coming into the community for work, the more we were seeing women who were being sex trafficked. We also started seeing women who were being brought up specifically for trimming and for sex trafficking, to provide sex for the overloads or people who were overseeing the grows. The larger grows.
Reporter: A big marijuana grow can have a 1,000 plants or more. Quite often this pot isn't for California's legal medical marijuana program. It's shipped illegally to other states for big profits. That's one reason tend to look at anyone involved in this as common criminals.
Brenda Bishop: We were a community that was very tolerant, and very tolerant based on the medicinal properties of marijuana. I think what happened is there became this outside influence- this is a great place to grow pot- and that tolerance level was really pushed. I think it was pushed to the extreme that the police here, the law enforcement really were taken by surprise.
Andy Mills: It's tough.
Reporter: Andy Mills is the Chief of Police in Eureka. He agrees that sexual violence on pot grows is getting worse, and he says prosecutions are rare, because they don't have enough evidence; and a small force spends a lot of it's time trying to catch big time drug dealers. He says trimmers need to realize they're placing themselves in danger.
Andy Mills: That's obviously not to say that that woman, or that young man deserves to be sexually assaulted. They absolutely do not, but I think we can all do things to minimize our risk and not going to one of these grows is a good way to minimize your risk.
Reporter: Instead of developing more criminal cases, Chief Mills is trying to discourage trimmigrants from coming here in the first place. It's a sort of reverse sting. His department posts fake ads on Craigslist offering work on pot farms.
Speaker 7: Message 3. Hi, this is Shy, I just went on Craigslist-
Reporter: This one of hundreds of job seekers who have responded to the ads with calls and emails.
Speaker 7: The last time I saw a ad, was needing help with clippings-
Reporter: But there are no jobs. What the applicants get is a stern warning from Chief Mills, that goes something like this:
Andy Mills: You didn't contact a grower, you contacted the police. We have a very high incidence of violence in our county and some people come up to grow and don't go back.
Reporter: In Petrolia, people got together at each other's homes, debating what to do about Terri's attacker, Kailan Meserve. Most of the ideas didn't involve bringing in the police. Suggestions included form a community tribunal, have the elderly women chase after him with their shoes, send a large group of men to his house to talk some sense into him. As for Terri, her therapist Jen says she was still in shock.
Jen Bonpane: She just wanted to disappear and never speak of it.
Reporter: Then the town found out about another woman who accused Kailan of assaulting her the year before. Kailan's boss at the firehouse even knew about it, but didn't call the police. All he did was make Kailan promise to do better. That was it.
Jen Bonpane: There was a lot of fear. Like this is just going to keep happening if we don't have something on record to hold him accountable, whatever form that takes or however far it goes.
Reporter: Residents finally decided to call the police. Terri agreed, but almost immediately, the process seemed to confirm their fears about the cops. Terri was asked to come to the Sheriff's Office to give a formal statement. It's a 2 hour drive along a winding crumbling road. The deputy who met her was.
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Shoshana: … your drive along a winding, crumbling road. The deputy who met her was brusque and refused to allow Jen to accompany Terri into the small interview room. After the brief meeting, the deputy said the sheriff’s office had talked to Kailan and will not be taking any action, no charges, no restraining order.
Jen: I think she felt even more ashamed and also just given the runaround. She had made this big trip into town. She had to really work up the courage to do it. Again, she was doing it because community members wanted her to put it on record in case something happen in the future. Then, she was treated like that.
Shoshana: Over several months, a group of Petrolia residents flooded the district attorney’s office with e-mails and phone calls. The earlier victim came forward. There was a new DA, a woman with experience handling sex crimes. Prosecutors renewed the investigation and charged Kailan with raping Terri and the other woman. He was convicted. In this summer, he was sentenced to 23 years. It was the first prosecution of its kind in Humboldt County and a big deal for the people in Petrolia. Still, when I went to see Sam Epperson, he was despondent. He’s the guy who originally hired Terri to work on his farm. Are you all right?
Sam: I’ve been having a hard time. The situation seemed hopeless.
Shoshana: Sam testified against Kailan Meserve. He wanted to make sure nothing like this would happen again but like a lot of people here, Sam still feels conflicted. He wonders if it was a mistake to bring in the police. He can’t accept that Kailan will grow old in prison. He’d rather see him rehabilitated, given a second chance.
Sam: My advice would have been to him, but he never came and talk to me, would have been to immediately go into a drug rehab, go see a sex therapist that deals with specifically with those kinds of crimes and to apologize to the community.
Shoshana: Sam remains on his farm where he’s begun the fall harvest. He says he wants to keep things small, modest and defend the community values embodied by the hippies who settled here almost half a century ago. Jen, Terri’s therapist, says the assault and the town’s response was another nudge out of Petrolia. She and her family have relocated. Terri, like many trimmigrants, moved away. Carmen also moved on. She’s the woman who said she was trafficked to Northern California from her hometown in Mexico. She’s now working as a cook at a Mexican restaurant in another state. She shares a small two-bedroom apartment with her father and uncle, nephew and her daughter who’s now one year old. At first, Carmen hated the idea of having the child of the man she says abused her. That feeling passed.
Carmen: Mama?
Shoshana: Now, Carmen says she can’t imagine life without her.
Male: If Californians vote to legalize marijuana this fall, some people say the situation could get better increasing trust between cops and people working in the pot trade. Others say making pot legal will bring in bigger, greedier growers and make the abuse worse. In the meantime, the trimmigrants are here and ready to work. Thanks to Reveal’s Shoshana Walter for bringing a sense to it. Next, we hear from a man who made a career out of luring women into the sex trade. He’s not too shy about sharing his secrets coming up on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Byard: Hey, podcast listeners, Byard Duncan here, Reveal’s community manager. If you want a closer look at California’s pot country, consider giving us a follow on Instagram. We’re featuring short profiles of some of the characters that reporter, Shoshana Walter encountered there. You'll meet everyone from the trimmigrants vying for jobs to a die-hard advocate for exploited workers. We’re easy to find. Just open up the Instagram app on your phone and search @revealnews.
Al: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. No one really knows how many trafficking victims there are in the US. A few years ago, some of the country’s top researchers tried to estimate it and ended up with a wild range that went from a few thousand to tens of thousands. Basically, they said we’re just guessing.
Trafficking is hard to measure partly because you can’t always tell who’s selling steaks voluntarily and who’s coerced or forced. Sometimes, the women themselves aren’t sure. The pimps who target them know exactly what their weaknesses are. They’ve spent years figuring out ways to exploit them. Victim’s often held not by chains but by manipulation, fear and even what someone called love. APM Reports’ Emily Haavik takes a look at how someone might fall for these tactics, the voices you won’t often hear on the radio. We start with a young woman picked up by police at an Illinois truck stop. It’s early on a Saturday morning about two and a half years ago.
Male: Just before we talk anymore, I’m going to read your rights.
Female: You don’t need to.
Male: It’s not in a real dramatic thing. It’s just something I got to let you know, okay?
Female: I know it already.
Male: You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be-
Emily: Police in Bloomington, Illinois are arresting a 19-year-old. They found her in a semi with a trucker and a $20 bill. Now, she’s in the back of a squad car. We’re not identifying her because she said she was coerced into selling sex. She’s exhausted and hard to follow at times.
Female: I haven’t got no sleep for three days. I haven’t eaten for three days. They didn’t feed me or nothing. There’s barely food in the house.
Emily: While the other cops look around for the guy who sold her, this one tries to get the details of how she ended up in the sex trade. Police in women and prostitution haven’t always had the best relationships but this officer is patient. She seems to trust him and starts telling her back story.
Male: When did you start to get in the system and ended up-
Female: I left town when I was 16.
Male: Were you a prostitute before that [inaudible 00:26:28]?
Female: My dad but there’s [inaudible 00:26:30] in the house. They kept switching me around, foster parents to foster parents, residential to residential.
Emily: She tells the officer that staff at her group home in Rockford, Illinois were touching her. When she was brought to Chicago for psychiatric testing, she saw her chance to get away. She ran on a backdoor, got a ride to Bloomington to see a guy she thought was a friend.
Female: I was told I was going to be safe down here in Bloomington.
Emily: It wasn’t safe. Twenty minutes after she got there, she says her friend passed her off to a friend she knew only as BD. He had her turning tricks to pay rent. She says when she tried to leave, he stopped her.
Female: He’s pulling and tugging at me saying, “You got to come back, bitch.” I didn’t want to prostitute but BD picked me up and he grabbed me by my arm, told me, “You're not leaving me.”
Emily: She says on her third day with him, he brought her to this truck stop. Now, she wants to know where she’ll go next but the cop can’t tell her. He doesn’t even know. He heads for the police station while she tries to stay awake.
Female: I can hardly keep up.
Male: I can tell. You're not going to offend me if you get asleep.
Female: No. I’m just tired. I haven’t slept for three days.
Male: We’re going to the police department right now.
Female: I just want a blanket afterward.
Male: I should be able to find you a blanket.
Emily: They head out but they don’t get far. They noticed a man walking down the street away from the truck stop. The officer has his partner stop the guy and then he pulls up with the lights on so no one can see the young woman in the squad. From behind the bright, she confirms the cop’s hunch. It’s BD. Police arrested BD and a grand jury heard his case, today, serving time just a couple hours south of that truck stop at Robinson Correctional Center. I wrote him a letter there asking for an interview. I was kind of surprised when he said yes. We meet in a tiny cinder block room in the prison and sit at a round table. He tells me his real name.
Darren: Darren [Carney 00:28:32] Edmondson.
Emily: He’s 29 years old and six feet tall with glasses and a goatee. He’s wearing a blue prison jumpsuit and a crucifix around his neck. He’s strikingly polite, even offers to help with the microphone.
Darren: I can actually hold it if you …
Emily: Edmondson has his speech ready. He says that young woman’s story was exaggerated.
Darren: I’m not one to force someone to do anything they don’t want to do but I will assist you in what you do and that’s why I don’t consider myself a pimp. I was more like an entrepreneur.
Emily: If the woman’s version of events had been proven, Edmondson might have been looking at a trafficking conviction. Under Illinois state law, a pimp who uses force or physical restraint or even threatens it can be charged with trafficking but this wasn’t proven. Instead, Edmondson took a plea deal. He’s serving a year for promoting prostitution and another six for burglary. He’s also talking to me which he sees as part of his penance.
Darren: Like I say, I’m doing this to pay my debts. This is sad. I want to inform people about what goes on.
Emily: Were you around a lot of prostitution in Chicago growing up?
Darren: Yes, I was. I was actually exposed to the lifestyle at a really young age.
Emily: When he was 15, his 17-year-old girlfriend worked as a stripper.
Darren: On school nights, she would just have me sit out in the car and protect it and being-
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Edmonson: ... Driving the car, and you know, protect it. I realized inside of the club, what went on other than the stripping.
Emily: A few years later when Edmondson was 19, he found himself living next door to a state-run transitional house for troubled girls, like the one that girl who was arrested ran away from. He thought, "Goldmine."
Edmonson: They got they own apartments and then the staff is supposed to be here watching them. They ain't none that's watching them, so I figured, hey, I ain't even got to get no rooms. They can't they own apartments, let's go.
Emily: For the next decade, Edmondson made his living selling sex. At the time of his arrest, he says he had eight girls working for him and almost all of them were runaways.
Edmonson: They come from those group homes, broken. They broken. They need love and the first person to show them any type of affection, that's who they going to open up to. They're going to look for it on the outside and they might meet a guy like me. Well, the old me.
Emily: What did any given day look like? Can you take me through just an average day when you were in the thick of this?
Edmonson: I wake up. I shower for about 45 minutes. One of the girls are probably ironing my boxer briefs and socks. I get dressed. I get in the car. First thing I do is I go check my hotel rooms everyday. I want to be up there first thing in the morning for the turn in, for the money.
Emily: Throughout our interview, Edmonson repeats one phrase a lot. "Financial stability." He said he family was full of self-made men, from restaurant owners to cocaine dealers.
Edmonson: I grew up around a lot of money, I just wanted to make my own. I wanted to make a name for myself. I wanted Darren Cartier to really mean something.
Emily: You had something to prove a little bit.
Edmonson: Yeah, I had something to prove.
Emily: Edmonson says he feels bad now for what he did, and he was conflicted back then too. Some nights he would get drunk and high, and wrestle with what he was doing.
Edmonson: I used to tell myself I want to quit. I want to stop. I need to change. Then the other side of me wanted to push that angel off my shoulder and the devil horns come out. It's like, man, you just got to get this money man. You soft. You got to get this bread. That's what it's all about.
Emily: As we talk, I get the feeling he's still kind of swinging back and forth. One minute he's regretting the past, and the next, he's reveling in it. It's like he can't decide how to think about the last ten years of his life. Whether it was wrong or right. He says he and the women who worked for him lived like one, big, happy family, just one where he controlled all the money.
Edmonson: I didn't treat them like a piece of property. They lived with me. They lived in a comfort zone. They got to get on the computer all day or watch a flat screen until it was time to work. There was never any abuse. We used to have fun. A lot of good times, a lot of good memories.
Emily: Edmonson said he never used force. He didn't have to. He just targeted women he knew he could control.
Edmonson: Just by the love and affection. The wordplay. That's what I like to call it. My "wordplay." Ultimately, that worked.
Emily: Edmonson insists that he never used the kind of violence the young women described. Like many of these situations, it turns into a "he said, she said". Regardless, Edmondson's strategy of manipulating the most vulnerable is not unique. Actually, it's textbook. In a year covering this topic, we've heard from survivors and advocates across the country and they all say the same thing. "These pimps have an eye for it. That 'thing' that makes somebody an easy target." Runaways, victims of rape and prior abuse, children of unstable homes. There's always going to be someone ready to exploit them.
When he gets out of prison, Edmonson says that he won't be one of them anymore and it says it's not just because he got caught.
Edmonson: I actually have a daughter that's about to be 15 when I come home, and I'm not there in her life like I'm supposed to. I don't want her to go down the same road that these girls went down.
Emily: I ask him, "Why?"
Edmonson: I wouldn't want her to be manipulated. Ultimately, I wouldn't want her to be manipulated.
Emily: Edmonson hopes to make things better for his daughter. As for the young woman we heard from in the squad car, she went missing again more than once since that November morning. These days, she's taking back some control. Filing a lawsuit against the group home she ran from into Edmonson's hands. She's accusing them of negligence, battery, and sexual abuse.
Al: Our story was produced by Emily Haavik of APM Reports.
Now, on the streets, it's guys like Darren Edmonson, pimps, who control the market for sex, but on the virtual street corner, a small group of suburban sex buyers are reshaping the marketplace to feed their fantasies. That's next on Reveal, from the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Amanda: Hey podcast listeners, I'm Amanda Pike, Reveal's Director of Video. We've launched an exciting new initiative to help support women in film and investigative journalism. Right now, we're taking applications for two different projects. The first is for a new documentary series. We're looking for experienced female filmmakers to direct short documentaries around the theme of women taking power or taking control and taking chances. The second opportunity is for early career video journalists to come and work with us here in the Bay area on a yearlong residency. You'll produce short videos for a web and mobile audience and will finish the year with a longer capstone project. Please apply for either opportunity by September 23rd. Early applications are encouraged. You can go to RevealNews.org/film for more information.
Al: From the Center of Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm AL Letson. The internet has made it much easier for people selling sex and those who want to buy it to find each other.
Amy: Hello?
Speaker 6: Yeah, I saw your ad.
Amy: Yeah, this is Amy.
Speaker 6: Are you available today?
Al: The internet has also given police a new tool for catching johns. This is tape of a police sting. Officers place fake ads like this on backpage.com, the largest site for escort ads, and arrest guys who show up for a date. The buying and the selling of sex is moving beyond backpage, deeper into the internet, to more secretive online communities that are taking the trade to a whole other level.
Sasha Aslanian of APM Reports spend a year and a half investigating the illegal sex industry. She found a thriving market of online sex buyers hiding in plain sight in the wealthy suburbs of Seattle. Just to note, the sexual content in this story may not suitable for young listeners.
Speaker 7: A guy walks into a bar. Luke Hillman's a wiry fellow in his early forties. He's joining a group of men he first met on the internet in Bellevue, Washington, a posh suburb of Seattle.
Luke: What's going on?
Speaker 9: How you doing?
Luke: Good, yourself?
I walk up to these guys. I give them my handle, my online handle, and I say, "Hey, I'm so and so." They're like, "Oh hey, how's it going?" Everybody's shaking hands. It's just like it's a normal ... It's just a bunch of guys at a bar.
Speaker 7: A bunch of guys leading double lives. By day, they work for some of the most prominent employers in the Seattle area. Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon. One was a radiologist, another a dentist. In their off hours, these guys were big time sex buyers, and they had no clue that the man they'd invited into their circle was a cop.
Luke: This is Detective Luke Hillman. Today's date is September 1st, 2015. The time is- [crosstalk 00:38:22].
Speaker 7: Luke had been meeting with these guys undercover for months, secretly recording their conversations.
Luke: ... And the classification is criminal investigation of human trafficking.
Speaker 7: The men had met through an online site called Thereviewboard.net. It's one of many so-called "john boards" across the country where men reveal prostitutes. Think Yelp for the flesh trade. Investigators say this one had between fifteen and twenty thousand members. The way it works is they pay for sex with a woman, then right a review for other guys to read. They'd rate her body, how big her breasts where, whether she was a moaner or a screamer, which sex act she was willing to perform, her hourly rates, and her energy level during the session.
Luke convinced the guys he was one of them by writing fake reviews. Over steak and beer, they discussed their hobby with the same gusto they did online. Luke says, "They didn't seem to notice or care that waitresses could hear, and other patrons moved away."
Luke: I remember sitting there the first time and I was looking around, praying that no one would see me sitting with these guys and would hear what they were saying.
Speaker 7: Like this guy, who's wondering if he can trust a compliment on his anatomy from a porn star he's watched on video many times.
Speaker 10: The downside to being with a porn star is at the same time she tells you how wonderful you are, you have the image of everybody's she's been with [inaudible 00:39:44] and you're thinking, "Would you say I'm big? I'm finding this hard to believe because I have seen what you are porking."
Speaker 7: These men saw themselves as connoisseurs of the sex trade, always searching out new experiences and new women. In their fantasy, they had left the riff raff behind-
Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 - 00:52:37] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Sasha: … and new women. In their fantasy, they’ve left the riff-raff behind on Backpage. Sigurds Zitars, the man who ran The Review Board mocked Backpage to his members. He wrote, “Backpage is the bottom of the barrel, skanks, pimps, rip-offs, fake photos, bait and switch, under-aged girls, the works.” He also posted, “If you're meeting complete strangers from Backpage at the Motel 6, be sure to bring along enough cash to post bail and be sure to sew the name and phone number of your next of kin in your underwear.”
Luke originally created his online persona on The Review Board thinking these guys might lead him to the bigger fish who are supplying the women but once he was accepted inside, he was invited into a smaller group of men who were blurring the lines between supply and demand. It began with an invitation from a guy using the handle Peter Rabbit.
Luke: He contacted me and said, “Hey, there’s a group of us. We can have an informal e-mail group. We all exchange intel. It’s kind of a private group where likeminded people, we all share experiences and we share intel. I think you would be a good fit for the group. What do you think?”
Sasha: Peter Rabbit was really Charles Peters, a 46-year-old pharmaceutical consultant from Portland. He was the leader of the League, as it was called, short for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It was made up of 16 men in the Seattle area and an additional 25 members from other states, mostly California but as far away as Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts. Peters ran a password protected website for League members to discuss their obsession, K girls, Korean prostitutes. They had to create their own site because Asian agencies had a reputation for sex trafficking. Sigurds Zitars, the owner of The Review Board, limited the reviews of Asian providers because he didn’t want to risk attracting the police. One night, while undercover, Luke asked him about it as they walked to their cars.
Luke: Is it agencies in general or is it just … I mean it seems like Asian agencies get a lot more attention.
Male: That’s where the traffic comes from. [crosstalk 00:42:19]
Sasha: It’s difficult to hear but what he says is the women are moved in and out of cities in a synchronized way. In other words, somebody is controlling their movements.
Male: We’re supposed to believe this is all a coincidence.
Sasha: The K girls traveled from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and Chicago. It was an organized circuit spread across the country controlled by seven agencies according to police documents. Bookers in another city would screen potential clients and schedule appointments. The women were advertised as available 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. League members were spending $300 per session multiple times a week. They boasted about their exploits with K girls but sometimes, the reality of what the women were experiencing punctured their fantasies. The women struggled with English. Reviewers mentioned the Korean women using phone apps to translate. One reviewer wrote, “Very weak English and so nervous. I felt bad for her.” Another woman admitted to a customer she was scared. One man complained that the breakdown in communication could be a mood killer.
Sasha: You might not think a small group of guys in Seattle could be significant players in the sex trade in America but they’re an important clue in understanding the illegal market. About 15% of American men ever buy sex and just a small slice of them are high frequency buyers like these guys in Seattle but these hobbyists, as they call themselves, are getting new scrutiny from researchers like Alex Trouteaud. He runs an anti-trafficking non-profit in Atlanta called youthSpark.
Alex: I, as a researcher, hadn’t been caring that much about John boards because the lens through which I was looking at initially was to say, hey, listen. We’re talking about 5% of individuals who engage in this type of activity who call themselves hobbyists. In the scheme of things, that’s not worth worrying about. You've got 95% of guys who are more amateurish and perhaps more easily deterred but that all changed when we started to look at it instead of at the individual level at the transaction level. We understood that that 5% accounts for roughly half of the number of illegal sex transactions nationwide.
Sasha: In other words, it’s possible that a small group of men is generating almost 50% of the sex trade. In the case of the League, a small number of high frequency buyers were getting involved on both sides, supply and demand. To prosecutors, the collusion looked more like organized crime. Valiant Richey is with the prosecutor’s office in King County, Washington. He’s one of the lead attorneys on the case.
Valiant: They are all in communication with each other. They’re all devoted to a singular goal which is an illegal goal. They’re all devoted to a goal which takes advantage of people and exploits them. They’re doing it for their own benefit. It’s not a financial benefit but it’s a personal sexual gratification benefit.
Sasha: After six months of undercover surveillance, police and prosecutors in King County felt they had the evidence. It was time for the takedown. On a Tuesday night in January, Hillman walked into the Pumphouse Bar & Grill in Bellevue.
Luke: It was pretty funny because we’re sitting in a table. I think there was about maybe eight, nine or 10 of us.
Sasha: While the waitress deliver their orders, League members talked loudly about which K girls would make their best of the year list in 2015.
Male: I don’t think I can even tell you that.
Male: I will right away.
Luke: I knew it was coming but at the corner of my eye, I can see it’s just like a police officer, a police officer, a police officer coming in the door.
Sasha: Luke watched as people in the restaurant grew quiet, sensing something was up.
Luke: These guys were just oblivious. They were just chatting away and just gregarious and going on and on about the stuff.
Sasha: These guys just didn’t get it. Police encircled the table.
Male: Everybody, put your hands on the top of your head. Put your hands on top of your head. Do it now.
Male: [crosstalk 00:46:21]
Male: I’m telling you, put your hands on the top of your heads, everybody, everybody.
Male: [crosstalk 00:46:26]
Luke: Then, everyone just shut up. I got arrested with them. They took me out and put me in a car and all that stuff to make it look like I was arrested with them.
Sasha: Luke stayed in character. As he waited in the back of a squad car, League leader Charles Peters advised them on how to play it cool.
Charles: We didn’t do anything. We’re just having dinner.
John: Good morning, everyone. Thanks for coming. I’m the King County sheriff. [crosstalk 00:46:59]
Sasha: Standing between poster boards of online sex ads, Sheriff John Urquhart held a news conference in downtown Seattle to announce the arrests. He said the League’s K girls’ website had been shut down. They also took down the bigger site, the Review Board. They ceased terabytes of information on its 15 to 20,000 members across the country.
John: We all know what Backpage is, backpage.com. This is Backpage on steroids.
Sasha: The Feds had ceased review sites before. The FBI went after the operators of myredbook.com in California but King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg took to the podium to explain why this was different.
Dan: We have no other jurisdiction in the country that has targeted an organized network of sex buyers for promoting prostitution.
Sasha: In case promoting prostitution sounds like legalese, here’s a translation from Prosecutor Valiant Richey.
Valiant: They were really operating as pimps. They’re not charged with promoting prostitution because they went and bought a lot of sex. They’re charged with promoting prostitution because they expanded the market. They facilitated visits to these women. They connected new buyers to the women and helped with the screening process. They wrote reviews about them to facilitate that. Those are the acts that constitute promoting prostitution.
Sasha: Authorities busted eight brothels, four brothel owners, including two Korean women, were charged. Two men who started out as customers had worked their way into the enterprise. A dozen K girls working in the brothels were offered services for trafficking victims and released. We don’t know how many of these women were trafficked from Korea but one woman who had formerly worked in one of the brothels told federal immigration authorities she was forced into prostitution to pay off loan sharks in Korea. That’s known as debt bondage. It’s a tactic used by traffickers to force women into the sex trade. The Korean consulate in Seattle declined to comment on the pipeline of Korean women citing victims’ privacy.
As for the members of the so-called League, 16 were charged with promoting prostitution, a felony. So far, more than half had pleaded guilty. None of these men had previous criminal records and the personal fallout for some of them has been devastating. Just before he was to serve his 90 days home detention, Sigurds Zitars, the man who ran the Review Board, took his life. Another man, Paul Reinhart, choked up at his sentencing when he talked about his children. He apologized for what he called a continuous series of bad decisions.
Paul: Getting involved in a legalized [inaudible 00:49:49]. I was just a customer but over time, I got  far too close into it. I lost sight. I lost perspective. In my actions, I was deceiving my family and colleagues. I took on misguided feeling this was a community like other legitimate communities.
Sasha: It’s that community Reinhart talked about that got the attention of prosecutors. Valiant Richey says on Backpage, customers don’t work together. Review boards, on the other hand, encouraged it. They normalize and promote sex buying. People working to end demand for sex trafficking shouldn’t ignore them.
Valiant: Right now, we are at the tip of the spear on the issue of review boards. Very few people have put much thought into these. In this case was when we first started realizing how toxic they could be.
Sasha: This Review Board is gone but Richey says the thousands of members who were not arrested have left a digital trail.
Valiant: I think there’s going to be some really interesting things that come out of that that haven’t been done before.
Sasha: You have all their e-mail addresses.
Valiant: We have a lot of e-mails.
Al: Sasha Aslanian is a correspondent with APM Reports. What’s happening in Seattle is part of a change in the way law enforcement and other agencies are dealing with the sex trade. Cops used to treat many of the people caught up in the trade, especially teens, as criminals. These days, they’re treating them as victims and instead, going after Johns, pimps and traffickers. You can learn more from our partner, APM Reports. That’s the investigative and documentary team at American Public Media. Check out a link to their reporting on our website, revealnews.org.
Michael Montgomery was our lead producer on today’s show. Taki Telonidis was our senior editor. Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my men, J. Briggs, Jim Briggs and Claire [inaudible 00:51:54] Mullen. Special thanks to our reporter, Fernanda Camarena. Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Pyle is our editor in chief. Susanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightining.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.
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