"Slavery and human trafficking look like me, too," declared Theresa Flores, a white, blonde, 43-year-old resident of Columbus, Ohio, who has spent the past year traveling the country to recount her story at similar events. Describing herself as "a nice Catholic girl who lived in a large, suburban house" near Detroit during her teenage years, she said she was targeted by traffickers, drugged, and date-raped at the age of 15 - "I was just a kid," she said - and then blackmailed and forced to work as a prostitute "for two long years." "They said they would kill me and my family and my dog if I didn't do what they said," reported Flores, adding that she was "beaten into silence every night" by her captors. Throughout her ordeal, she said, she was permitted to live at home, sneaking out every night to turn tricks, and then returning home and going to school the next day. Once, she said, she was kidnapped, taken to inner-city Detroit, and "tortured for hours and hours and left for dead" before being returned to her emotionally absent parents by an unsympathetic police officer. Only when her father moved the family to another city after a job transfer, she said, did she finally break with her captors. "This is a human-rights issue, and it is happening right here in the United States," said Flores, now a social worker and mother of three. "Why isn't this on the nightly news?" It fell to the panelists to address that question, among others. Mary Wiberg, of the Commission on the Status of Women, and Erin Gangitano, of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, noted the difficulty of identifying victims of modern-day slavery, whose relative invisibility has slowed the passage of legislation to prosecute trafficking rings. As a member of the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery task force, Wiberg took part in an 18-month examination of the problem, helping to produce a report in November titled "Human Trafficking in California." Among its recommendations were stiffer sentences for traffickers, more funding for NGOs providing services to victims - such as shelter, health care, and legal support - and better data collection on the nature and extent of trafficking in California. Gangitano, whose clients include domestic servants and restaurant workers brought here from developing countries, told of an all-too-typical case in which a woman's passport was withheld by her traffickers on the pretext that she owed $10,000 for being brought to the U.S. Such victims often are unable to speak or understand English, and are unfamiliar with their rights under U.S. law. In many cases, she said, their consulates are "in denial" about trafficking in their countries, and thus unwilling to help. Trafficking victims, said Gangitano, are apt to be found working in restaurants - often doing multiple shifts with minimal time off - or even as babysitters. "Keep your eyes open," she advised the largely student audience. The U.S. State Department estimates that human trafficking claims as many as 800,000 victims worldwide every year, and that up to 17,500 - chiefly from Asia and Central and South America - end up in the U.S. According to the Human Rights Center's research, more than 500 people from 18 countries were ensnared in forced-labor operations in California between 1998 and 2003, nearly half of them in prostitution. The largest number of foreign victims, 136, came from Thailand, the center reported, followed by Mexico and Russia. "These cases of forced labor represent only the publicized incidents," the report's authors cautioned. "We suspect the actual number is considerably higher." California, a major destination for traffickers, enacted two new laws in 2006 aimed at combating the problem: the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which made human trafficking a felony and provides for restitution to its victims; and the Human Trafficking Collaboration and Training Act, which requires law-enforcement officers to be trained in responding to human trafficking. The bills also established the statewide task force, the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery (CA ACTS), that produced the 2007 report. But much more needs to be done, said Carol Dippel, the president of the El Cerrito chapter of Soroptimist International, a volunteer organization of business and professional women that launched its Soroptimists STOP Trafficking project on Jan. 11, which the U.S. Senate last year designated as the National Day of Human Trafficking Awareness. Professionals, she said, especially need to be trained in recognizing the signs of human trafficking. Jim Saleda, an officer with the Oakland Police Department's vice crimes and child-exploitation unit, described his city's efforts at charging human traffickers as traffickers, rather than simply as pimps. "We always use human trafficking as the first charge," he said, if only to provide more accurate statistics on the crime. He also said his own unit had grown in its understanding of the problem. "When we first started," he said, the attitude toward prostitutes was "clear the streets." "Now," he said, "we treat them as victims." Moderated by Stop the Traffick co-director Tonia Bui, the event was co-sponsored by the Associated Students of the University of California, the Gender Equity Resource Center, LunaFest, the Gender and Women's Studies Department, and the Prytanean Women's Honor Society.
At 15, Theresa Flores was a self-described "blond, white girl" from an upper-class Detroit suburb and went out on date with a boy she knew from school. That night she was attacked and raped as the boy’s cousins took photos. It was the beginning of an agonizing two years for Flores. Her attackers - members of a gang - blackmailed her with the threat of revealing the photos and forced her to become a sex slave. Fearing for her life, she escaped only after her family moved from the state, taking her with them. "You don’t think that it happens here" in the suburbs, "and until it hits you between the eyes, you don’t realize it," she said. "But it can happen to anybody."
Human trafficking steps from
By Jennifer Hemmingsen The Gazette firstname.lastname@example.org In the basement of an ordinary-looking Williamsburg home, the 13-year-old girl was given a choice. Either she would have sex with two men nearly twice her age or she would be given back to her kidnapper. Already in the week since Demont Bowie told the suburban Minneapolis girl she belonged to him, he’d beaten and abused her, starved her and deprived her of sleep. He traded her body to his friends and even a mechanic. When Demont told her to do something to someone, she did. There was no refusing. He’d said he’d kill her, kill her family, if she tried to leave.
She believed him.
Somehow, she’d survived a week of hell at Demont’s hands in Wellman, a Washington County town of 1,500 people. Now Demont was gone — had run away after a fight with his father at an Easter 2005 family gathering.
The girl was in the basement with Demont’s half brother, Moosey Jones, who had put her in this double bind. She was bawling, begging him. But she was terrified of Demont, so she had sex with Moosey, his friend and another underage boy, not knowing that not going back to Demont would send her on a new, terrible path as a prostitute for a business advertising in Eastern Iowa as an escort service called Naughty-bi-Nature.
The girl would come to be known as M.B. in court documents in Linn, Johnson, Iowa, Washington and Clayton counties, as well as U.S. District Court. Getting her out of the business that seemed to produce poison in so many ways would almost cost one Iowa woman her life. Locking up the people who’d exploited her would take more than two years.
Hers, the first human trafficking case prosecuted in Iowa federal court, would test the resources, skills and patience of investigators and prosecutors who never had dealt with such a complex case, and who hope, even as they ready themselves to better respond to the next, to never see another like it.
No ‘Pretty Woman’
Although police and prostitutes say it’s easy to dial a date in the Corridor, prostitution is hard to prosecute. Like drug dealing, the people involved are all implicated in the crime and all — theoretically at least — are willing participants. Customers don’t have any interest in reporting prostitution. Neither do the women who turn tricks — whether for money, because of drug addiction or in fear of a violent and controlling pimp.
People unfamiliar with the business sometimes think of prostitution as a victimless crime — a simple transaction of money for sex. In reality, experts say, pimps prey on vulnerable women and girls with few other options, isolating them, coercing them into the business and keeping them there by force. One underage girl who said she worked for Naughty-bi-Nature was too scared to help in the prosecution. It’s a drug-infused, violence-infested culture that can operate below the surface in even the smallest and safest of Eastern Iowa’s small towns, as M.B.’s case would show.
As one prosecutor put it: “This isn’t ‘Pretty Woman.’”
And it happens all the time, says Betty Thompson, a former child prostitute who grew up to help a man named Robert Sallis run Naughty-bi-Nature, first from the tiny Johnson County settlement of Cosgrove and then across the Johnson-Iowa County line in Williamsburg. Thompson, whose father was a pimp, said she started prostituting as a 12-year-old runaway in Cedar Rapids but later gave up that life. She said fear and violence help area pimps keep control.
“This goes on every day in Cedar Rapids but no one wants to say anything because there are people like Robert Sallis out there,” she said of the man who beat her to unconsciousness before she left him and started talking to police about the business. She said even now, with Sallis and two of his sons in prison, she fears for her life and her children.
But Sallis’ son, Robert “Moosey” Jones, who introduced them, called Betty a chameleon who worked hand in hand with his father.
“When she came around and she found out what my dad was about and what I was about, her swag changed,” Jones said. “She kind of like changed to fit in.
“The prostitution game is an illusion game and Betty’s really good at illusions,” said Jones, who denies ever pimping but said his father, grandfather and brother have all been pimps in Eastern Iowa.
“She built a whole illusion for that girl,” he said.
A pimp’s life
Johnson County prosecutors charged Robert Sallis with a rarely used statute similar to the federal racketeering laws used to bring down mobsters, and he’s serving a sentence of up to 25 years in prison for his part in the prostitution ring. But Sallis’ supporters say he’s paying too high a price, convicted on the testimony of accomplices.
“I think he was convicted by people who were lying to keep their own butts out of the fire,” one longtime friend said.
Old friends describe Sallis as a family man who loves his sons. Someone who twice brought Demont Bowie to Iowa in an attempt to save Bowie’s life. They paint a picture of Bowie as a jealous, unpredictable man who vowed to kill his father and half-brother more than a decade ago, and say Betty Thompson didn’t pay a heavy enough penalty for her part in the business.
Several women who knew Sallis, Moosey Jones and Bowie, or who had worked as prostitutes for Naughty-bi-Nature, declined to comment for a reporter. More than one said the reporter was risking her safety by reporting this.
But by poring over hundreds of court records and reports, and through more than two dozen interviews, The Gazette has pieced together over the last year and a half the story of how Robert Sallis and Betty Thompson were able in late 2004 and 2005 to operate a prostitution business right under the noses of police, able to prostitute the 13-year-old M.B. throughout Eastern Iowa for weeks even as their house was being watched by Williamsburg patrol officers.
The secret to their success? Sticking to small towns, keeping a low profile and counting on the silence of their customers and associates.
It was a strategy that worked for months — until Betty fled from Robert and started to talk. M.B. wouldn’t tell police about the kidnapping until she was more than 300 miles away. Even then, she lied at first about Naughty-bi-Nature, wanting to protect Thompson.
While investigators circled in on Sallis, Bowie, the men Bowie traded M.B. to and the johns she was sent to service throughout Eastern Iowa, the girl was shuffled from one foster home to another, her whereabouts a secret from even her parents.
As Demont and Sallis told prosecutors, if they didn’t have a witness, they didn’t have a case.
In plain sight
Before she was taken to Iowa, M.B. wasn’t all that different from a lot of other troubled teenagers. She was an eighth grader who fell in love easily and had a habit of skipping school. A girl from a single-parent home, rebelling against Mom’s rules. A runaway who considered herself wise in the ways of the world.
“I don’t know that it was anything that isn’t fairly common in a lot of adolescents,” said Wade Kisner, Cedar Rapids-based state Division of Criminal Investigation special agent in charge, who got to know the girl in his two years investigating the case as a field agent. “But she encountered and got involved with some dangerous people. People who certainly did not have her best interests at heart.
“Unfortunately I don’t think she’s the only one. I’m sure there have been many, many other young girls that have ended up in the same situation. This was just one that we know about and hear about.”
Not all those stories have happy endings, Kisner said.
Trafficking victims usually are young and poor, and the less education they have, the easier they are manipulated by traffickers, researchers say. A 2005 Croft Institute for International Studies report says traffickers isolate and disorient victims and use violence to ensure they live in constant fear.
Moosey Jones said pimps look for girls who are “gullible, vulnerable, misguided, who have low self-esteem.”
“They’re more easy to mislead,” he said.
Vulnerable 13- and 14-year-olds routinely are recruited to prostitution, said Melissa Farley, a research psychologist who has studied prostitution for 14 years. “Thirteen-year-olds think they know a lot about the world, but they don’t,” Farley said.
One prostitute who worked for Robert Sallis and Betty Thompson said she was told her family didn’t want her back. Another said Betty threatened to tell police the girl had slept with her underage son if she quit.
Researchers say most victims of human trafficking won’t go to police, even if they get an opportunity to do so, because of the severe psychological stress and the threat of violence. And local police rarely are trained to recognize victims and bring them to safety.
M.B. was interviewed by a Washington County sheriff’s deputy in Wellman only a few days after she was kidnapped, but — scared, disoriented and distrustful — she didn’t ask for help. Instead, she gave a false name and birthday. In Williamsburg, police watched Robert and Betty’s house for weeks and never saw evidence that a girl was being held there and used in prostitution.
Only by working together and actively seeking out victims can police successfully intervene, researchers say. In the case of M.B., that effort was spearheaded by a single sheriff’s detective.
Determined and tireless
It was because of a couple of tips and a domestic assault that Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Kevin Kinney was able to start an investigation into Naughty-bi-Nature and the kidnapping of M.B., which would come to span counties throughout the Corridor and result in dozens of prosecutions. The information he collected would spin off into other investigations, some of which are ongoing.
“We stumbled upon this not because some federal agent was out there trying to look into this activity, but because an alert and bright deputy from a small town stumbled across it and knew enough to take it up farther, talk to other people that could do something about it,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney C.J. Williams, who helped coordinate the investigation and prosecution. “Only because Kevin Kinney was bright enough to listen and to think about what he’s being told and to realize there might be something bigger here than what he first came across.”
Colleagues describe Kinney as determined and tireless, a “hard charger” who, once he gets the scent of something, won’t let go.
“He gets on the trail of something and he sticks right on it,” said Williamsburg Police Sgt. Robert Knoop, who has known Kinney since the 44-year-old Oxford-raised detective was a Clear Creek High School football tackle. “He’s dedicated as hell.”
Since the investigation and prosecution into the case of M.B., and as part of a nationwide Department of Justice push to more aggressively seek out and prosecute cases of human trafficking, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has established a human trafficking task force and has trained local police to recognize trafficking victims. Williams said the more skilled investigators become in recognizing victims, the more cases he thinks there will be of people trafficked for work and for sex.
“I think as we coordinate the prosecution, the investigation of human trafficking, we’re going to find more of it out there than what we know of now,” Williams said. “Human trafficking is an area that has not been a focus before, I think, because it has been under the radar. I think people were just not aware that it was happening as much as it has been.”
He anticipates seeing more sex trafficking cases in large urban areas and Iowa cases more focused on forced labor of illegal immigrants. But, he said, he wouldn’t be surprised to see another case like M.B.’s.
“I don’t think there’s a small town in Iowa that necessarily is immune from somebody like that who would do something like that,” he said.
That, M.B. said a few weeks ago, is why she risked her life to help in prosecuting Bowie, Jones and Sallis, and why she agreed to talk with The Gazette about her experience.
On Easter 2005, she just was worried about staying alive and trying to figure out how she ever would find her way home.
Coming Monday: Betty Thompson seeks stability in her rough life.