Sex Trafficking: See Something, Say Something

by Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney

In the small community of Dewey, Yavapai County’s drug task force executed a search warrant based on tips that the house was a drug trafficking operation. Neighbors had reported frequent vehicular traffic marked by short stays and the residency of numerous young adults. Indeed, during the search several marijuana grows were discovered and drug operations uncovered. Amidst the action, one detective noticed a young woman sitting off to the side, her body language closed and apprehensive. This detective, an officer with the Prescott Valley Police Department, had recently attended sex trafficking training.

He approached the woman and quietly asked, “Do you need help?” The young woman looked up, eyes filled with fear, and whispered, “Yes.”

The detective led the woman to an isolated corner where he quickly pieced together her story, a wretched tale that began in Ohio with a descent into homelessness and resulted in the abysmal life of sex trafficking. The woman was transported to the Yavapai Family Advocacy Center, additional interviews were conducted, and the sex trafficking ring controlled by two pimps was unraveled. 

This case went to trial in a Yavapai County superior courtroom in the fall of 2019. Details of the lives of several women, all victims of the operation, emerged. Some were underage, some were young adults. All were repeatedly forced to perform sex acts, called “tricks,”—upwards of ten each night—and transported to upscale hotel rooms in the Phoenix area to service their “clients.” Ads featuring the scantily clad women ran on websites, “dates” arranged via texts, and the money turned over to the pimps at the conclusion of each trick. Drugs were frequently used to control the women and, when needed, physical force and violence. The women were controlled with promises of love—such pimps are called “Romeos”—or violence, called “Gorilla Pimps.” All the money was kept by the traffickers and the women were provided only the basics. At trial, both traffickers were found guilty and are now serving lengthy prison sentences. 

There was a time when I believed sex trafficking was something that happened in far-off places. In reality, it occurs throughout the United States, even in idyllic places like our county. Traffickers often target youth who are vulnerable, such as run-aways, kids in foster care or the homeless, wooing victims into what feels like a loving and caring relationship. Traffickers work to establish bonds of trust, buying them gifts, a place to stay, and shower them with affection to psychologically manipulate them. This is called “love bombing.”  

Drugs often play a role in sex trafficking situations, sometimes as a way to cope; some victims enter “the life” to support a drug habit. Victims are taught to distrust law enforcement and government services due to fear of arrest. Coached to lie to nurses and other health professionals, they often give fabricated histories with scripted stories when presented with opportunities for rescue. Traffickers frequently use the threat of violence and harm to the victims’ loved ones as a means of control. 

Victims often do not see themselves as victims and may feel shame, self–blame and feelings of unworthiness of a better life. Complicated by “trauma bonds” that are difficult to break, the path to recovery for someone who has experienced this life can be long and arduous. In our case, the Yavapai Family Advocacy Center offers therapy, counseling and services to the women to help restore them to a better life. 

Each of us can help fight sex trafficking. Be aware of the signs and report suspicious activity. 

See something, say something.

Call 1-888-373-7888

Text: “BeFree” (233733)

Live Chat: humantraffickinghotline.org