A 15-year-old was having a bad day at Fitch High School in Groton, so she left school early that day in May 2010 and headed to Ocean Beach to clear her head. Within minutes, a sympathetic older man approached her. He comforted her and hung out with her at the beach until she calmed down.
He invited “Amy” to stay with him just for the night until she figured things out. Having skipped out on school and run away from her group home for foster children in Mystic, she had nowhere else to go, so she accepted.
He was charming, showered her with attention and offered her drugs. She had sex with him. Before long, one night turned into a month. She considered him her boyfriend.
He encouraged her to drink and gave her drugs and began to bring her to the homes of his friends, ordering her to have sex with them. The process soon became a routine, as the girl was shuttled house to house in a haze to have sex with various men. Her “boyfriend” received the payment. She was never left alone. And she was never allowed to leave.
Amy’s story, unfortunately, is not that unusual in Connecticut. The state’s child welfare agency said it’s aware of nearly 100 girls, and one boy, who have been sold for sex in the state during the past five years. And there are likely many more child sex slaves who never get reported. These children are forced to have sex often multiple times a day with strangers in motels and apartments in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, and in private homes in Fairfield County. Their average age: 13.
The problem has gotten the attention of Joette Katz, the new commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. She is launching a public awareness campaign to try to train police, emergency room doctors, DCF workers, schools and the public to identify and treat these sex trafficking minors as victims rather than prostitutes. Katz is hoping the training will spur more people to report these cases to DCF and help more victims get residential treatment and counseling.
All the DFC cases so far have been runaways who were typically approached by pimps within the first 24 hours. Besides Connecticut’s major cities, pimps sell children for sex by the hour in New Britain, East Hartford, New London and Norwalk and along the Berlin Turnpike, among other places. No city or town is exempt. DCF officials reported that they were aware of 14 girls in New Haven who had been sold for sex in 2009 and 2010. Even smaller municipalities — Milford, Meriden, Manchester and Norwich -– reported two girls each sold for sex, according to DCF officials.
Often pimps move these victims around, sometimes shuttling them between states along the I-95 corridor. In the winter, they go to casinos, and in the summer, to beaches, according to Krishna Patel, an assistant U.S. attorney who has prosecuted several high-profile sex trafficking cases.
Theodore Briggs, a pimp who ran his ring out of his apartment in Norwalk, for example, sent one of his 14-year-old sex slaves to New York City, New Jersey and the Bridgeport area, according to court documents. Briggs was arrested in December 2010 and charged with six counts of transporting minors to engage in prostitution, a felony. He was sentenced Jan. 27, 2012, to 10 years in prison.
“You wouldn’t expect this in genteel Connecticut,” Katz said.
The term “trafficking’ implies that people are moved around, but what it means legally is that a person is “compelled to work” without pay.
Rosa — the pseudonym given to a 14-year-old foster child caught up in a Hartford-area prostitution ring — was ordered during a 2010 encounter to have anal sex with a customer at a hotel, even though she had refused, according to sentencing documents for Jarell Sanderson of New Britain. Her friend, also 14, was also ordered to follow through with an appointment even though she was bleeding from a sexual encounter the night before, according to the document. Sanderson received more than 25 years in prison, for which he must serve at least 15.
“We call trafficking modern-day slavery,” said Nicole von Oy, training and outreach coordinator for Love 146, a New Haven-based nonprofit that provides awareness and prevention training at schools and group homes.
Seduction and Timberlands
Pimps use a powerful combination of charm, flattery and attention to draw girls into a world of sex trafficking. These predators sniff out vulnerability, and typically prey on the most fragile, attention-starved girls who have had a rough life already. DCF reports that many of these girls grew up being abused and living in a group home or in single-parent homes.
The girl identified as Rosa in court documents “often struggles with blaming herself for running away as she feels she almost asked for this to happen,” said her therapist in a letter to the court. “This incident has reinforced [Rosa’s] beliefs that adults cannot be trusted.”
Officials who run three DCF-funded group homes for foster children in the New London area said they’ve experienced their girls being approached in all kinds of public places. Predators troll train stations and bus stops for runaways. They hunt for victims at movie theaters, libraries and malls. DCF officials say this is going on statewide.
In another case in Groton, foster girls were holding a bake sale at a Stop & Shop plaza to raise money for earthquake victims in Haiti in the spring of 2010, said Lisa Pereira, program director for a group home in Mystic.
The girls were singing to attract donations. When one stepped away to have a cigarette, a man and a young woman immediately approached her. He complimented the girl’s singing voice, asked if she was interested in music and offered her a recording contract. The girl exchanged phone numbers with the couple and arranged a meeting, Pereira said.
When the group home leaders heard about the meeting, they made sure it was at the home and had a long list of questions for the couple when they arrived. The answers were suspicious, Pereira recalled. They got the couple’s license plate number and alerted police.
“I think for a lot of these kids, they are looking for love, affection and attention. Regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, attention is attention,” Pereira said. “For them it’s that, ‘This person has shown me a little bit of interest so therefore they must like me, so therefore I can trust them.’ What they fail to realize is there is an ulterior motive.”
Von Oy, with the New Haven-based Love 146, agreed.
“I’ve heard of them approaching girls who were window shopping. They’ll say, ‘You’re beautiful. You could be a model. I can help you make money to buy this stuff. Here’s my card,'” she said.
After pimps home in on their targets, and turn on the charm, they typically begin to groom them and pretend to be their boyfriend or a protective figure, even urging the girl to call him “Daddy,” according to a glossary of terms on the desk of Patel, the federal prosecutor in Bridgeport.
“The pimp will say, ‘Let me be the daddy you never had. I’ll take care of you, I’ll protect you,” von Oy said.
They’ll take the girls out to dinner, treat them to manicures and hair appointments and buy them new clothes.
“They act like Prince Charming or the amazing boyfriend,'” von Oy said. “They start out as a friend or start out as a boyfriend and then it moves on to control and isolation.”
“They’ll say, ‘I want to spend time with you. Don’t hang out with your friends,'” von Oy said.
Soon thereafter, they will ask the girls to have sex with other men, saying, ‘if you love me you’ll do this,’ said Patel.
“I was thinking he was my boyfriend, thinking he loved me. One day he punched me in the face as hard as he could. And he said, ‘You’re gonna make my money’,” “For me, it was seduction,” said Tanee Hobson, 22, in a recent phone interview.
Hobson was recruited into the Boston sex trafficking scene at the age of 14.
Pimps manipulate and control the girls in two primary ways: They get them addicted to drugs or alcohol, or beat them, a brutal tactic known as “gorilla pimping.”
One pimp Patel built a case against was New York-based Corey Davis. Prosecutors allege that he kept a new pair of Timberland boots in his car that he would put on and use to stomp a prostitute. One time, angry that one of his victims had become inebriated while working at a Bridgeport strip club, he sliced her with a box cutter from the top of her head to her shoulder, a wound that required 10 staples and eight stitches to close, according to court documents.
Hobson, the Boston-based victim, said her pimp beat her regularly with a baseball bat, leaving her with a metal plate in her hip. She said she was required to earn a certain amount of money and if she didn’t, she was beaten. Sometimes she was beaten for no reason.
Pimps also coerce their victims by using blackmail, threatening to expose a video they’d gotten the girl to do on a webcam. Or they may withhold food or threaten to go after the child’s family, saying he knows where they live and will go after her little sister.
Hobson said she still loved her pimp despite the beatings, comparing it to a domestic violence relationship. She said she lived for his apologies and the attention that always came after the beatings.
“For me, not having my family and people around me, I really wanted that person to love me, to tell me I was beautiful. It was worth being raped and beaten if I could hear him say that he loved me, he cared for me,” Hobson said.
The Pimp Bible
The typical pimp today often looks like he stepped right out of the movies, with lots of bling, earrings and a flashy, expensive car. Davis, for example, had several Mercedes Benzes and wore a $91,000 Jacob and Co. watch, Patel said.
“I really do feel like they come out of central casting,” the prosecutor said.
Oftentimes, they’ve learned about pimping in prison where they are serving time for other crimes, she said. The book “Pimp,” by Robert Beck, also known as Iceberg Slim, is a hot commodity in prison cells. Readers of this book quickly discover that it’s far more profitable and less risky to sell girls than drugs or weapons.
On an average night, a Connecticut pimp can make anywhere from $250 to $1,500 per girl, Patel said, adding, “It’s so much more risk-free than dealing drugs.”
Generally, the pimps advertise their prostitutes online at sites such as backpage, craigslist, cityvibe and Facebook. The ads sometimes include a photo of the girl in a provocative pose with a description and a fake name and a phone number. The woman who picks up the phone is usually the pimp’s “bottom” — code name for his top prostitute — who sets up the “date.”
The johns — or clients — come from all walks of life.
“Some of them are middle class, some are upper class. They’re often married men, sometimes police or officials,” said Marji Vitale, who counsels survivors of sex trafficking at the Bridge Family Center in West Hartford. The Superbowl and the national Democratic and Republican conventions are particularly popular times, she said.
“The mind-set for the man is that she wants it. And they think that she is of age,” Vitale said.
It is not known how many children are engaged in prostitution in the U.S. The FBI, in a March 2011 report, estimated that 293,000 American youths are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. State officials are aware of one sex slave case where the child was brought to Connecticut from another country.
A 2002 report by the Congressional Research Service said there were thought to be 50,000 sex slaves in the United States, most of whom were women and children. The report called it one of the “fastest growing” crimes, linking it, in part, to organzied crime.
“We really need to shine a light on this problem — there is work to be done,” Katz said. “I don’t feel it’s gotten the attention it deserves.”
Next story: Very few pimps and johns ever get arrested. DCF reports that for every 50 prostitutes arrested, one John is charged. Prosecutors often rely on a victim willing to testify, a huge challenge with these abused children.
See the first story in this series: