Oregon inquiry finds over 100 girls and women trafficked

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Oregon inquiry finds over 100 girls and women trafficked

Postby sam » Mon Apr 02, 2012 9:20 am

http://www .registerguard.com/web/newslocalnews/27803707-41/eugene-trafficking-spriggs-sex-girls.html.csp

Local girls escorted to seamy side of life
A three-year inquiry finds more than 100 females working in the sex trade
By Karen McCowan
The Register-Guard, Apr 2, 2012
Eugene FBI agent Mick Fennerty spent three years investigating a prostitution ring that preyed on young girls, some of them recruited at LTD’s Eugene Station.

It began three years ago with a frantic mother’s cry for help.

The Eugene woman had worried about her daughter, “Sonya,” for months. Long a shy, pudgy girl whose social life revolved around her church youth group, her circle of friends had changed. The mother, who tried to keep close tabs on her 17-year-old, monitored Sonya and her new friends on MySpace and Facebook.

She was disturbed by what she saw.

“There were these compromising pictures with other girls,” recounted the woman, who asked not to be named to protect her daughter’s privacy. “They were dolling themselves up and trying to be seductive.”

Sonya began losing weight rapidly and blowing off curfews. Her mother, a recovering addict, suspected drug use.

Then her husband, Sonya’s stepfather, picked up a phone extension on April 7, 2009, and heard the teen talking to one of her new friends, a 14-year-old boy she had met in downtown Eugene.

“He was telling her, ‘I have some work for you, and it involves money and dates,’ ” the mother recounted. “When she tried to leave to go meet him, we said, ‘You’re not going anywhere!’ And she said, ‘I hate you! I have a new life now and these people treat me good.’ She walked out the door, and I just died inside.”

The woman immediately drove to the Eugene Police Department to report Sonya as a runaway being lured into prostitution.

Two detectives — Curt Newell and Jeff Drullinger — showed up at her house that same day, the woman recalled. She had no idea that the officers had begun working recently with the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force to investigate pimps’ use of Internet sites to advertise underage Oregon girls for commercial sex acts.

As the mother told them her story, she got a phone call from her adult son, whom she’d asked to help find Sonya. He’d heard that his sister was headed to a Springfield motel with a pimp.

Newell and Drullinger rushed to the Gateway area motel, requesting Augustus “Mick” Fennerty, Oregon’s FBI Crimes Against Children agent, to join them.

Fennerty’s FBI history included solving the 2002 kidnapping of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart. He then became supervising agent at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children during development of the agencies’ Innocence Lost program, which combats the growing problem of sex trafficking of U.S. children.

After Drullinger spotted a girl matching Sonya’s description entering a third-floor room at the motel, the three investigators went to the room and knocked on the door. Inside, they found Sonya and another girl with an 18-year-old man and a 14-year-old male associate.

Sonya told the Eugene detectives that she was indeed being “prostituted out” by the adult. The other girl, just 14, told them she’d been trafficked out of the hotel for more than two months.

On the national radar

The bust was the initial thread that led the local officers to unravel what became the largest child sex trafficking case in the country in 2009, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The case uncovered more than 100 Eugene area women and children working as prostitutes, using online commercial sex ads. It led to the recovery of nine underage trafficking victims — one barely 14. And it led to the arrests of 43 people — pimps, johns and adult prostitutes — by the Eugene vice detectives.

The case culminated three weeks ago with the sentencing of 29-year-old Springfield pimp Stanley Spriggs to nearly 16 years in federal prison for leading a criminal trafficking enterprise.

Cell phones and documents seized in that Gateway area motel room led investigators to Internet ads in which Spriggs, his associates and other pimps posted sultry photos and come-hither messages to advertise the underage girls. (“I’m a cute little thing with quite a dirty mind,” read one of the tamer ads. “I live for pleasure and love to fulfill fantasies.”)

It was one of the cases used successfully by the FBI to pressure craigs­list, the online advertising website, to stop accepting “erotic services” ads — although other sites continue to do so, Fenner­ty said.

And it led the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to honor Newell with a national award for his ability to “build rapport and trust with the minors,” persuading them to provide information and court testimony to help convict their exploiters.

A homegrown menace

For many people, the term “human trafficking” conjures images of kidnapped Asian or Eastern European women being shipped overseas in freight containers. As the local case shows, however, it also can be pimps preying on vulnerable kids in their own hometowns.

Consider this account by one of Spriggs’ victims, “Carmen,” who spoke recently to The Register-Guard by telephone. Now 20 years old, she did not want her name published because she still fears Spriggs and his associates.

“I was sold to him,” Carmen said of Spriggs.

She was 17, living on the streets of Eugene after losing custody of her 1-year-old daughter because of drug use. To ensure that her child wasn’t placed with strangers, Carmen had moved out of her grandmother’s home so the baby could stay.

On a sidewalk near the Eugene bus station, she was “befriended” by a Spriggs associate who reportedly recruited girls for prostitution in exchange for money or drugs.

One night, she agreed to accompany her new friend to a party. Instead, she said, he took her to a hotel room and delivered her to Spriggs’ top associates, saying, “Here’s your next one.”

Spriggs was in the Lane County Jail that night for an unrelated offense. But he continued the trafficking operation even while behind bars, phoning his girlfriend Sharlise Duckworth from jail to deliver instructions and threats, Fennerty testified at Spriggs’ sentencing.

Carmen told a federal grand jury that she was enticed initially by Duckworth’s offer of food and a warm, dry place to stay — until the woman made it clear that she was expected to work as a prostitute.

“I wanted to leave that first night,” she testified.

But then they introduced her to crystal methamphetamine.

Later, “They told me if I tried to leave, they would kill my daughter, my grandmother and me,” Carmen told the newspaper.

Duckworth and Spriggs’ sister, Hollie Spriggs, both then 26, were meth addicts who themselves worked as prostitutes. But they also were tasked with teaching the trade to underage girls: telling them how to talk on the phone to potential johns and how much to charge — up to $300 an hour.

“They would make you take crystal meth so you could stay awake and work all the time,” Carmen said of the traffickers. “You even had to have sex when you were on your (menstrual) period.”

And not just once or twice a night, but up to 10 or 12 times, she added.

“I don’t know if people can understand what it’s like to have an old man on top of you, and to have to do whatever they want,” she said. “Then, when they’re done, they tell you how you remind them of their daughter.

“It’s disgusting. I have to live with that the rest of my life, and it wasn’t my choice. I hate the person I look at when I look in the mirror.”

Carmen was a lucrative asset for Spriggs, according to court documents. He, Duckworth and Hollie Spriggs jointly were ordered to repay her $22,500 they received for her sex acts in early 2009. That’s an average of more than $220 a day during the 3½ months they pimped her out.

That restitution figure was reached in negotiations with the defense attorneys for the three, but federal prosecutors believe that Carmen actually earned her traffickers far more, based on the rates she fetched and her reported level of activity.

Carmen told Eugene detectives that she sexually serviced at least 50 johns — and several janes — while working for Spriggs. The Eugene detectives reported seizing documents and cell phones containing hundreds of names in the nearly three-year investigation. But none of the johns got prison sentences, and only a handful got jail time for paying underage girls for sex.

A new age of prosecution

The johns got off partly because Oregon law at the time required the state to prove that adults in such cases know they are soliciting sex from someone younger than 18. The 2011 Legislature eliminated that requirement.

Current law states: “It is no defense that the person did not know the minor’s age or that the person reasonably believed the minor to be 18 or older.” People convicted in such cases now face a $10,000 fine for a first offense and a $20,000 fine and mandatory jail time for subsequent convictions.

Although Spriggs was convicted only of trafficking two victims in 2009, the FBI had information that he was pimping underage girls as early as December 2007, Fennerty testified at Spriggs’ sentencing in Portland.

After Salem police recovered a 16-year-old during a February 2008 prostitution bust, Fennerty said FBI agents learned that she had been advertised on craigslist sites in Eugene, Corvallis and Las Vegas.

An informant reported going with Spriggs to the Eugene Airport to buy the teen a plane ticket to Las Vegas so she could perform sex acts for customers there. But that victim would not testify, Fennerty said, so no charges were filed.

After the bust at the Springfield motel, local investigators learned that Spriggs and others also were advertising minors in Bend. Fennerty and the Eugene detectives traveled there and conducted a sting operation with Bend police.

Posing as johns, they scheduled appointments with girls who appeared underage in craigslist ads. They arrested nine people — johns, traffickers and adult prostitutes.

Two Eugene detectives, Newell and Rick Lowe, also traveled to Sacramento to retrieve a runaway trafficking victim so she could testify in the case and get appropriate drug treatment and other services. The officers sometimes cite troubled victims for prostitution in order to get them into juvenile court custody and receive services from the Oregon Youth Authority.

Although they don’t like to do so, for some kids with no family members willing or able to keep them safe, “It’s the only tool we have to protect them from the dangers they face from substance abuse or from meeting up with strange men,” Newell said.

“Sometimes, they’re so messed up that they return to prostitution even after their pimps are in jail,” he said.

Oregon U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall likens the return to prostitution by some trafficked teens to the pattern of domestic violence survivors entering into new relationships with abusive men.

“This stuff is domestic violence on steroids,” she said, noting that both scenarios involve cycles in which one person controls another with power, brainwashing and violence, but also by meeting some of the victim’s needs for attention, acceptance and affection.

Oregon: Sex trade hotbed

Since the launch of the Innocence Lost project in 2003, affiliated task forces have recovered more than 1,800 prostituted children across the country.

Investigations have led to the conviction for trafficking children of more than 800 pimps, madams and their associates. The convictions have resulted in lengthy sentences, including multiple life sentences and the seizure of real property, vehicles and monetary assets.

While no hard statistics are available on the precise number of such cases, Marshall and others believe child sex trafficking is more prevalent in Oregon and along the Interstate 5 corridor than in many other parts of the country. She attributes that in part to the region’s cultural tolerance for teens living on the streets.

In a sentencing memo for Spriggs, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kemp Strickland said research suggests that one in three homeless teens are approached for prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. Marshall also cited Portland’s reputation as a “sex tourism” destination, which she ties to the Oregon Constitution’s free speech provisions limiting government’s ability to restrict sex clubs.

In some of the Oregon cases, familiar patterns emerged. Court testimony, for example, showed that some of the adults convicted in the case had traumatic childhoods that included early exposure to drugs and prostitution.

Gangs have discovered that trafficking in young girls is more lucrative than trafficking in drugs, Marshall said.

“After selling drugs you have to re-up,” she said. “But you can sell the same girl over and over again.”

Survivors of such exploitation have few resources to help them recover, Fennerty and the Eugene detectives say. For that reason, the officers have stayed in touch with many of the young women, trying to offer encouragement and hope.

When Fennerty met with The Register-Guard last week, he had heard twice in the same day from a once-prostituted teen.

Treated as human beings

Carmen said Newell has remained an important sounding board since she moved to a city hundreds of miles from Eugene to make a fresh start.

“He has done so much for me, being there and listening to me,” she said. She said she soon will mark her second anniversary of sobriety from drugs. She is proud to be supporting herself and an infant son with a job at a day care center, and she is in the process of regaining custody of her daughter.

Sonya’s mother said Newell still plays a big role in her daughter’s life, as well.

“He’s a good advocate for the girls,” she said. “He doesn’t make them feel like criminals. He helps them see that they were trapped.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children cited Newell’s skill at building trust and rapport with trafficking victims when it gave him its 2010 National Exploited Children’s Award. The organization said Newell and fellow vice squad members created a model for other midsize police departments conducting such investigations.

The award was quite an honor for the Eugene department’s tiny vice and narcotics squad, which consisted of Newell, Drullinger, Lowe and their sergeant, Kevin McCormick.

Ironically, the city of Eugene last year disbanded the team because of dwindling resources. McCormick was re­assigned to traffic patrol. The detectives were folded into the local Interagency Narcotics Task Force. But all still meet monthly with other local members of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force.

In regard to the national award and his support of exploited girls, Newell, 32, said he was simply “being a real person and treating them like a human being.”

Newell said he hopes the trafficking case is an eye-opener for the community.

“Here we are in little Eugene, Oregon, and we have these major crimes happening to our children,” he said. “Maybe more parents will pay a little more attention to their kids and who they’re hanging out with.”

Sonya’s mother, whose tip set the investigation in motion, said she tried to do that.

She said she set boundaries for her daughter — allowing her to use social media sites only if her mother knew the passwords, for example.

She said she regrets refusing her daughter’s requests for a cell phone, however. Her logic was that Sonya wasn’t yet ready for such independence, that forcing her to share the family’s land line allowed more oversight.

“They gave her one,” the mother said of the traffickers. “It was part of the grooming. It was one of the ways they made her think they cared about her more than we did.”
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