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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘The public would be shocked’: Nonprofits see teen victims, while authorities focus on sex trade

A #SaveOur Children sign on the Interstate 90 Altamont pedestrian overpass, shown Thursday.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When Homeland Security agents posted their first phony online advertisement for child sex to draw out pedophiles in the Spokane area, they received so many inquiries their server shut down.

The influx of responses in 2016 forced agents to pause that operation and regroup, said Homeland Security Investigations spokesperson Tanya Roman. The ad received more than 100 replies in its first two hours up, Roman said.

Today, federal and local law enforcement say they don’t have solid statistics on the prevalence of sex trafficking in Spokane. But Aaron Tilbury, founder of Spokane nonprofit the Jonah Project, said his organization has helped rescue and stabilize 300 victims of trafficking, almost all in their teens.

Most people selling sex in Spokane don’t keep the money they make said. It goes straight to pimps.

He described most trafficking victims as impoverished and powerless minors in relationships with pimps that amount to slavery. Homeland agents estimate the average age of a trafficking victim in Spokane is 13 to 14, while Tilbury estimates 15 to 17.

Sgt. Kip Hollenbeck, who heads up Spokane Police Department’s sex trafficking unit, sees a very different landscape in Spokane’s sex business.

Hollenbeck estimates the average age of a prostitute in Spokane at about 30. He said some three out of four people selling sex in Spokane are independent, meaning they keep their own money and don’t work through a pimp.

Many prostitutes in this category may have started as trafficked teens, he said, but then decided to work on their own. Sometimes they choose sex work when they find they can make significantly more money than working for minimum wage, he said.

FBI agents, who work with SPD, sees similar trends.

“We’re not seeing hundreds of juveniles being trafficked in our city, and we’ve got people whose full-time job is to look for that,” said Christian Parker, the FBI’s supervisory special agent in Spokane. “It’s something that’s out there every day, but it is a finite pool. It’s not endless.”

The FBI doesn’t monitor sex trafficking statistics in Spokane, Parker said, but local nonprofits’ estimates that the vast majority of people trafficking sex are basically enslaved are “nothing like what we’re seeing.”

Yet, Hollenbeck said, “the public would be shocked,” by how large the sex industry is in Spokane and worldwide.

Local nonprofits and federal and local law enforcement agree on what sex trafficking does not look like in Spokane: teenage girls being kidnapped by strangers.

While sex trafficking does happen, law enforcement said, the conspiracies peddled about mass sex trafficking are wrong. While federal agents and Hollenbeck said national and international sex trafficking pipelines exist and do bring trafficking to the Pacific Northwest, the vast majority of trafficking in Spokane is run by smaller operations, usually local gangs.

Sometimes, financially desperate parents traffic their own children more than the public might expect, Roman said.

Hollenbeck estimated the average trafficker in Spokane manages about one to three victims, usually out of a single house where they may also sell drugs. Certain businesses, like massage parlors and hotels, may be venues for trafficking, but brothels are largely things of the past as sex trafficking has moved online, he said.

Dramatic claims of women or girls kidnapped and chained up in basements are also false, Hollenbeck said. Victims may be trapped in sex work, but that trap is their dependence on drugs, money, food and shelter.

“Traffickers aren’t sneaking into your home in the night and stealing your teen daughter from her bed,” Hollenbeck said.

Most trafficking victims grow up in poverty and oftentimes are homeless, said Tilbury, of the Jonah Project.

“Victims typically come from a difficult home,” he said. “Maybe it’s one parent who loves the crap out of them but is working three jobs and isn’t around.”

But other young girls can be manipulated into trafficking too, Tilbury said.

“In reality it’s a cheerleader with a B average. Maybe she goes to a party and does something one time she’d be embarrassed about and they say ‘Do this or we’re sending this video to your youth group.’ ”

If a victim isn’t already addicted to drugs when they meet a pimp, they often become hooked through the process of dating a trafficker and being “groomed.”

A pimp will often stalk someone using social media.

He’ll then approach her, often near her school, with compliments.

“When he walks up he already knows this young lady’s favorite band is Pearl Jam and she’s home alone a lot and her friend is more popular,” Tilbury said. “At this point, it’s just seeing if she’ll go to Starbucks, it’s not a van with duct tape.”

The grooming includes affection and attention and then gifts – and when trust is established, free drugs.

“Grooming” is the gradual process of creating a dependency on the trafficker and slowly chipping away at a victim’s boundaries. Gifts and dependence become leverage for traffickers to wield over their victims, Tilbury said.

“Grooming is another way of saying, how is the leverage applied?” he said. “It’s a gradual erosion of things she would’ve said ‘no’ to before, and now she’ll say ‘yes’ out of love.”

When the proposition of selling sex arrives, it’s usually guised as a one-off act, rather than a new way of life.

“He’ll say, ‘By the way, this Audi I’m picking you up in from school every day, the payments are expensive. But my buddy Billy said if you do something with him this one time, he’ll make the car payment this month,’ ” Tilbury said.

Once this relationship has developed, Hollenbeck finds most victims of trafficking develop serious mental health issues and drug addictions. What follows is threats, violence and more drugs.

To dismantle an underground economy based on selling sex, Homeland Security and the FBI look at different sides of the coin.

Homeland agents focus on slowing the demand for sex trafficking. Homeland agents have arrested roughly 40 suspected pedophiles in the Spokane area per year in recent years with an average of 15 to 20 arrests per operation.

Spokane police and the FBI focus more on finding the pimps, who can be difficult to prosecute. Spokane police made 28 such arrests in 2019, with 28 ongoing investigations that continued in 2020.

Due to victims’ trauma, fear of retaliation, financial dependency and entanglement in gangs, they are often unreliable witnesses, Hollenbeck said. It is rare a victim wants to go to trial to testify.

The Jonah Project includes victim advocates like Michelina Cozzetto, a student at Whitworth, who are simply there to listen and help with small tasks.

Cozzetto has befriended 15 trafficking victims. She and a victim will spend time just talking, working on homework together, running basic errands, or walking through a pet store to self-soothe on a hard day.

Because some helpers like Cozzetto aren’t accredited, police aren’t always able to direct victims to groups like the Jonah Project, Hollenbeck said.

“I’m frustrated because I feel like we could do more,” Hollenbeck said. “I could use victim advocates to come and manage the victims. You can’t expect a detective to handle a victim.”

Another barrier to ending trafficking is soft consequences for the men who pay for sex, Hollenbeck said.

While many people ignore trafficking, Hollenbeck said, others try to bring attention to it in the wrong way by painting dramatic pictures of kidnapped women in chains.

“It’s seen as a victimless crime by so many,” added Tilbury. “People say this is just the ramifications of the choices this woman made. … We’re not giving them a chance to be victims.”