Seeking Justice For Victims, Sex Traffickers

Jan 7, 2014

Law enforcement used to see criminal transactions out in the open, but the relatively unregulated internet affords an online realm of shadowy deals and illegal trade. SDPB continues this week’s series examining sex trafficking in South Dakota with a look at how authorities identify and prosecute sex crimes.

Sioux Falls takes pride in being the state’s biggest city, but that banner can’t extinguish the downsides of more people in a small area. Sioux Falls Police Officer Sam Clemens says investigators in the street crimes unit focus on unsavory activities. 

"I don’t think that they’ve ever run across an ad that they’ve answered that hasn’t led to prostitution. Anytime that they have contact, there’s some type of arrest that’s made: the guy for pimping or human trafficking or the woman for prostitution," Clemens says. "So it’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel. I mean, anytime these guys want to make an arrest, they can literally make an arrest, because there’s that much of it going on."

The ads on the internet call them escort services, but these people are selling more than time. Officers use specific jargon – words, phrases and abbreviations that are the lingo of illegal sales.   

Sioux Falls Police officers are cracking down on sex crimes. Last year, law enforcement made 45 prostitution arrests. Clemens says that’s triple the number of arrests from the year before. Back in 2006, police made just one arrest for prostitution.

"Having higher arrest numbers makes it kind of look bad, like there’s a big problem. But, to be honest, the problem’s been there. We just haven’t had the time or resources to try to deal with that," Clemens says.

A new federal, state and local task force supports a focus on discouraging sex crimes. By the numbers, prostitution is a problem. And even more worrisome than people willingly selling sex is that sometimes the prostitutes are victims who are trapped. Clemens says investigators discovered one man who coerced a woman to travel to Sioux Falls from another state to party.

"Once they got here, he had her driver’s license. He had her cell phone. He had all of her money, and he forced her to prostitute herself and was keeping the proceeds from that, essentially telling her she needed to pay him money before he would take her back home to Wisconsin," Clemens says.  

Authorities rescued the woman. The man named Thomas Roberts has pleaded not guilty to charges. Roberts is one of two people in 2013 Sioux Falls police arrested for human trafficking or commercial sex acts. Two is inarguably a small number, but previous years list zero arrests for sex trafficking. Clemens says new laws and training help officers identify situations of human trafficking when they go undercover and pretend to be interested in buying sex.

"Once they get in there, that’s when that investigation begins," Clemens says. "Then we find out, ‘Hey, are you doing this willingly? Is there a reason you’re doing this? Can we help you get out of a particular situation? Is there somebody that’s above you? Is there somebody that’s nearby that we can offer protection and get you to a shelter or something?’"

Whether it is population or its proximity to two major interstates, whether it’s a final stop or a pause as people pass through on the way to a bigger city, Sioux Falls is a major destination for sex crimes compared to the rest of the state.

Something about the city got Brandon Thompson’s attention. He moved to Sioux Falls from Chicago. United States Attorney Brendan Johnson says Thompson had a horrifying business.

"He started recruiting teenage girls for a commercial sex trafficking ring. And the way he did this is similar to the way that a pedophile would groom their victim. He was initially very kind to the girls. He would spend money on them. He would buy them dinner, give them a place to stay if they needed a place to stay, often times giving them alcohol or drugs," Johnson says. "Then he would say to the girls, ‘Well, look, let’s make a little money together.’"

Johnson calls this homegrown trafficking – criminals luring South Dakota girls into the sex trade. Johnson says Thompson would inflict brutal violence on his victims. He would threaten them and their families. The overwhelming fear kept the girls from escaping Thompson’s sex trafficking ring. Thompson was convicted of human trafficking, and he’s serving life in prison. But the US Attorney says he isn’t the only abuser.

"When you look at the number of girls that we’ve had affected just in the Sioux Falls area, because that’s where most of our victims have come from, you’re talking about close to 100 victims," Johnson says. 

Brendan Johnson says the exploited women are already vulnerable; they’re people with nowhere else to go.

"Frankly, it’s not typically the honor student getting ready to go to college who falls into the human trafficking ring," Johnson says. "Most often the victims of human trafficking that we’ve seen, their ages range from 14 to 30. They often are battling substance abuse problems. They have alcohol or drug addictions. Often times they’re homeless; they’re runaways. Some have been expelled from school."

Johnson says communities don’t notice or remember those people living on the fringes of society. That’s one of the reasons he’s formed a task force to connect levels of government on cases of sex trafficking. A collaborative effort can only help investigators, who usually encounter resistance from women caught trying to sell sex.

"So many of these victims do not want to talk to law enforcement," Johnson says. "They are hostile to law enforcement. And part of that, I think, is the idea that they’re scared to death of the person who’s been running this ring, and they feel like, if they talk to us and we don’t do anything about it but the pimp finds out, they’re in for a very, very difficult time."

Johnson says abusers train them to think officers want to arrest victims, and the fear is paralyzing. But with proper treatment and compassion, Johnson says authorities can destroy those lies; that’s when women can be rescued. When the terror turns into empowerment, victims of sex trafficking are inspired to testify in court about the abuses they’ve overcome. That, they hope, prevents others from enduring the same torture.