Gone Girls: Human Trafficking on the Home Front

In the struggle to eradicate child prostitution in Los Angeles, a new strategy is offering hope: compassion for those being bought and sold
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In addition to Vanessa, about 19 kids stood in front of Pratt that day to discuss their cases. Some were probation violators who’d been plucked from the street; some were making mandatory appearances, either on their own recognizance or in a county-issue jumpsuit. One girl, Tracey*, was absent. As the clerks and court-appointed lawyers quietly discussed her case, Allison Newcombe sat in the juror’s seat beside me. A 2013 UCLA law school grad, Newcombe is an attorney with the Alliance for Children’s Rights who helps the court with legal advocacy through a fellowship with the L.A. law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. She said Tracey had first been charged with prostitution two years ago, at age 13, and has been cycling between the courtroom, foster care, and group homes ever since. She’s AWOL’d no fewer than four times. “There’s a green light on her,” Newcombe added. “That means her pimp has put the word out that she’s up for grabs.” Should anyone have wanted to beat, rape, or sell Tracey, they were free to do so.

Another girl insisted to Pratt that she was out of the game, despite the new tattoo on her cheek. One kid listened as her Spanish-speaking father, communicating through a court-appointed interpreter, said that his daughter was a bad influence on her younger brother. The teen shot back that he was rarely home, unemployed, and a heavy drinker. Pratt gave a shy girl a copy of Rachel Lloyd’s Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, a child-sex-trafficking memoir. Kathy*, a white 16-year-old, wanted to switch juvenile facilities because the gang activity in her current situation made her uncomfortable. “I have nightmares,” she said.

“Me, too,” Pratt replied. “I hate that.”

After reviewing the girl’s file, Pratt said she’d put her on the waiting list for a new facility, and the girl shrieked with joy. Once Pratt had made everything official for the court clerks, she stood up, looked at Kathy, and said, “Now come here. I want a hug.” Before they embraced by the judge’s bench, Kathy glanced over her shoulder at the bailiff and joked, “You’re not gonna pepper-spray me, are you?”


THE ADVOCATE

The unmarked offices of Saving Innocence are located in an old bungalow on a Hollywood street lined with gummy sidewalks and faded dingbat apartments. Inconspicuousness, says the nonprofit’s founder, Kim Biddle, was intentional. “This is a place where girls can come to feel safe and get off the streets,” she told me when I visited. Thirty-four, with thick blond locks, jeans, and a T-shirt fashionably torn in the ’80s mold, Biddle was finishing a meeting with two law enforcement officers, one from the FBI and the other from the LAPD; she trains members of both agencies in how to identify, talk to, and deal with sexually exploited minors. The newly rented space was barely furnished, and the living room floor was piled high with toys, colorful blankets, and a giant teddy bear. Before founding Saving Innocence, Biddle worked abroad for nonprofits that aim to end child slavery. Sitting in a small bedroom that serves as her office and conference room, she talked about her return to L.A. and the social work program at USC, in which she focused on homeless youths before graduating with a master’s degree in 2010. “I kept hearing the same story I’d heard over and over in places like Kenya,” she said, “about 13-year-old girls being offered a better life—shelter, money, whatever it is,” and ultimately paying for it with sex. “The kids didn’t realize what was being done to them.” Part of Biddle’s graduate research required her to give homeless youths a questionnaire, which included a question about whether they’d ever engaged in prostitution. Most answered no. But Biddle had heard anecdotes to the contrary, so she revised the question, using the criteria for human trafficking as stated in federal law: “Have you ever exchanged sex for anything of monetary value, such as money, shelter, food, or drugs?” The kids opened up, and Biddle established Saving Innocence the same year.

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Michelle Guymon supervises L.A. County probation officers handling the cases of sexually exploited kids. Photograph by Maarten de Boer.

Photograph by Maarten de Boer

Biddle’s team of nine women provides a long list of services to girls who have been sexually exploited. If law enforcement officers arrest a minor on prostitution charges or believe a youth apprehended for another offense is being trafficked, Saving Innocence will dispatch an “empowerment advocate” to meet with the girl and begin long-term case management. The priority is to persuade the child not to go back to her pimp, but Saving Innocence works with the probation department and the DCFS to find housing, counseling, and schools as well as see to it that she has a safe place to land beyond jail or foster care. Additionally, the organization holds educational seminars, helps families of victims, and works with “survivors,” the term for girls who’ve gotten out of the game for good. A member of the group is at Commissioner Pratt’s STAR Court each Tuesday.

Saving Innocence is funded by Commissioner Pratt’s Department of Justice grant and by a separate three-year, $350,000-per-year grant that the DOJ awarded to the L.A. County Juvenile Probation Department’s Placement Services Bureau, which is run by Michelle Guymon. A 25-year veteran of the agency, Guymon supervises the probation officers who handle the cases of kids who’ve been sexually exploited. She also coordinates services provided by Saving Innocence and oversees the national “My Life, My Choice” program, among others, which educates foster kids and other youths who are vulnerable to traffickers. “I always worked with young women from 13 to 18 who were arrested for prostitution,” said the gray-haired 52-year-old, without stopping to breathe. “But I used to make a judgment about who they were.” In 2010, Guymon was assigned to work with a committee studying the sex trafficking of minors. “I couldn’t make the connection,” she went on. “I thought sex trafficking was for other countries. But eventually I realized that the girls here were the same as the girls over there. I’ve done a disservice,” she said, her voice slowing to an unexpected crawl. “Now that I know better, I have to do better.”

Apart from the funding she provides Saving Innocence, Guymon refers contract work to a 29-year-old survivor named Jessica Midkiff, who provides similar one-on-one services to exploited minors. When we met at a diner in Van Nuys, Jessica had brought along Allison Newcombe, from the Alliance for Children’s Rights, and Kristina Fitz, another 29-year-old survivor, who works for Biddle at Saving Innocence. Though she’s been featured in a short documentary and interviewed by other journalists, Jessica remains profoundly uneasy talking about herself. Over burgers and fries, she and Kristina discussed any number of things—except their experiences. A fog of discomfort seemed to hang around us, and each time I spoke, I felt as though I could blow the interview with so much as a blink. Whether it was real or imagined, both women seemed undecided about me, a male in his forties who for all I know might resemble a hundred of the johns they had serviced while walking the blade. I left with an empty notebook. The meeting confirmed what Kim Biddle had told me a few weeks earlier. “Girls and women who’ve been in the game have suffered a lot,” she said. “Some have PTSD, and others want to move on. It’s going to be very hard for you to find people who will really open up.” When I asked her if she’d be willing to introduce me to underage girls she’s currently working with, the answer was a resounding no.


 THE PIMP

There are two kinds of people who sell females, at least at this level of the game. A guerrilla pimp is the type who doesn’t bother to seduce. Michelle*, a 19-year-old, told me that when she was 16, a pimp ordered her into his car and declared, “You my ho now.” He took away her phone, kept her at his apartment, and put her to work for five days before she managed to make contact with her family. (The case is still open, so Michelle declined to provide more details.) On the other hand, a Romeo pimp is the sweet-talking dude who woos and charms, then withholds his affection to make his girls long for approval. The way Suawvay turned out Alexis—that was textbook Romeo pimping.

Suawvay wasn’t expecting my visit, but he didn’t seem surprised when I showed up to introduce myself at Men’s Central Jail. His real name is James Junior Conley. Moonfaced and stout, he lacked the charm or looks one might expect of a person in his line of work. Wearing a short-sleeved blue jumpsuit with a long-sleeved white waffle shirt underneath, he seemed like a frumpy middle-school teacher. Jail garb has a way of doing that, but it reminded me of something Lieutenant Dawson had said about pimps when we toured the tracks: “If you want to see Huggy Bear or the guy in a fur coat and big hat, you’re not gonna find him.” Later that night Dawson proved his point. Driving past a knot of young black men hanging out in a liquor store parking lot, he said, “That’s them. The pimps.” Dressed in baggy jeans, T-shirts, and ball caps, they could have passed for extras from a hip-hop video. As to why a bunch of competitors would be hanging out together, said Dawson, pimps sell a renewable commodity, which makes for a friendlier entrepreneurial arena. That night Dawson told me that many pimps are gang members or have “close gang connections.” But, he explained, “they don’t do it to advance the gang per se.” Pimping on the side, he said, boosts their credibility.

“Gathering girls to testify is difficult. They’ve been betrayed by adults of all kinds—pimps, parents, caregivers. They can’t trust adults.”

Prosecutors couldn’t establish a solid gang affiliation in Conley’s case, but he’d served time in prison for violating probation on a 2001 conviction of intent to commit rape. In 2012, he’d been stopped on South Figueroa on suspicion of pimping; a streetside search of his cell phone and text messages led to his arrest. A month before my visit Conley had been tried and convicted on nine felony counts, including pimping and pandering a minor, committing a lewd act upon a child, and human trafficking of a minor. He pimped Alexis for about a year and half in L.A., brought her to Las Vegas to try business there, and hit her on several occasions. He forced her to get a second tattoo of his name. When she was pregnant with Conley’s child, he threw her to the ground and punched her in the stomach repeatedly, calling her a “bunch of bitches.” Alexis lost the baby.

Nicole*, who served as another witness, met Conley when she was 17 at a dive motel in Compton, where Conley and a friend of hers had been partying. She’d worked the tracks around L.A. County—from Sepulveda Boulevard, in Van Nuys, to Figueroa Street and Compton Boulevard. Nicole says that at the motel Conley got high on meth and lost his temper, shouting that he’d hurt her if she didn’t go and make him $300. Nicole walked the streets and was swiftly arrested. She eventually landed in Commissioner Pratt’s STAR Court, straightened up, and left the game.

Speaking by phone through six inches of soundproof safety glass at Men’s Central, Conley said, “I’m glad you came. I didn’t do any of the things I’m accused of doing.” According to Conley, his case was an example of an ambitious prosecutor trying to make numbers and a court-appointed “public pretender” who didn’t have his client’s best interests at heart. Conley said he had been “singled out, or mistaken for another guy.” He said that his nickname wasn’t even Suawvay and pushed up his sleeves to show that the moniker wasn’t tattooed on his heavily inked forearms. Without prompting, Conley claimed he’d never met Nicole. Was it possible he didn’t remember her because he was tweaking on meth the night they met? No, he said. He’d never been to the motel or, for that matter, used the drug. When I mentioned Alexis, he shook his head as if he were disappointed. He met her on a party line, he admitted, but he said there was no relationship—she was merely a groupie at clubs where he DJ’d. Before too long, time was up. The phones shut off; the words rolling off Conley’s lips were snuffed out by the soundproof glass. Less than a month later he was sentenced to 36 years in state prison, with the possibility of parole after serving at least 80 percent of his term.

Few proceedings go quite so well for prosecutors. Another recent case involved James Beavers, a member of the East Coast Crips (meaning east of the 110 freeway). Otherwise known as “Cream”—the same guy Dawson had told me about who’d branded a pregnant 14-year-old—Beavers was caught selling a minor for sex. But before a jury could decide his fate, he accepted a 12-year sentence in state prison.

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LAPD Lieutenant Andre Dawson with a photo of a tool (at left) used to beat girls and another of girls bearing their pimp’s name. Photograph by Lauren Greenfield/Institute.

“These kinds of cases can be very difficult because we don’t often catch them in the act,” said Jennifer Zepeda, the prosecuting attorney in Conley’s trial. “Hard evidence of this kind of criminal activity is very difficult to come by.” Without the testimony of girls like Alexis, Nicole, and Felicia—the kid responsible for Pratt’s revelation—cases involving traffickers can be impossible to build. “Gathering girls to testify is difficult,” Zepeda said. “They’ve been betrayed by adults of all kinds—pimps, parents, caregivers. They can’t trust adults, and the detectives have to develop a rapport with them, which is not easy. Getting girls into the courtroom isn’t a stumbling block. It’s a boulder.”

As of June such cases are being directed to the L.A. County D.A.’s new Human Trafficking Unit, a team of lawyers with special training in prosecuting pimps who trade in children. Dispersed among the county’s courthouses, deputy district attorneys report to the same boss and share a recently created database meant to make information more available and, as a team member explained, “lessen the chances of things falling through the cracks.”


THE POLITICIAN

During a nasty rainstorm last April, Los Angeles County supervisor Don Knabe arrived with staffers at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the White House. Knabe—whose district includes Long Beach and neighboring communities where children are sold for sex on the streets—visits the capital each year with other supervisors to speak with members of Congress. “This is when we thank them for all the other things they’ve helped fund,” Knabe told me from a leather armchair in the dim lobby. “We also say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’d love to come back and thank you again.’ ”

Seventy-one, ruddy-faced, and jowly, Knabe was readying for a morning press conference to raise awareness about—and funding to combat—the commercial sexual exploitation of children. He knew virtually nothing about the problem until Commissioner Pratt and Michelle Guymon brought it to his attention when they began applying for their DOJ grants. “I was just horrified,” he said. “I have grandchildren that age. I was stunned that it was in my own backyard.” The two women had made the trip as well—paid for out of their own budgets—to attend the event. More important, they were in D.C. to consult on a public service announcement and to seek more federal funding. Both of their grants were set to expire at the end of this year.

As members of the media trickled out of the elevator, Knabe told me about the time one of Guymon’s probation officers was speaking to him and received a message that a ten-year-old had been arrested for prostitution. “This is repulsive!” he said at the recollection, contempt in his eyes. The supervisor, known for his grip-and-grin political charm, persuaded Clear Channel and Lamar Advertising to donate billboard space for two ad campaigns, which can be seen on L.A. buses, rail lines, and throughout South L.A. One billboard shows a shadowy image of a girl at a crowded train station and reads, “Sexually trafficked children are hiding in plain sight.” Another shows a neatly made child’s bed with two teddy bears and says, “Teens sold for sex aren’t prostitutes. They’re rape victims.”

Knabe has been a vocal supporter of California legislation introduced by Republican state senator Bob Huff, of Diamond Bar, and Democrat Ted Lieu, of Torrance. Their “War on Child Sex Trafficking” package consists of bills that would make it easier for law enforcement agencies to obtain wiretap warrants on suspected pimps and list pimping as an official gang activity, since pimps often have gang affiliations and sentences can be stiffened for crimes committed by members. Consequently Governor Jerry Brown this year created a CSEC budget of $5 million, which will go toward training and services; next year that budget will jump to $14 million. At the federal level Knabe has been a point man for Democratic Representative Karen Bass, whose district encompasses several South L.A. County neighborhoods, and for Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe, both of whom are pushing tough-on-trafficking legislation.

Jessica couldn’t recall whether he left money or a bag of groceries, but the precedent had been set for an adolescence spent selling her body.

Knabe had brought Jessica Midkiff, the survivor I’d met at the diner in L.A., to D.C. for the press conference. After the supervisor spoke, she took the microphone and addressed the 30 or so reporters in the room. Choking back her nervousness, she said, “I was exploited beginning at the age of 11 and was arrested several times across the United States before the age of 21. For a lot of young women like me, trauma began at an early age. Before the commercial sexual exploitation, abuse was a major factor in most of our childhoods. In my case, I was raped, beaten, and mentally abused from 3 to 11 years old by a number of men.” She made no effort to conceal the blot of ink on her neck, the indecipherable result of one pimp’s tattoo being covered by another’s over the course of a decade. She spoke of the violence and coercion, the desperation and loneliness that victims suffer, the cruelty of pimps and the ubiquity of johns. “Our buyers can be members of law enforcement, doctors, lawyers, and business owners,” Jessica said. “Why would anybody believe us?” One of her johns, she added, was an administrator at a school she attended “who followed, stalked, and harassed me to get into his car” when he was “in his forties and I was only 14 years old.”

During the Q&A afterward, a reporter asked what Jessica or her pimps charged for their services. She demurred at first. Asked again a few minutes later, she reluctantly said, “It starts at 50 dollars and moves its way up to a couple hundred and even thousands. The younger the child, the higher the cost.” The audience let out a collective groan.

After the press conference, Jessica sat down with me at a café to talk more about living the life. She described the men who touched her, the way her mother refused to hear about it. Things got even worse after a man from the neighborhood came knocking on her door when she was 11.

Is your mother home?

No.

Girl, you’re too cute to be lookin’ so raggedy.

Jessica couldn’t recall whether he left money or a bag of groceries, but it didn’t matter. The precedent had been set for an adolescence spent selling her body to strangers who gave her money and material things but could never give her the love and attention she was really searching for.

Recounting those years to me, Jessica seemed as though she were about to break down; the memories were harrowing enough, and she explained that one of her pimps was about to be released from prison. Still, she managed to tell me about a day in sixth grade when she wanted to go to church “so God could save my soul.” Her mother said no, and Jessica left the house in a tantrum. She’d made it only a few blocks when a man drove up and offered her a ride. She climbed in, he passed her a drink, and away they went to some derelict motel where another guy, about 19, and a girl, maybe 16, were partying. They gave Jessica drink after drink. She remembers little besides waking up in the motel’s bathtub, which was filled with lukewarm water and the bilious contents of her stomach.

This was as far as Jessica could take the conversation. Her pain was palpable. “I’m sorry,” she said, excusing herself. Then she exited the café, walking outside into the downpour.

By this point Supervisor Knabe and his aides were on their way to Capitol Hill, where they’d try to bring the issue to anyone with power who would listen. In another part of the café Pratt and Guymon were preparing for a long day in the capital. They were hopeful that their grantors at the Department of Justice would sign on for an additional three-year commitment to help STAR Court and the probation department prevent underage girls from being bought and sold for sex.

It didn’t go well. Both were denied funding, and they left D.C. unsure of how to keep their programs running.

*Her name has been changed due to privacy and safety concerns.


This feature originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine. Mike Kessler wrote about the mountain lions of Los Angeles in the November 2013 issue. It has been updated for accuracy.

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