Sweetwater County Sex Trafficking Sting: Ex-Legislator Arrest Just Tip Of The Iceberg

in News/Crime

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Like many other Wyoming communities, Sweetwater County has a problem when it comes to sex trafficking. 

It’s been a long-standing issue, according to Detective Sgt. Michelle Hall with the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO), which is why she initiated a training session and subsequent sting operation last month that led to the arrest of four men, including a former state legislator.

The four-day session was by led by human trafficking detective Joe Scaramucci of Waco, Texas, who is leading the charge nationwide to stamp out trafficking. 

After attending one of Scaramucci’s Wyoming training sessions in December, Hall reached out to the event’s organizer to see about setting up a session in Sweetwater County.

“There is a huge issue with sex trafficking here,” she said. “And there always has been. I attended Scaramucci’s training, and it inspired me to do more.”

Scaramucci’s training session in Rock Springs was organized by Terri Markham, the co-founder of Uprising, a Sheridan non-profit group focused on human trafficking education and outreach.

Both Scaramucci and Markham stress the importance of having law enforcement agencies work with victim advocates and anti-trafficking groups to address the problems by offering its victims the resources they need to escape their traffickers.

Typically, law enforcement agencies work alone on sex trafficking cases, but the Sweetwater County session involved law enforcement and victims’ advocates groups that went on to work together on the sex trafficking sting that capped the training.

Markham described the event as one of the most successful she’s ever been involved with. 

“It was less about the sting operation as it was about the training,” she said.

Hall agreed, saying it was groundbreaking because it showed law enforcement how sex trafficking differs from what most define as prostitution.

Most consider prostitution a situation in which a person is willingly selling sex for profit, Hall said, but such cases are actually rare. Most often, victims are forced into selling sex by some form of coercion from their trafficker to benefit that person financially.

“I believe that historically law enforcement has arrested prostituted people (and buyers) in an attempt to help them,” Hall said. “But this training provided different insight in that prostitution and human trafficking are one in the same. I saw several officers that really realized this during the training.”

Debunking the myths

The first step in combating trafficking involves debunking the myths surrounding it — mainly that it doesn’t occur in Wyoming, and when it does, it involves nefarious men in dark vans abducting women and children in parking lots. 

The truth, however, is that it’s usually much more personal, with victims often being groomed by people posing as friends or boyfriends met by the victims over the internet.

Also not true is that human trafficking is not a problem in Wyoming.

Cara Chambers, director of the Division of Victim Services for the Wyoming Attorney General and also a member of the state’s human trafficking joint task committee, said trafficking is indeed a problem in Wyoming. And is one that the state continues to take seriously. 

Although Wyoming was the last state to make human trafficking a felony, since it did so in 2013, it has been steadily strengthening those laws.

Up until around eight years ago, Chambers said law enforcement didn’t aggressively pursue prostitution charges because the crime was perceived to be a pretty straightforward transaction between two consenting adults, a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $750 and up to six months in jail.

Now, however, with the introduction of human trafficking training across all levels of law enforcement and the courts, definitions surrounding prostitution have started to change. 

Most people who are being prostituted, experts say, are working against their will and are giving the profits to someone else.

Just ask Megan Lundstrom, who was on hand at the Sweetwater County training and sting to share her story with law enforcement officers, who until recently had always been on the other side of the law from her.

After 11 arrests of her own, she was used to being treated like a criminal in the same vein as the buyer.

Lundstrom is the co-founder and director of research at The Avery Center in Northern Colorado, an agency that provides direct support for adult survivors of commercial sex training.

She said there is definitely a deficit of knowledge about the difference between prostitution and trafficking, as well about as those victims who find themselves wrapped up in it. 

In her case, she was trafficked for five years by a man claiming to be her boyfriend. 

She was 23 when she met her trafficker at a gas station in Denver. After a brief conversation, she gave him her phone number.  

In retrospect, she sees now that she was an easy target. A single mom of two small children who had recently escaped a physically and emotionally abusive husband through divorce, she wore her vulnerability on her sleeve.

The new ‘boyfriend’ showered her with compliments and attention, fixating on her beauty and how she might use that to her advantage. She could make a killing as a stripper, he told her. In fact, his ex-wife had been an illicit masseuse at a massage parlor and made bank. 

He wouldn’t be jealous, he explained, because it was money. A means to an end. It would help them retire early, he said, at which point they’d spend their lives traveling and at beach resorts happily ever after.

He claimed to be a business owner with his hand in many different investments and said she could help them meet their goals. 

This is what grooming looks like, Lundstrom explained. 

“It’s like a fast-tracked relationship,” she said. “They use the fairy tale of a soul mate, showering  victims with compliments and presents. It’s not often the kidnapping in the parking lot. In fact, it feels amazing at first and not at all suspicious from the outside.”

It didn’t take long before he’d completely broken her down. At the time, Lundstrom had been working full time and going to college at night. Money was tight but she could meet her family’s needs.

Her tipping point came when her ex-husband defaulted on their mortgage at the same time he stopped paying child support. When her car broke down, it pretty much sent her over the edge. 

“It was a perfect storm,” she said, “which is often the case for many victims.”

Her boyfriend convinced her to post an ad on “Backpage,” a classified advertising website with an “adult services” section. The ad was immediately answered by an interested buyer. 

After the first time, Lundstrom wanted to kill herself as she drove home from the hotel. The only thing that stopped her, she said, was the fact that her trafficker was home with her children and the consequences of leaving them would be much worse. She gave in.

Less than six months later, she was completely isolated from family and friends, had quit her job and dropped out of school. Working seven nights a week, she gave the boyfriend all her money. In return, he paid her bills and gave her just enough money for meager meals and to buy gas. 

Her kids, meanwhile, went to school and lived an otherwise normal life. Her trafficker stayed at her home – when he wasn’t with his other victims – acting as a babysitter and caregiver. During her five-year tenure, she was trafficked through 23 states.

“People always want to know why victims stay,” she said. “They don’t understand the extent of the exploitation.”

In some cases, traffickers get their victims hooked on drugs. That wasn’t the case for her. Instead, she went on autopilot and just tried to survive. Four or five times she tried to leave him, but lack of resources always drove her back, including her isolation as well as the gap in her employment history and battered self-esteem. 

“The hold on victims is real,” she said.

She compared it to the way cults attract and retain members. They beat their victims down systemically so that remaining feels like a choice, she said, keeping victims in line by building them up and beating them down, forming trauma and financial bonds.

Five years later, the ‘boyfriend’ sold Lundstrom to a “CEO” pimp in Las Vegas.

Like anything else, there’s a hierarchy in pimping. Boyfriend pimps are small potatoes, targeting a handful of individuals by pretending there’s a relationship with the victims. They’re known as “Romeos,” Lundstrom said. 

High up on the rungs is the “CEO” pimp, who run fleets of victims of 20 or more. They buy them from the Romeos for a small retainer fee.

Luckily, they also don’t bother to court their victims, which worked in Lundstrom’s case after she started missing her daily quota. She was burned out, so her pimp took her off the streets in punishment. 

In desperation, Lundstrom went as far to order a book on pimping, not because she thought she was a victim, but because she genuinely wanted to do better in order to regain her paltry funding for meals. Instead, she recognized herself in the descriptions and something snapped. It gave her courage to call her trafficker and tell her she was done.

Surprisingly, he let her go, threatening only that there would be trouble if she stayed in Vegas and started working for someone else. 

She didn’t. She hightailed it out of there and went home, telling her family and friends what had happened as she slowly began to rebuild her life.

This is the lesson she wanted to teach law enforcement officers. When victims are treated like criminals, there’s little hope for getting the services needed to help them escape trafficking. This lesson hit home with the law enforcement officers, many of whom later confessed to Lundstrom that they’d never considered prostitutes to be victims and described the revelation as life changing.

Supply and demand

On the other side of the equation is the issue of demand, which in Wyoming, as in other states, is fairly staggering.

Todd Scott, a 23-year veteran agent and crisis negotiator with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Wyoming, recounted his first joint sex trafficking operation between the FBI and the Cheyenne Police Department over six years ago. 

After advertising sex with a prostitute on a couple of different web sites, officers set up decoys on the main road through town, then sat back and waited. Within hours, traffic was so backed up that officers had to close the operation and remove the decoys.

Tackling demand is not as easy as it might seem, according to Dr. Angie Henderson, co-founder of the Avery Center and a sociology professor at the University of Northern Colorado who was also on hand for the training and sting in Rock Springs in April.

Henderson specializes in gender differences and participates in “John school,” classes that must be attended by those convicted of soliciting prostitution. During the training session, she discussed the pull of pornography on men, which typically starts at any early age and leaves a lasting impression. 

Meanwhile, paramount to gender differences is the way that men express their feelings. As one officer told her during the training, the extent of a man’s emotional range typically vacillates between “anger and horniness.”

Henderson said men who seek sex might not be doing so simply for sexual gratification, but rather for another underlying emotion or void they are attempting to fill.

This Rock Springs sting was the first time Henderson was able to ask a buyer his motivation in the moment of vulnerability following his arrest. 

Without exception, despite being in relationships, all said they were there out of loneliness. They also admitted they’d never made the connection between prostitution and trafficking.

“Unless we tackle some of the underlying issues contributing to men buying sex, we can’t alleviate the problem of sex trafficking,” she said.

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