POWELL — Human trafficking has become so prevalent across the United States — and Wyoming — that experts have made a game of it: Guess the Pimp.
But it’s not something anyone plays for fun or to kill some time. Guess the Pimp is an exercise human trafficking experts use to illustrate how anyone can be involved in the illegal practice of using force or fraud to promote modern-day slavery. It often victimizes young girls and women through sex trafficking.
After 90 minutes of sobering statistics and gasp-inducing stories on the realities of human trafficking, Terri Markham it was time to play Guess the Pimp. Markham is executive director of Uprising, a Wyoming-based nonprofit that fights human trafficking in the Cowboy State.
During a recent presentation to a group of Park County residents at Northwest College in Powell, Markham showed six photographs of various people: Athletic College Kid, Grandma, Military Guy, Creepy Uncle, Cheerleader and Pastor.
“In the classroom with the kids, we have them profile these people,” she said, explaining how Guess the Pimp is part of what Uprising does for school districts throughout Wyoming to explain the many faces — literal and figurative — of human trafficking.
“Almost every time we do a presentation like this, big or small, whatever audience, it's the same type of feedback,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “People are like, ‘Wow, I genuinely didn't know that this is actually what trafficking looks like.’ So that's what we want: an educated, informed community.”
Human trafficking is becoming a more common issue in Wyoming in ways people like Markham, expected but are taking many residents by surprise.
“When we started our organization, I told my co-founder, ‘Give this a few years of us homing in on training and community awareness, and we're probably going to start to see the need for victim services related to trafficking,’” she said. “And I feel like we're at that point. I'm probably averaging maybe two calls to our organization per month, either from someone in the community who's identified it or from someone who thinks it's happening to themselves looking for help and resources,”
For example, the Wyoming Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force received 199 cybertips about human trafficking crimes like “sextortion” and other insidious forms of child abuse in 2018. So far this year, there have been more than 800 cyber-tips to the task force, an average of 66 per month.
Also so far this year, there have been 50 human trafficking-related arrests and 16 victims identified and rescued. And the problem is everywhere.
“We have child exploitation cases like this in every single county in Wyoming,” Markham said.
It Can Happen From Afar
Markham told the story of a recent sextortion case where a 14-year-old girl in Laramie was being blackmailed after sending explicit photos to someone she met online. She was soon discovered to be one of more than 900 victims of the same scheme living in the United States, including 23 in Wyoming.
Markham categorized the three parties who participate in human trafficking as victims, exploiters and buyers. Human trafficking manifests in myriad ways, but many of the patterns are the same.
In the case of the 900-victim sextortion, the exploiter was discovered to be one man, 24-year-old Zobaidul Amin, living in Malaysia. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were able to coordinate with the Malaysian government to arrest and extradite Amin, who is awaiting trial for numerous felonies related to the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM), colloquially referred to as child pornography.
Arresting Amin was a battle won, but the war is ongoing. And Markham advises not to let these cases dictate their perspective on human trafficking.
“It's a very diverse crime,” she said. “Every situation looks different. It's very difficult to navigate any sort of justice.”
Of the many forms that human trafficking takes, Markham said her most urgent concerns are the “home-grown” varieties. Human trafficking can involve international cartels and hardened criminals, but also neighbors, friends and community leaders.
Wyomingites don’t need to look far for examples of home-grown human trafficking.
David Bernard, a Greybull city councilman, was arrested in 2022 on suspicion of seven counts of possession with intent to deliver and seven counts of delivery of child sexual abuse material.
“He did not seem like that kind of person,” Greybull Councilman Jeromy Winkler told Cowboy State Daily in February 2022. “He was always a very professional person. A very nice person.”
Markham said that Bernard probably was an affable person. In her experience, most exploiters are.
“They’re always going to be a good guy,” she said.
However, it’s the smaller cases of familial trafficking that concern Markham the most. She cited the case of Gilette resident John Bryon Mills, who’s serving a 71- to 85-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting two underage girls over two years.
A critical detail of the case Markham highlighted was that the mother of the girls also was charged with promoting prostitution. Mills was the buyer, but the girls' mother was charged as the exploiter.
So, Who’s The Pimp?
The twist in Markham’s game of Guess the Pimp was that all six were involved in human trafficking.
The cheerleader was a victim of trafficking who turned into an enabler when she pimped out a fellow cheerleader with a learning disability. The pastor was a man who found religion while serving a prison sentence for murder and went on to exploit children in his congregation.
Creepy Uncle was Timothy Deegan, a Florida accountant who allegedly raped and assaulted multiple women trapped in his home while simultaneously pimping them out and monitoring them with GPS devices. Deegan took a plea agreement and was sentenced to 10 years of probation.
Nearly everyone was shocked by the acts of the exploiters in the Guess the Pimp game. But Markham’s goal wasn’t just to shock them, it’s to
empower Wyomingites to recognize it.
“I find more hope in this work than people would assume,” she said. “The fact is most people aren't experiencing this crime, and there is so much we can do to empower communities, youth and professionals to help stop it before it even starts.”
Uprising continues to give presentations throughout Wyoming to make people aware of how human trafficking could and might already be happening in their communities. Human trafficking is a serious issue, but it’s not unsolvable, and while the number of cases is increasing, awareness and advocacy are growing too.
“I always use the analogy of people stuck in the river,” she said. “We'll never be able to get everyone out of the river if we're only focusing on trying to get people out of it. We have to try to shore up the river first so people stop falling into the river. I find it to be really hopeful. There's a lot we can do.”
In the meantime, it’s never a bad time to look around and play another game of Guess the Pimp.
Andrew Rossi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.