It was about 2 p.m. on a Tuesday when the 15-year-old girl left her central Fresno hotel room. She climbed into a car driven by a stranger, who would take her to another stranger with whom she had agreed to have sex for money.
If it had been a few minutes later, the girl could have easily blended in with children walking home from school. She was not dressed provocatively; she wore a red Fresno State sweatshirt and jeans. She was not wearing excessive makeup. She carried a backpack.
Who knows how many times she had followed this pattern – strange men and strange cars. Online advertisements showed her in various states of undress.
That’s how the vice unit of the Fresno Police Department found her. Today, these strangers were both undercover officers. Tonight, she will be safe.
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“She said she hasn’t eaten in five days,” Sgt. Curt Chastain said. “No real family – an unreported runaway. She’s in the sex trade to survive.”
“She wants help,” he continued. “She wants to be in school, but mom won’t sign her up.”
One of Chastain’s undercover detectives confirmed this is not a rare occurrence.
“I’ve had (sex trafficking) victims from every high school in Fresno County – and most junior high schools,” the detective said. The Fresno Bee is not identifying him due to the sensitivity of his work. These traffickers, he added, use a variety of tactics to lure children and young women into “the life.”
A good day
Today was a good day, Chastain said. Any day when a child is taken off the streets is a good day. Unfortunately, it was also a somewhat typical day. The detectives conduct one of these operations about once a week.
The nine-person unit focuses much of its efforts on getting kids – including those from families north of Shaw Avenue, one detective stressed – out of “the life.” Arresting those who traffic girls and women across the city is the second priority, while stemming the demand side – the hundreds of local men paying for sex acts – is the final part of choking what Chastain called the “three-headed snake” of sex trafficking.
The police force’s tactics, goals and even its vocabulary have changed dramatically to achieve this goal. Words like “prostitute” and “pimp” are used a lot less often, replaced by “victim and trafficker.” The unit now works openly with non-governmental organizations like Breaking the Chains and the Marjaree Mason Center to solve the complex and growing problem of human trafficking.
Women are arrested far less often. Children are never arrested, as a change to California state law last year made it no longer possible to charge anyone under 18 with prostitution.
I’ve had (sex trafficking) victims from every high school in Fresno County – and most junior high schools.
Fresno police detective
This victims-first approach has had great results. Prior to 2010, when law enforcement philosophy shifted, one or two trafficker arrests was above average for a year. Now, that number is more like 15 or 16. The police have also played a role in breaking the cycle of victimization – prostitution, arrest, prostitution, arrest – for dozens of women and children.
And yet, the problem continues to grow. According to Chastain, the public continues to glorify pimps and their lifestyle. The sex trade is now more lucrative than selling drugs for Fresno’s violent criminal street gangs. Technology and social media now give traffickers access to hundreds of women and children.
“I’d bet every 16-year-old girl in Fresno has received a message that they didn’t know was from a recruiter,” the vice detective said. “They’re recruited while sitting next to their parents in the living room. Mom or dad may be reading the newspaper or watching TV while she’s on her phone.”
As he drives from place to place during the undercover operation, the detective shares his insights into the modern sex trade.
Much of it still takes place along notorious city blocks, known as “strips:” Blackstone Avenue near Ashlan Avenue, Belmont Avenue, the infamous Parkway Drive near Highway 99.
However, more and more trafficking takes place on the Internet. Online advertisements are easy to use and can be difficult for police to track. Victims who are trafficked over the phone or online are call girls, the detective said, and call girls can charge more than women working the street.
Underage girls are usually online-only, as their traffickers realize that police prioritize juvenile cases. This type of “date,” as it’s colloquially known, will cost a lot more. It’s also a lot more dangerous for the traffickers. Recent updates to state law have increased penalties for sex trafficking across the board, but it’s particularly steep when it involves kids. Someone convicted of trafficking minors could face life in prison.
I’d bet every 16-year-old girl in Fresno has received a message that they didn’t know was from a recruiter.
Fresno police detective
Traffickers use a variety of tactics to recruit women into the game, but they are typically lumped into two main categories.
The gorilla pimp is the man your parents may have warned you about. He abducts his victims and uses violence, fear and intimidation to control them.
An example of this would be the 2016 case of Marquis Keyon Bolden, a Fresno man who kidnapped a 16-year-old girl and forced her to commit sex acts in a Watsonville hotel room. Bolden accepted a plea deal in Santa Cruz County and is currently serving a five-year sentence in the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran State Prison.
A common tactic for these men is to “break” their victims by forcing them onto the streets. Many of these girls and women will instinctively flag down the first car they see, the detective said, and ask for help. The driver, an associate of her trafficker, will tell her that he will take her to safety. He then drives her straight to the pimp, who beats her and puts her back out onto the street.
This cycle continues until she is conditioned to no longer ask for help.
Romeo or boyfriend pimps, by contrast, recruit victims by first establishing relationships with them. The victims often feel as if they are in a committed relationship with their trafficker.
These victims are methodically coerced into the sex trade. Maybe the “couple” needs money to move into an apartment, and the trafficker has an idea of how she can help.
Once she has crossed that line, the victim often wants to stop, the detective said. Her trafficker, whom she’s likely introduced to friends or family as her boyfriend, will then threaten to hurt those loved ones if she stops.
At the same time, he’s telling her friends and family that he can’t get her to stop prostituting. The purpose here is to turn her family against her. If a wedge can be formed between his victim and her loved ones, then she has no one to turn to but her trafficker.
“No girl wants to have random sex with guys she doesn’t know,” the detective said. “I’ve never had one who liked it. I’ve interviewed thousands in my career, and not one has said she liked it.”
The detective said women sometimes traffic other women by using a familial approach. They will approach victims already in “the game” and offer them a better life, saying they will never beat the victim like her current pimp does.
Then, of course, the female traffickers beat them, the detective said. It’s difficult to prove cases against women, he added, because it can be hard to convince a jury that a woman used force, fear or coercion – the legal standards for human trafficking cases – on another woman.
No girl wants to have random sex with guys she doesn’t know. I’ve never had one who liked it. I’ve interviewed thousands in my career, and not one has said she liked it.
Fresno police detective
It is rare for boys to be trafficked, Chastain said, but it does happen. It is even more difficult for detectives to discover these victims because it is almost always done in total secrecy, as even criminal gangs believe trafficking boys goes too far.
Once they are in the sex trade, women and especially children are often moved around between the cities on Highway 99. Traffickers prefer it, the detective said, because of the high concentration of hotels nearby.
Moving a trafficking victim around benefits her trafficker. He can avoid local law enforcement, which is often watching several known traffickers at once. He may be able to reach a new clientele, particularly with an underage girl. But crucially, moving a girl allows a pimp to further isolate her from anything familiar.
That’s what had happened to the 15-year-old girl police rescued from the street. She had been staying with her grandmother on the Central Coast, but her trafficker pulled her away from her guardian.
This victim – and the police are clear, she is a victim – was turned over to Fresno County’s Child Welfare Services. Her mother is a drug addict, Chastain said, and her father was recently released from prison. She had been recruited by a pimp whom the detectives were closing in on.
One officer took her for a meal as soon as Chastain had finished questioning her. She will receive help through the police department, the county and the complex network of advocates who aid human trafficking victims.
“The success out of this, she wants out,” Chastain said.
Editor’s note: Human trafficking is a widespread concern that advocates and law enforcement officials say is on the rise throughout Fresno – north, south, east and west. The Fresno Bee has taken an in-depth look inside the world of the sex trade and its victims. In a series of stories over six weeks, The Bee will report what is being done to help victims, target traffickers and prevent others from being trapped.
To get help or help others:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
This number can be used to report anyone in need of assistance and does not require the caller to contact law enforcement.
To fight trafficking: