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Crime:

Sex trafficking of children: Las Vegas’ deep, dark secret

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Leila Navidi

Andrea Swanson, the parent of a sex trafficking victim, speaks of her experiences during a Basic High School speaker series at the school’s auditorium in Henderson on Tuesday, October 23, 2012.

Updated Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 | 9:32 a.m.

• First of a two-part series

It wasn’t a phone call she wanted, nor ever anticipated, but when Andrea Swanson realized she had not received a call for help, she broke down in tears.

It was June 2010, and Swanson’s youngest daughter, Mary, then 18 years old, sat in the Clark County Detention Center after being arrested for soliciting a police officer. Mary never called her mother. Instead, Mary spent three days in the county jail.

Meanwhile, Metro Police delivered the news to a frantic Swanson. At the advice of investigators, Swanson played ignorant and continued sending her daughter text messages each morning and night, like she had been doing for months:

“I love you. Please come home.”

Sex Trafficking in Vegas

Boulder Highway is an area identified by Metro as a hotspot for prostitution and is frequently patrolled by officers. A woman is seen walking north on Boulder Highway north of Lamb Blvd. on Tuesday, October 30, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Home is where this story begins, where a predator named Kobe Hogue worked his way into the family and stole its youngest member, a junior at Centennial High School in fall 2008 who fell for a boy.

Andrea Swanson gave Hogue food, bus passes, a cellphone and, most crucial of all, a mother’s trust. At the time, it made sense: Hogue’s presence made Swanson’s teenage daughter, a girl wrestling with self-esteem issues, happy for the first time in months.

Nearly two years later, Swanson discovered the young man she welcomed into her home had thrust her daughter into a life of prostitution. Hogue was Mary’s pimp.

And now her daughter was in jail.

How it’s happening

Metro Police say Hogue appeared to be an unsophisticated pimp trying to establish himself in the underworld of sex trafficking. By all accounts, Mary was the only girl Hogue prostituted, a situation that leads authorities to believe Mary would have become Hogue’s “bottom,” slang for a pimp’s most-prized girl.

"He was an opportunist,” said Lt. Karen Hughes, who oversees Metro’s vice section. “That’s how a lot of them start off — looking for an opportunity to make money.”

By the time police arrested Mary for soliciting prostitution, she already was 18 years old. But she met her pimp as a juvenile, a situation law enforcement officials say has long been a problem in Las Vegas that’s just now getting more attention.

“It’s a deep, dark secret that no one wants out of the closet,” said Rashell Zerbe, a detective in Metro’s vice unit who investigates child prostitution cases.

Last year, Metro investigated 131 juvenile-prostitution cases, most involving female victims, according to department data. Of those, 74 percent were from Nevada — an increase compared with past years.

Metro has investigated about 2,200 children exploited through sex trafficking in Las Vegas since 1994, the year the department began tracking the issue. The number peaked in 2004 when Metro detectives made contact with 207 children, police said. On average, 50 percent of all juvenile sex-trafficking victims police made contact with were from Nevada.

The youngest victim Zerbe encountered was a 13-year-old girl who was six months pregnant.

Hughes considers Las Vegas ground zero for sex trafficking, a buzz phrase she equates with prostitution. And by prostitution, she means this: often girls and young women manipulated by pimps and “turned out” to work the streets, casinos or hotels.

“You often hear people refer to prostitution as the oldest profession in the world,” she said. “I don’t believe it’s a profession. It’s an exploitation.”

Prostitution is illegal in Las Vegas because Clark County has more than 400,000 residents, but authorities say the city’s sex-infused landscape and anything-goes perception make it a hub for the vice. Look no further than the handbillers congregating at corners along the Las Vegas Strip, advertising the company of a female to nearly anyone who passes. Or browse the Las Vegas adult listings on backpage.com, where one recent post advertised females “20 minutes or less to your hotel room.” Both advertisements are intentionally vague, police say.

“What really goes on behind closed doors is the sexual exploitation of young women and young girls,” Hughes said.

In the end, money drives the sex-trafficking industry. Criminals have realized they can make more money repeatedly selling girls and women compared to a one-time sale of an illicit drug, said Esther Rodriguez Brown, the sexually exploited youth program administrator for Family Court.

“The pimps bring their girls here as part of their circuit because of the conventions and gaming,” Hughes said. “It’s very profitable for them. They can blend in and they can look for clients.”

Police say recruitment of girls and young women into prostitution can start in person — through friends from school, at a party, in a club — or miles away via the Internet. Concerning the latter scenario, Detective Cathy Hui, who is part of Metro’s pandering investigation team, said she has seen more cases recently involving females lured to Las Vegas by the promise of modeling gigs, then met by pimps who coerce them into the sex trade.

“It’s a tough thing for people to understand,” Hui said. “General citizens don’t understand it. They don’t understand how people can be so manipulative to women.”

Often, investigators say the pimp-prostitute relationship starts out on a romantic note: He acts like her boyfriend. She falls for him. He claims they need money and asks her to help by entering the sex trade. He promises her riches and, in the meantime, buys her new clothes and pays for visits to hair and nail salons.

She makes the money; he keeps it. Somewhere along the line, police say, many of the situations turn violent. The victims, though, stay out of fear.

“It’s a slow, gradual process,” Hui said. “He breaks her down and builds her up.”

One family’s journey

In retrospect, the signs were there. Swanson just didn’t recognize them.

Mary, who once wore clothes from Abercrombie and Hollister, began dressing in provocative outfits bought by Hogue, who also paid for Mary to have her hair and nails done. A tattoo — a rose with a heart around it — appeared on Mary’s back, designed by Hogue.

Despite Mary’s hostessing job, she never seemed to have any money. And then there were the occasional bruises.

“We thought we had the most rebellious teenager we could have,” Swanson said. “We didn’t know if you tied the tattoo to him getting her hair and nails done … it points toward prostitution.”

Swanson, a school nurse, and her then-husband, an FBI employee, had tried to give Hogue a chance — even after his stint in prison for stealing vehicles. Their daughter’s counselor said Hogue made Mary happy.

The parents reluctantly gave Hogue one more shot, organizing a list of rules he must abide by to date their daughter, by this time a senior in high school.

“He was sweet as pie for about two weeks,” Swanson said.

Click to enlarge photo

A woman walks into an escort call center identified by Metro on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012.

Then Mary’s mood changed abruptly. Simple questions turned into arguments. Being home meant taking a shower before leaving again.

“She ramped up,” Swanson said. “She was verbally abusive. She was never home. At this time, she was 18.”

Swanson immediately suspected drug use. It seemed the only logical fit.

“Usually, parents think drugs are the worst thing that could happen,” she said.

The secret their daughter had been guarding finally unraveled close to her scheduled high school graduation. Her daughter’s old friend wanted to stop by the family’s home while he was in town visiting. When Mary found out, Swanson said Mary “freaked out like a caged animal” and begged to keep the friend away, calling him a liar.

Swanson prodded Mary for a reason — anything to explain her daughter’s bizarre reaction. The answer Swanson received had never entered her realm of possibility:

“He’s going to tell you I’m a prostitute.”

A call to the community

More than two years have passed since Swanson learned her daughter was involved in sex trafficking, specifically working as a prostitute in Strip hotels and along Boulder Highway, and giving her earnings to Hogue.

Police arrested Hogue several weeks later. He pleaded guilty to attempted pandering and is serving time at Three Lakes Valley Conservation Camp, according to court records and the Nevada Department of Corrections.

Swanson and her daughter, who will turn 21 later this month, have started rebuilding their relationship. They eat dinner together on Tuesdays and sometimes go shopping. It’s a slow process, complicated by the fact that Mary intends to be with Hogue — but not work the streets — upon his release from custody.

Swanson said Mary admits to anger and anxiety issues, but she refuses to seek counseling, telling her mother it’s not necessary.

“These girls are almost like addicts,” Swanson said. “Her drug was not drugs; her drug was the attention of a pimp.”

Last week, Swanson shared her daughter’s story with students and parents at Basic High School. It’s now Swanson’s mission to educate the community about the warning signs of sex trafficking, a situation she says exists because of ignorance, denial and inaction by society.

“It was devastating to hear that (sex trafficking) had happened to your daughter,” she said. “I couldn’t let a mother feel that.”

The story of Swanson’s daughter led to training — focusing on how to spot warning signs — for Clark County School District Police officers during the summer, step one of the district’s plan to increase awareness and prevention, CCSD Police Chief James Ketsaa said. Training of school staff members will follow, he said.

School police also have continued “aggressive” enforcement against loitering around campus buildings, a means to prevent possible pimps from accessing students, Ketsaa said. In addition, he wants to examine any correlation between truancy and teenage prostitution — in other words, data that could explain the scope of the problem.

“I think it’s a problem, I do,” he said. “I’d like to see some stats of exactly how many of these are our students.”

Efforts within the school system are one part of what authorities say is a broader campaign needed locally and across the state.

In October, Metro received a federal grant just shy of $500,000 from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to combat human trafficking, Hughes said. The department plans to hire a director for the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force who, in part, can corral a community coalition to spread awareness, Hughes said.

“My vision is that the interfaith community comes together as a unified group,” she said.

Two churches in opposite parts of the Las Vegas Valley are among several that already have heeded the call on their own volition.

Click to enlarge photo

A plaza on Industrial Road with both an escort call center and massage parlor identified by Metro seen on Tuesday, October 30, 2012.

Aaron Hansel, lead pastor of the Dream Center in West Las Vegas, calls sex trafficking “an uncomfortable reality that needs to be addressed by parents.” After learning about the issue more than a year ago, his church has been involved in a dozen events to raise awareness in the community. He and his wife, Danita, also recently started a side business, Be A Voice, with the same goal in mind.

“Up until a few years ago, we were kind of naive about the subject,” Danita Hansel said. “We’re just now jumping into it, really.”

In Henderson, members of New Song Church plan to meet with nearby schools, hospitals and other service providers to spread information about sex trafficking and see where they can help, said the Rev. Marta Poling-Goldenne.

Poling-Goldenne, who believes sex trafficking has reached a “tipping point” worldwide, envisions partnering with other organizations or faith-based communities, thus eliminating the duplication of efforts in Southern Nevada.

“God is orchestrating all of us,” she said. “This is not an accident.”

In the process, there’s one group Barb Brents, a sociology professor at UNLV, hopes is not excluded from the community conversation: the sex workers, some of whom she believes willingly participate in prostitution.

“There needs to be more community attention to it as long as we get a variety of people into the dialogue,” said Brents, who has researched the sex industry and Nevada brothels. “This is a tough issue, and there are good arguments from both sides.”

The healing aspect

Eventually, Hughes hopes the community wrangles enough support to build a safe house for sex-trafficking victims — a vulnerable population that’s prone to returning to the prostitution lifestyle.

It’s a vision shared by Family Court Judge William Voy, who has long advocated building such a place to help girls recover emotionally without what many refer to as revictimization in juvenile detention facilities. So far, it remains in the idea stage, as law enforcement and community members debate the right way to proceed and how to obtain funding.

“There has to be an opportunity for us to keep (a victim) out of the clutches and control and the manipulation of the pimp while we work with her to get her healthy,” Hughes said.

Zerbe, one of six Metro detectives on the Child Exploitation Task Force, favors a safe house that’s locked down, meaning victims could not come and go as they please.

“It’s almost like tough love,” she said. “Without locking them down a bit … it’s not safe for them.”

Last year, Courage Worldwide, an international nonprofit, opened in Northern California a place called Courage House, a safe home on 50 acres of property for female victims of sex trafficking, ages 11-17. According to the nonprofit’s website, Courage House is at an undisclosed, rural location.

Although familiar with Courage House, Hughes said she thought an eventual safe house must be specific to Clark County and not a mirror image of an existing model.

“We have to find a place that would give the victims the ability to see a different life without the neon and glitter lights,” she said.

In the meantime, early next year, Family Court officials hope to open a center where sex-trafficking victims can access a variety of services: mentoring, psychological counseling, education services and basics such as clothing for job interviews, Rodriguez Brown said.

The goal is to provide victims with a more holistic approach to their emotional recovery while giving them a one-stop shop for their needs, Rodriguez Brown said.

“Right now, the girls have to go all around the valley to get these services,” she said. “These girls often don’t have transportation.”

Rodriguez Brown said the center, the location of which has not been disclosed, would be a key resource, especially in the absence of a safe house, which she hasn’t given up hope about seeing come to fruition.

“I wish we already had a safe house, but it will happen,” she said.

CORRECTION: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Barb Brents' name. | (November 1, 2012)

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