Las Vegas Sun

December 3, 2022

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Do we have a human trafficking problem?

The federal government believes Las Vegas is a top destination for "human trafficking" victims - from indentured servants to massage parlor workers and prostitutes held captive and forced to commit sex acts.

This belief has led the Justice Department to grant hundreds of thousands of dollars to Metro Police to tackle the problem.

But first, the Anti Trafficking League Against Slavery (ATLAS), an office within Metro that opened last month, needs to try to answer a basic question: Is there a human-trafficking problem here, and if so, how big is it?

Terri Miller, ATLAS's civilian director and long one of the top Nevada activists against the sexual exploitation of women and children, and her boss, Metro Capt. Terry Lesney, say the need for the group is clear: There is a "huge" and growing sex-oriented trafficking problem in Las Vegas.

Yet they quickly add that no statistics have ever been gathered and law enforcers never before have made it a top priority - so the scope of the problem still needs to be determined.

Police in the past haven't paid sufficient attention to the signs that the prostitutes or others they're investigating may also be trafficking victims, they say - meaning the problem has gone underreported for years.

Miller says the problem has been made worse by Las Vegas' aggressive advertising promotions that encourage tourists to come here and sin all they like.

"We're basically giving a green light for people to come here and exploit women and children," Miller says.

ATLAS was formed as an extension of the ad hoc Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force, an interagency group set up by the U.S. attorney's office in Las Vegas in 2004.

The task force's first task was to determine whether, in fact, there was a human-trafficking problem, Lesney says. But because of the lack of hard data, she says, "we were struggling to quantify what we're dealing with."

Federal law defines trafficking as what happens when children, teens, men or women are subjected to "force, fraud or coercion" for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labor.

Human trafficking is different from smuggling in that people who are smuggled voluntarily pay the smuggler, and when the person arrives, he or she is free, or is required to work under a job arranged by the smuggler until the debt is paid.

Trafficking victims are enslaved, and if they are in debt to the trafficker, it's most often at rates too high to ever be able to pay. Victims are often lured by false promises, and are sometimes physically forced.

Sex trafficking victims can range from massage parlor workers brought in from overseas to prostitutes trafficked here from California or Arizona. Labor trafficking, including domestic servitude, agricultural or sweatshop labor, involves victims forced to work against their will, sometimes under the threat of violence.

Often, Miller and Lesney say, victims or their family members have been threatened by the traffickers and are afraid they will be deported if they come forward and cooperate with police.

Between 17,000 and 20,000 people are trafficked into the United States annually, according to State Department estimates. Of those, it is unknown how many are brought to Nevada.

Rarely have defendants in Las Vegas been prosecuted as human traffickers, Lesney says, though there is a tough federal law passed in 2000 and even newer state laws that target those crimes. Until this month, she said, Metro didn't even have a booking code for alleged human trafficking violators.

The largest human trafficking bust in the area in recent years was Operation Jade Blade. A national sting in 2000 netted five Las Vegas Valley residents, who were arrested for trafficking Asian prostitutes into the city. The women had been smuggled into the country for a fee, then were forced to pay back their debt by working as prostitutes.

In the last six years federal prosecutors have brought nine additional cases with strong trafficking elements into federal courts, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Las Vegas, including cases in which pimps brought girls or women into the region from other states to work as prostitutes.

Each of those cases was smaller in scope than the Jade Blade bust, Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden concedes. Although he wouldn't comment on any ongoing investigations, he says there has been little funding to pursue deep investigations into trafficking cases.

Bogden says he believes the work of the task force and Miller's office will change that.

"Any time you essentially enslave a human being and deprive a human being of their rights, that has to be a top priority," says Bogden, who will be stepping down from his post at the end of next month.

Locally, there have been even fewer human trafficking cases charged and prosecuted in the last few years. According to District Court records, only one trafficking case has been prosecuted locally since 2005, when the Legislature put two new anti-trafficking laws on the books.

In that case, a woman was indicted by a Las Vegas grand jury on Dec. 12. Personna Coleman is alleged to have committed involuntary servitude - as well as kidnapping and several other crimes - when she restrained and threatened another woman, demanding that the woman earn her at least $1,000 by engaging in prostitution.

Clark County prosecutors confirm they are pursuing at least two other trafficking cases , but the details and status of those cases were not made available.

Identified by a Justice Department risk analysis study as one of 17 cities nationwide most likely to be the top destinations for trafficking victims, federal officials gave a $370,000 grant to Metro officials late last year - as well as a smaller one to the local Salvation Army office. With it, ATLAS was born, with Miller serving as director. She started early last month and has a three-year contract with Metro.

Miller, 48, worked with the Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence, and she has long been involved with a New York-based nonprofit group called SESAME, or Stop Educator Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation.

Miller - a mother of four who describes herself as an "M.O.M., a Mom on a Mission" - began working against teacher abuse of students while living in Pahrump, including the investigation of a teacher who is serving a life sentence for sexual assault against a 17-year-old student. Miller said her efforts split the Pahrump community: "I was 50 percent vilified, and 50 percent hailed me as a heroine," she said. After 20 years in Pahrump, she and her family moved to the Las Vegas Valley in 2002.

Though a year younger than Miller, Lesney says she's finishing up her work after a 25-year career with Metro. She retires from the force in September, set to move back to her native Minnesota to be closer to family and to finish up her work on a doctorate in forensic psychology.

Lesney says she finds satisfaction working on trafficking cases for the same reason she likes handling sexual assault and domestic violence cases: "You're dealing with real victims," she says.

Miller and Lesney said they have three main goals for their new anti-trafficking office within Metro - to raise public awareness about the issue; to increase law enforcement's reporting of trafficking cases and then help coordinate investigations; and ultimately, to establish a service network for trafficking victims.

Earlier this month they instituted a mandatory, two-hour online training course on human trafficking for all Metro commissioned officers below the rank of deputy chief. More than 600 have taken the course so far, they said.

Miller and Lesney, joined by other local and federal officials and victims' advocates, will hold a press conference on Feb. 6 to highlight the work of the new office.

"I'm like a magnet right now," Miller says of her first eight hectic weeks on the job. "They're coming at me from all over to join the task force. I'm really in awe at how fast we're progressing."