Las Vegas Sun

November 15, 2018

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In fight against human trafficking, law enforcement has had to evolve

Law enforcement efforts against human trafficking have had to adjust through the years. As technology and syndicates have evolved, so has the way these criminals operate.

There has been a sharp increase in gang members—who exclusively dealt drugs, participated in robberies and battled for turf—who now exploit victims. “There is a lot of money in the illegal trafficking of both adults and children,” Metro Vice Lt. Raymond Spencer said.

Metro undercover officers are out every night at Las Vegas prostitution hubs—such as Las Vegas Boulevard; the Tropicana corridor west of the Strip; Boulder Highway; and lower Fremont Street—where problems are most prominent. But over the past two decades, the internet has broadened the issue.

Prostitution ads in newspapers and magazines of the past can now be found on “hundreds, if not thousands” of websites, Spencer said.

Impact these investigations have on police

Investigations into human trafficking are “extremely disheartening,” especially when they involve children, Metro Vice Lt. Raymond Spencer said. “When we go out every day, we’re looking to rescue [kids].”

Spencer, who led the vice squad for almost a year, said his unit receives letters from rescued victims at least once a week thanking them for saving their lives.

Nods like those are “extremely beneficial” to investigators, Spencer said.

Although human trafficking is not exclusive to Las Vegas, the 24-hour atmosphere and high volume of visitors can provide unique challenges. “You go out on the Strip, and one day you have 900,000 tourists and then a week later you have another 900,000 additional tourists,” Spencer said.

Metro centralized its vice and gang units this year, focusing 26 undercover officers on its vice investigations.

The partnership between units has helped investigators better collaborate in weekly meetings where intelligence is shared to target specific human trafficking suspects.

The vice unit is further broken down into two teams. One investigates cases involving adult victims, and one works in conjunction with the FBI to target underage victims.

“We see such a huge link with kids getting lured or befriended online with potential people that are going to traffic them,” Spencer said.

The befriending-to-trafficking relationship does not immediately manifest itself.

A friendship transforms to a relationship, and victims often fall in love with victimizers, who shower them with jewelry, clothes and makeup. They tell victims they love them, take them out—“things they’re not accustomed to,” Spencer said.

Then comes the dagger, when the girl is told, “You need to go out and help us and make money,” Spencer said.

Violence and blackmail or threats to the victim’s family can arise if a victim refuses, experts say.

“You’re taken aback by the level of violence that these pimps will use and how they will target underage kids to put them out in such a horrible situation,” Spencer said.

Locally, sex trafficking and the demographics of those involved don’t always follow a pattern, Spencer said.

Trafficking-related stories in Las Vegas

• A woman from Mexico responded to a Craigslist ad about a housekeeping job but was forced into sex labor when the suspects threatened deportation and her son’s life. About a month later, she went to police. Officers conducted a SWAT raid at a two-room apartment near Twain Avenue and Swenson Street and found a makeshift brothel equipped with timers, condoms, hand sanitizers, towels and closets filled with lingerie.

Ernesto Pineda Solis and Jacqueline Lopez were arrested during that operation. They were sentenced to prison time.

• Richard Loughry, a former Las Vegas Fire & Rescue captain, responded to an online ad for a prostitute he thought was 22.

He summoned the girl to a fire station and allegedly had sex with her. She was 15 at the time and told investigators she had been trafficked by a pimp nine days prior to the February encounter at the station.

Loughry was arrested in April after the girl went to a lawyer who contacted the FBI, which subsequently contacted Metro, according to the arrest report. Loughry was taken into custody while leaving a store with his wife. Officers found a phone he kept secret and used to communicate with several women he said he’d taken to the station for sex. “[He] had no idea one of these girls could have been a juvenile and would not have done what he did if he knew that,” an investigator wrote on the report.

As of December, Loughry remained under house arrest. He faces charges of statutory seduction, lewdness with a child over the age of 14, child abuse and neglect, and soliciting or engaging prostitution of a child, court records show.

• Last summer, Elizabeth Odell-Quate went to Las Vegas authorities and accused her husband of sex trafficking her Downtown. She also said he would not let her talk to her teenage daughters.

She made a stunning allegation that brought the case national attention when she told police that Jason Quate killed their third daughter in Belleville, Illinois, in 2013 and hid her body in a dilapidated house in nearby Centerville. He later admitted to killing the 6-year-old girl.

Police also accused Jason Quate of child pornography and sexually assaulting at least one of his surviving daughters while they lived in Las Vegas. –Ricardo Torres-Cortez

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.