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Just weeks after police showed up at her home to say her daughter was arrested for soliciting an officer outside a hotel, Andrea was flying from the East Coast back to Las Vegas. She was heading home, but the passengers around her were on vacation, and Andrea couldn’t get one thing out of her mind.

“The thought of it just made me sick to my stomach. Who on this plane might call my daughter tonight?”

Andrea — who asked the Missoulian not to publish her last name — now travels around the country speaking to groups about sex trafficking. On Thursday, she told her family’s story to around 150 people at the University Center Theater at the University of Montana as part of a public sex trafficking awareness conference organized by Missoula police Detective Guy Baker.

The conference coincided with a two-day training on campus that brought in around 170 officers and prosecutors from local, state and federal agencies — including from surrounding states — on best practices in tackling what Baker often refers to simply as “modern day slavery.”

Andrea’s daughter was born overseas while her husband was in the U.S. Army. The family moved to Las Vegas when her daughter was young, before heading to the East Coast when Andrea's husband left the armed forces and joined the FBI.

“We were the all-American family,” Andrea said. “If it can get into my family, it can get into anyone’s family.”

When her daughter was a teenager, they returned to Las Vegas. Andrea showed the audience a board of photos of her daughter as a baby, a child, and in her early teens.

“These last two photos are my daughter’s first two mugshots for soliciting officers in front of The Mirage,” she said.

It was 2010 when the police showed up at Andrea’s house, carrying a binder with the name of her daughter’s “boyfriend” — an older man who started spending time with her when she was in high school. He was a pimp, and had been forcing Andrea’s daughter into the sex trade.

“Every single victim out there has a mother who could stand up here and give this talk,” Andrea said. “As I listened to every speaker this morning, I wanted to just jump up and say, ‘I saw that.’”

The pimp went to jail, but when he got out just over two years later, Andrea’s daughter went back to him at first. Now she and her child are living with her mother. She went to a trade school and has a job, but eight years after the police first showed up, is still putting herself back together.

“Her life’s been destroyed by this greedy world,” Andrea told the audience, adding that for pimps to do what they did to her daughter, they need society’s help.

“They need our ignorance. They need our denial. They need our inaction.”

***

In Montana, the tip of the spear in investigating sex trafficking includes people like Baker, who in addition to his role with Missoula police works with a special local-federal operation with the FBI, the Montana Regional Violent Crime Task Force.

His presentation listed the national statistics about sex trafficking, from the estimated $9.5 billion in revenue it generates in the country every year to the 100,000 minors who are believed to be forced into sex for money.

Runaways are an especially vulnerable population, Baker added. Baker said that often, runaway cases aren't taken seriously by patrol officers, who have a lot of reports to deal with and think they have more important “actual crime” to be handling.

“We now encourage them to take some time and be empathetic,” Baker said, adding that rather than just writing a ticket, an officer needs to spend the time to figure out what is driving a child to run away from home.

By trying to reach the underlying reasons, that officer might be saving a potential sex trafficking victim.

Baker told the audience about a case in Aurora, Colo., that he worked on. Two girls, ages 12 and 13, ran away from a juvenile detention facility. Hours later they were begging for food at a McDonald’s. A pimp found them, bought them Happy Meals and took them to a hotel, where he smoked marijuana with them before raping them.

By the middle of the next day, when undercover officers found them, one of the girls had already had three sex clients in less than 36 hours.  

“It happens very quick, and it happens in your town,” Baker said.

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To illustrate the point, Baker pulled up search results for Missoula and other cities from Backpage.com and other websites. He brought up more details on one of the posts for a woman, posing in underwear on a bed, with a list of rates to “spend time” with her.

“This girl is very young. I would bet $1,000 she is not an adult,” Baker said.

He tells hotel works, nurses and other people who might have contact with victims to keep an eye out for women who don’t have any identification; who say they are just visiting, but can’t articulate why they are in town, where they came from or where they are heading.

Victims often aren’t allowed to have their own money, and may be trained to only allow their pimp to answer questions or speak for them. Pimps may also tattoo or brand the woman they traffic with a specific name or symbol.

“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t see it,” he said.

Agent Gary Seder with the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation runs the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children program, which investigates child pornography, and has started spending more time working on cases of sex trafficking as well.

As part of his work, he goes around to schools giving presentations to kids about the risks associated with popular social media sites. He said he’s seen cases where within hours of contacting a girl on social media, a predator was able to convince her to send nude photos or agree to meet in person.

“Just because you send that one photo through Snapchat … doesn’t mean it’s only in that one person’s possession,” Seder said.

He said parents should talk with their kids about social media, and have them set Facebook profiles to be private so that only their friends can see what they post. He also encouraged them to monitor what apps and services their kids use, and said in his opinion children shouldn’t have unlimited access to their smartphones and other internet-connected devices in their rooms when it’s time to go to bed.

“There is no reason to let children have devices in their rooms at night,” Seder said.

If Seder can locate personal information on kids, so can predators.

“These guys are professionals, just like any of you who have a profession who work at it … you train, you learn, you practice.”

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.