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A two-day training for law enforcement in how to investigate sex trafficking crimes returns to Missoula this week, with organizers adding a series of presentations open to the public that they hope will draw more attention to the issue.

Missoula police Detective Guy Baker, a state-certified sex trafficking investigation instructor, will be one of the presenters at the conference, which starts Wednesday at the University of Montana. Around 200 officers and prosecutors from around the state — as well as Idaho, Washington and Wyoming — are expected to attend.

Baker said that when he talks to people about sex trafficking, most don’t see the distinction between it and prostitution.

“So many people don’t see them as victims. I get so tired of hearing, ‘Oh, she’s just a prostitute’ … it just totally negates a situation that a person is in,” Baker said. “A prostitute is someone who is, on their own choice, engaging in commercial sex for their own benefit, where a trafficking victim is someone who is compelled by another through force, fraud or coercion to engage in commercial sex, and that other person benefits from it.”

Baker says most people around Missoula see the issue as something that happens only in big cities and other states.

When he first started working on sex trafficking cases in 2010, Baker’s earliest case was that of Terrance Edwards, eventually charged with forcing a 19-year-old Missoula woman to meet clients for sex. Edwards received a fully suspended sentence in Missoula County District Court, only to be arrested on similar charges in Texas two years later. He eventually was returned to Montana and sentenced to prison when his suspended sentence was revoked.

Edwards was released from prison on parole in March 2016. Two days after his supervision ended in September of that year, he was arrested in Billings for trafficking several teenage girls and adult women for sex in Montana and Salt Lake City. Last month, a federal jury found Edwards guilty of 10 felonies. He is set to be sentenced in June.

“It is happening in Montana, and it is happening in Missoula,” Baker said. “I can’t think of another crime that is shrouded in misperception greater than human trafficking.”

In addition to his role with Missoula police, Baker is also a task force officer with the FBI’s Montana Regional Violent Crime Task Force, which pairs local, state and federal investigators to tackle larger issues like sex trafficking.

He first organized the law enforcement training conference in Missoula in 2016, and held it last year in Billings, where local agencies added presentations for the public. When it came time to put it together in Missoula this year, the detective said he worked with the Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force — a collection of law enforcement and victim service agencies — to have a public part of the event.

The free public community conference starts at 8 a.m. in the University Center Theater with an overview of sex trafficking in Montana by Baker.

Gary Seder, who runs the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, also has a presentation at Thursday’s community conference. Attendees will also hear from a sex trafficking victim, and a parent whose daughter was recruited and manipulated into sex trafficking.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, organizers are screening the documentary “I am Jane Doe” about several parents’ lawsuits against Backpage.com on behalf of their children, whose sex trafficking ads were posted on the site.

Baker said in addition to generating more community awareness, he’s hoping people like nurses, school officials and hotel employees can attend the public events to learn more about the warning signs and what they can do to help.

After trainings, officers frequently come up to him and say they remember a domestic violence call or a traffic stop that always felt weird, and now recognize there was likely sex trafficking involved. Baker said he thinks the same principle could apply to a lot of jobs where people might have contact with victims.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.