13 Investigates: Children forced into prostitution
Girls as young as 9-years old are sold for sex in Indianapolis. They're promoted in explicit online ads. With a click and a text, they arrive at motels across the city.
They are delivered by their pimps – because many of the girls are too young to drive themselves.
Human trafficking is not just some far off, international problem. It's happening here. It's happening in Central Indiana.
13 Investigates was granted rare and exclusive access to an undercover human trafficking sting. The FBI Crimes Against Children Unit and IMPD vice unit allowed our cameras inside a motel room with undercover officers - and outside, in the parking lot, with officers waiting to arrest pimps. The agents and officers hope that showing what is happening to these girls will highlight the crisis they are in. Telling their stories reveals the dark underworld of child human trafficking where wads of cash, illegal guns and drugs are common.
The Undercover Sting
Five undercover IMPD vice officers with laptops and cell phones fill a small west side motel room. They sit on the beds, a chair, at the desk and on the floor. The air conditioning is on high even though it's a chilly December morning. The room will get stuffy as the night goes on. Other officers come in and out over the next six hours as they conduct the human trafficking sting.
Handcuffs, condoms and police badges sit on the dresser. Each officer has a handful of cash in his pocket. They all type on their computers and on their phones - scouring the web and sending text messages, "fishing" they call it, for teenage girls who are sold for sex. The officers invite the girls to the motel under the guise of having sex for cash. Instead, the girls are rescued from forced prostitution. The goal on this night, and during many other stings like it, is for the police to reach trafficked girls before it's too late.
"At the end of the day, you are trying to rescue someone from a horrible situation," explains FBI Supervisory Special Agent Michael Langeman.
The vice officers tell us they look for key words or phrases when searching the internet for underage girls. Sometimes it's hard to tell how old the girls are based on the picture posted with their ad. "The pimps advertise certain key words that sometimes the johns know what to look for," explained one IMPD vice officer, "whether it be 'young', 'new', things of that nature."
Around 3 o'clock on that Monday morning two girls respond to a text from an officer. Two men drop the girls off at the motel. The girls go into a room and discuss with the undercover officer their price: $175 dollars for 30 minutes of sex. They say it's $175 because there are two of them.
At that moment, agents swoop in to the room. The girls are taken into a third room, where counselors and female officers talk with them. It turns out - the girls are only 15 years old. They both once attended Ben Davis High School. They were only in the 10th grade.
In the parking lot outside, police officers and FBI agents question and handcuff the two men who drove the girls to the motel. Police say the men met the girls on Facebook. Officers confiscate the men's phones, a car and other belongings.
Upstairs in the motel, the girls talk to women from the FBI's Victim Services unit and wait for Department of Child Services workers to arrive and take them to a safe place. The DCS workers get to the motel around 5am and talk to the girls. They ask them about their lives and how they got to where they are now.
The Vulnerable & The Broken
The raw and heartbreaking details of how these girls got where they are now is laid out in a packed folder on Judge Marilyn Moores' desk. The file is labeled "Trafficked Kids."
"It's just a pile of sadness to me," says the Marion County Superior Court judge. The current caseload folder contains more child human trafficking cases than the judge has had in years - 26 cases detailing how girls ages 11 to 17 were sold for sex. "Kid after kid after kid who's had their childhood stolen from them," she says.
A woman who was forced into prostitution when she was just 16 years old agreed to tell us her story – and why she now dedicates her life to counseling young girls who have had their childhoods stolen.
"At that moment, in my life nobody cared about me," explained the woman who asked that we not identify her, "If you don't get 'em when they're young it's going to be really hard."
Her pimp was her own stepmother. "She was making a lot of money off me," she explained. "She was making $300 a call to $500 a call." The woman says she received about $100 of that money. The money kept her going. But she says she was numb. "The typical call of intercourse or whatever, that, I just got used to it. I felt like I didn't have a choice."
"It's a vicious cycle, and it needs to stop at a young age," said the former prostitute, who explained that what authorities are doing is critical, "because it's affected me and it's affected the rest of my family and it's affected my children."
That sense of despair is common. Many girls are broken and vulnerable. Many are runaways.
"When you think about a 14, 15, 16, even 17 year-old girl on the street, she has no way of supporting herself," explained SSA Langeman, "She can't rent a hotel room. She can't rent a hotel room on her own...she can't rent a car…getting a job without an address. So it becomes a matter of survival."
It's survival at any cost. "The pimps that are out there aren't overly smart people but they are master manipulators, and they can identify the one thing in her life that she's missing and fill that void," said SSA Langeman.
"They don't go pick someone that's strong," adds the former prostitute. "They pick someone that's already broken, that has no self-esteem, that needs to be loved. And you're going to get that love any way you can."
The Rapidly Growing Caseload
"From the minute the investigation starts, our goal is to save as many of these kids as possible and to put these traffickers behind bars," explained Shaunestte Terrell, a Marion County deputy prosecutor. Her full-time job is dealing with human traffickers. Her caseload has grown by nearly 400% in just the past 7 months.
"Now I'm up to 18, and it's more and more every day," she says.
It hasn't always been this way. The courts used to see a case of a trafficked child every 2 or 3 years. "Until a year ago, and suddenly there was this explosion," said Judge Moores, "These aren't kids from New York and Las Vegas and L.A. These are Indianapolis girls -- every single one of them."
The case files are hard to read. Hard to imagine children living in conditions described in court paperwork. Some are confined and physically abused. One child was held captive for 3 days. These are details from Indianapolis case files. There are more just like it in counties around the state.
Sometimes there is an arrest and a prosecution in the case. On that same day in December when 13 Investigates was with the FBI and IMPD, officers also rescued a 15 year-old girl who was sold for $100 dollars for 30 minutes of sex. 25 year-old Taylor Miller was arrested. He is expected to plead guilty to human trafficking of a minor. He met the teen on social media.
"I think there's a serious lack of awareness and a serious problem amongst parents thinking that it couldn't happen to their kids, when it could," said Terrell.
Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat are all meeting places. Eventually the girls end up on websites like backpage.com, a website commonly used to advertise escorts. Judge Moores tells parents just how important it is to keep a close watch on their child's social media use – it's a place where predators lure young victims.
"You gotta pry. You have to pay attention. You have to be nosy. You have to ask and, once you ask, you verify," Moores says emphatically.
The case against the alleged pimps in the case involving the former Ben Davis students is still under investigation Authorities are searching the men's phones, hoping to prove the men were actually the ones corresponding with the undercover officers. They were the ones "selling" the girls. If that can be proven, the men may be charged federally under human trafficking laws.
Stings like the one carried out at the west side motel work - but it's a snapshot of a much bigger problem.
"It's beyond tragic," said Moores, "because I can't fix it. I can't give them their childhood back. I can't have them un-see what they've seen and un-experience what they've experienced."
The former prostitute we spoke with says it's taken her nearly 30 years to leave a life she hated. "Now that I'm older I can't be saved, I have to save myself," she reflects.And as she does that, she's studying to be a social worker, to help spare young girls what she was forced to endure.
"If I can help one girl out there not have to go through what I've gone through in the past three decades, it's worth every bit of it," she said.
A federal or state crime?
Until recently, human trafficking of a minor was considered a local or state crime. But now that the FBI is working with local police, the push is to prosecute pimps in the federal system. In those cases, punishment for trafficking of a minor is an extremely serious crime with a minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.
In 2015, federal authorities in Indiana sentenced one person for human trafficking under federal law. Jerry Mitchell was accused of trafficking a 16 and 17 year old girl in 2012-13 and selling them for sex. He reached a plea agreement with a 300 month sentence (25 years) in federal prison.
In 2015, US Attorney office in Indiana charged three other men with human trafficking of a minor. Their cases are still ongoing.
The Huge Effort
The sting at the west side motel was conducted by more than police officers and FBI agents. These operations put a large team of people in place for complete care of the victims and a full investigation of the perpetrators.
The team of people standing by to help as needed that night alone included:
- Marion County Health Department whose members were able to provide medical testing like HIV, STD and pregnancy tests if needed.
- FBI Victim Services counseled the girls (and women) who responded to the calls from undercover officers.
- Representatives from Restored (http://www.restoredinc.org/our-team/¬) ,a victims outreach service, provided immediate help to victims of human trafficking.
- Officers from the Safe Streets operation provided support to the undercover officers.
- A deputy prosecutor from the Marion County Prosecutor's office was in the room to advise officers on the spot if there were questions about a case.
The investigation into human trafficking of minors is taking on a renewed approach - with the goal of rescuing the girls, counseling them and getting them back on track to a normal life.
Officers and prosecutors focus on the prosecution of their pimps.