May 20, 2010
A young woman who was severely beaten by a Seattle gang member in his efforts to control her and to keep her making money for him through prostitution finally had enough—she reported the crime to local authorities.
That’s how our Pacific Northwest Innocence Lost Task Force got involved. From that initial complaint late in 2008, some 20 victims of sex trafficking—five of them juveniles—were rescued, and 10 members of the West Side Street Mobb gang are now behind bars.
“As a result of this case,” said Special Agent Colleen Sanders, “the gang has basically been dismantled.” And recently, 19-year-old pimp DeShawn “Cash Money” Clark—responsible for the brutal beating that sparked the larger investigation—received a 17-year sentence and was the first person to be convicted in Washington state of a relatively new human trafficking law.
“This case illustrates the ongoing national problem of sex trafficking of juveniles,” said Sanders, the task force coordinator who works out of our Seattle office. “It also illustrates the success of the task force approach in bringing local, state, and federal agencies together to help get these young victims off the street.”
The Innocence Lost National Initiative was established in 2003 by the FBI, in conjunction with the Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Its goal is to address the increasing problem of domestic sex trafficking of children in the U.S.
Since then, some 34 task forces and working groups like the Pacific Northwest organization have been formed around the country, and nearly 900 children have been rescued. In addition, more than 500 pimps like “Cash Money” Clark have been convicted.
Sex trafficking cases—especially those involving juveniles—can be difficult to investigate, Sanders explained. Many of the young victims don’t immediately recognize themselves as such. Often the girls consent to prostitution because they think they are in love with their pimps and consider them family—sometimes the only “family” the girls have, despite the beatings and abuse common in those types of relationships.
Agent Sanders, who joined the Bureau in 2002, has been working Innocence Lost cases for the last two years. And although Seattle has a reputation for attracting runaway juveniles who are susceptible to being trafficked, she noted, “The more I worked this case, the more I learned that every major city in the United States has this very same problem.”
In Seattle, as in other U.S. cities, girls use the Internet to advertise themselves, or they work the street—known as the “track”—walking in seedy areas near low-budget hotels and parks deserted at night except for drug dealers and pimps.
After juveniles are recovered, specialists from our Victim Assistance Program work with them, providing help that could range from setting up a place to live to helping them enroll in school or just being available to talk.
“Some of the victims we can reach and help them get out of the game,” Sanders said. “But we have to catch them early, while they can still escape from that lifestyle.”
That’s why successes like shutting down the West Side Street Mobb pimps are encouraging. “The task force did a great job on this investigation,” Sanders said. “It was truly a team effort, and all of us are committed to keeping young girls from being trafficked.”