Teen sex trafficking awareness saves lives

She was just a kid. That much was obvious despite the makeup and skimpy outfit she wore as she walked uneasily on the shadowy end of Fremont Street where it hooks up with Charleston Boulevard.

A veteran Metro patrol officer stopped the girl and began a field interview. He must have been shocked at just how young she looked. Although she was 13 years old on that day last May, she seemed even more childlike.

The cop did his job. His questions generated nervous lies from the girl and gave him enough to take her into custody. Not long afterward, she met Metro Vice Detective Rich Leung, who casually but methodically elicited information.

“She said she started at age 12, but she looks like she’s 8,” Leung said. “When we took over the case, I started building a much-needed rapport. We talked for several hours, not about the case, but more about life in general, and she finally started giving more information about the case. She didn’t really know a whole lot about where she was.”

After receiving permission to review her cellphone information, the case began to come together. The suspects were partially identified.

In a few hours, Leung had her story and a lead that took him to the Gateway Motel where he found two young men known to the kid as “Reno” and “Seag.”

About that same time, a worried mother from the Oakland area contacted Metro to say she believed her daughter, 16, had been transported to Las Vegas for the purposes of prostitution by two young men. The teen’s availability in Las Vegas had been advertised on myredbook.com. The mother didn’t know their full names, only that they went by the nicknames Reno and Seag.

“It was the same names that we received from the 13-year-old,” Leung said. “We started putting two and two together.”

The result was the rescue of two teenage girls and the arrest of aspiring Hayward, Calif., pimps Ray Darnell Webb and Seagram Joshua Miller. Webb and Miller were recently convicted of sex-trafficking-related charges as part of the joint child exploitation task force efforts of Metro Vice and the U.S. Attorney’s office. They are scheduled to be sentenced April 29 in U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson’s courtroom. Each faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Although the story of the 13-year-old prostitute is dramatic on its face, it is anything but unique. Fact is, most girls who wind up in prostitution are turned out during their vulnerable early teens.

Metro Vice not only regularly encounters young girls being pushed by pimps on the street and in local casino resorts, but since the first of the year Lt. Karen Hughes’ unit has seen a 38 percent increase in teenage prostitution activity. While some of the growth could be due to more girls on the street, the veteran vice supervisor believes the larger number also is due to improved education and identification by Metro officers and hotel security personnel.

And that’s a good thing. The more time that passes, the harder it is to extract the girls from the street life. Last year, Metro logged 148 sex trafficking cases.

“By the time we get involved — we meaning law enforcement — it’s often too late,” Hughes said. “It’s got to be caught on the front end.”

That’s one reason Hughes and various law enforcement and social service partners are so focused on increasing awareness of the issue. Spotting signs of trouble can save a life. The recent comprehensive airing of the documentary “Trafficked No More” was an attempt to rapidly raise awareness.

“There’s always going to be vice enforcement guys going around, but a lot of help we’re receiving comes from citizens, parents, people in the medical field like nurses, teachers, nongovernmental advocates we work closely with,” Leung said.

Starting an informed conversation about teen sex trafficking is a sensitive issue, they admitted, but it’s essential to making a difference.

Hughes observed: “We have to get the dialogue started at the age group where this is most impacting, and that is the kids. … When people start talking about the issue, solutions start coming out of that.”

It’s always a good day when Metro pulls teenagers off the street, but the trouble is the detectives can’t save everyone.

Hughes said, “The best answer ultimately, for me, is prevention.”

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.