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Las Vegas woman is Swedish diplomat, leader in trafficking fight

Updated June 25, 2019 - 10:08 am

Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Las Vegans.

Lena Walther’s peripatetic life story took her around the world and through several careers before she landed in Las Vegas, where she’s the honorary consul of Sweden to Nevada and co-founder and CEO of Awareness is Prevention, which fights human trafficking.

A native of Sweden, she became a diplomat in 1976, posted to Bangkok, Thailand, and Seoul, South Korea. It was in Bangkok where she met her husband, Ken, when he was with the American embassy there. “It was difficult for him to marry me, not only as a foreigner, but as a Swedish diplomat,” she says today. The couple married in Washington, D.C., in 1981, and Lena Walther became an American citizen and American diplomat in 1984. They were posted to Madrid, Vienna (where sons Marc and Eric were born) and Paris.

They returned to the United States, where Ken, who was in the CIA, became an instructor at the agency’s legendary covert training facility nicknamed “The Farm,” outside Williamsburg, Virginia. Once the other parents discovered Lena had been a classical pianist since childhood, they recruited her to teach their children. “It was a very secret place,” she says. “It was an interesting place to live because it was so secure — an ideal place for children.” She taught piano to 40 children in 2½ years.

Then it was back to Washington. After Ken Walther retired, they decided to start a manufacturing company and, learning that the economic climate here was conducive to such businesses, located it in Las Vegas in 1995. Lazer-Tek Designs used Russian “Star Wars” technology — and Russian scientists — to create items with subsurface laser etchings. The designs were crystallike, commonly used for awards, with a 3D logo seemingly buried within the crystal. They set up on a ranch in Henderson through the test phase, then moved to Southern Nevada in 1997.

The Walthers sold the company in 2002 and Lena started a design firm, Scandinavian Collection, with a partner in Sweden; they had a showroom at the World Market Center. She also gave talks on Scandinavian design and architecture and in 2006 was named honorary consul. She and Ken founded Awareness is Prevention in 2014 and have worked to spread awareness ever since. This month, she spoke in Washington, D.C., at the 2019 Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation Summit, hosted by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and attended by about 700 experts on trafficking.

Review-Journal: What is the role of an honorary consul?

Lena Walther: The honorary consul is an extension of the embassy. Every country has different expectations for their honorary consuls. Because Sweden only has the embassy in Washington and the consulate general in New York, we (26) honorary consuls have to do a lot of extra work. Some of us do temporary passports; those keep me fairly busy. You have to help your citizens. That’s the primary thing you do. We do a lot of trade promotion, a lot of cultural promotion; that’s up to each one of us. I also promote the Swedish Model (of combating human trafficking) with the help of the Swedish ambassador-at-large.

What are some typical cases you have handled?

People come here for trade shows; everybody thinks they can come here and do the “Hangover” movie. I wish I could sit and talk to tourists before they come. I do a lot of visits at the Detention Center. (And sometimes men are lured to their hotel rooms, drugged and robbed of all of their possessions; she helps with passports, etc.) I had a 75-year-old woman who came here for the first time; her husband had been here several times and was going to show her around. On his third straight day of drinking at the hotel bar, she went up and slapped him. Security came and the next thing she knew she was at the Detention Center, and it had cost her $4,000. She kept asking me when she was going to get her money back.

How did you get involved in the issue of human trafficking?

There were two cases of Swedish girls (2006 and 2008) who had been beaten and held hostage. One — a civil engineer — had come over as a tourist, and by the time she got to me, she had a 4-month-old baby with her pimp. I got her out within a week and the trafficker had no clue. In 2008, I started going to the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force (under the auspices of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department) with a friend who was setting up a therapy practice.

Why did you see a need for Awareness is Prevention?

No one was working together. No one was working on awareness. We have to start preventing it. It really is an epidemic. The foundation paid for training for 100 people.

What needs to be done?

You’ve really got to stay on top of your kids — know what they’re doing. We need to start with schools, churches and neighborhoods, get people watching out for each other, with eyes and ears. As the police say, “If you see something, say something.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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