UPDATE: Child Sex Trafficking: A Parent's Worst Nightmare

By: Madeline Anderson Email
By: Madeline Anderson Email

It's beyond a parent's worst nightmare, learning her daughter is being coerced to have sex for money. It's also incredibly hard to talk about once reality sinks in. But after seeing this news report about child sex trafficking, the mom of one of the Wausau-area girls who was trafficked says she needs to break her silence. She wants her identity protected, but she's coming forward now to let other families know it can happen to anyone, and it can happen without anyone knowing.

Wausau Mom: I can't believe it happened to her because she was a perfectly normal child. That's the most shocking part to me, is how in the world did she get mixed up in something like that? I believe it was drugs.

NewsChannel 7: How do you feel when you think about what she had to do?

WM: I try not to think about it.

NC7: Your daughter and the two other girls, they were actually charged and convicted of prostitution. Tell me your reaction to that, because they were also victims.

WM: I think they were taken advantage of by the older people. So part of me was, the kids were not being treated fairly because they should not have been charged with it because they really in a sense didn't know what they were doing fully. But then another part of me, they knew exactly what they were doing, all of them, including my daughter. They just did it anyways. And that part of me says they should be charged with something.

NC7: The consequences span much longer than these three days they were doing this.

WM: I tell my daughter, you will pay for this for the rest of your life, something that can cause you to not get an apartment, to not get a loan, or a decent job, or even go to college.

NC7: What is she doing now?

WM: She's stripping. She knows I don't approve of her job. But again, she's an adult. I can't do anything.

NC7: Your daughter's a stripper?

WM: Right.

NC7: It really seems like the prostitution led to [the stripping].

WM: Right. The money that you get with that job is a huge amount of money as well.

NC7: Emotionally, mentally, psychologically, how is she doing?

WM: I tell her that she needs to talk to somebody about this whole situation because she just says she needs to bury it and put it behind her. But I told her, you can do that for years, but it's going to come back up someday and it's going to be worse than ever.

NC7: Do you feel like you failed as a parent?

WM: I do. I have to remind myself over and over that I couldn't have done anything differently that would have changed this outcome because I believe it had nothing to do with how she was brought up and how she lived at home. I believe it had everything to do with who she hooked up with, through friends, through school and through the internet.This whole situation has taught me to love her regardless, to help her, whenever she needs it.

-----------------------------------------Part 1---------------------------------------------

Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, and the second largest illegal enterprise after drugs. Yet it's also among the most under-reported crimes.

The U.S. Dept. of Justice estimates up to 200,000 American children are at risk of being sold for sex every year, some even in Wis.

Sarah* is 29 and survivor of human trafficking. She isn't from Eastern Europe or India or Latin America. She's from Madison. "It's all over and it's everywhere and it needs to stop," she said.

"Many survivors we see are victims of childhood sexual abuse and trauma that seasons them for a lifetime, or years of additional trauma," said victims' advocate Jan Miyasaki with Project Respect in Madison.

At 11, Sarah was molested. At 15 her aunt sold her to a man for sex. "She offered him me for the drugs, for the exchange of crack cocaine," Sarah said.

At 19, Sarah had no job, no home and four children to care for. She paid the bills the only way she knew how.

"I lived on the streets," Sarah said. "I slept on park benches. There was a guy who owned a gas station who liked me. In order for him to get me a hotel room, I had to have sex with him."

Sarah is one of very few who have ever agreed to talk to a reporter after being enslaved. But cases like hers aren't rare at all.

Wis. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has made fighting the sexual exploitation of children his top priority. "If we don't do anything about it, what they end up being is a life of slavery and a life of crime," he said.

Prior to 2008, child sex trafficking wasn't recognized as a crime. Now, it's considered a class C felony under state statute. Yet as the penalties go up, the risk also grows. Girls no longer have to stand on street corners to sell themselves. Predators can reach kids right in their bedrooms.

"We have people who will be trafficking a child for sexual purposes who will be pimping them out over the internet," Van Hollen said. "And that's where they'll be recruiting clients."

The average age of victims is just 13 years old. Many are enticed by pedophiles online, or pictures they may text to a friend are posted to escort sites that get millions of hits.

"They can be from the most affluent high schools," Van Hollen said. "The most affluent neighborhoods."

They can even be from Wausau.

"The reality is, it's happening in our community," said Theresa Wetzsteon, the Marathon Co. Deputy D.A. "And I'm glad that the legislature recognized that it's happening and now we have the tools to prosecute and charge this type of a case."

This past year, Wetzsteon prosecuted the first ever child sex trafficking case in Marathon Co. According to a Wausau police report, three 17-year-old girls were recruited by acquaintances to have sex for money with men in the area.

"The effect this had on their lives is devastating," Wetzsteon said. "Their self worth, they felt degraded, ashamed of themselves, guilty. You name it."

-----------------------------------------Part 2---------------------------------------------

At 17, high school girls should be hanging out with friends, applying to colleges and picking out a prom dress. But for the three teens involved in the Wausau child prostitution case, their chances of having that normal life were ruined in a matter of days.

"One of the girls talked about having to go back to school after this all came out, and how everyone looked at her like she was a prostitute," Wetzsteon said. "At that age as a child, I don't think you understand the significance of what you're getting pulled in to."

It's a crime that often mixes vulnerable teens with hardened criminals. "You have these adults who have prior criminal records, who know what the system is all about, who know how to manipulate, intimidate," Wetzsteon said. "And once they're in, it's very hard to get out."

Police say the traffickers told the girls to take naked pictures of themselves. Before the girls knew it, the photos were posted online. Backpage.com is the main website pimps and prostitutes use to advertise sexual services. The page for Wausau alone has more than 120 posts since mid December of 2012. The posts say sexually suggestive things like, 'Are you ready real pleasure.' The links also offer explicit photos, contact information and details about what each woman will do for money. The three girls in the Wausau case were featured on the site, even though they were underage at the time. Within minutes of their pictures being posted, calls came in from men who were interested--men who were passing through town, men who lived a half hour away, and men who lived right down the street.

"Once that first sex act occurred, they felt it was kind of a point of no return," Wetzsteon said.

The girls earned around $150/hr, but it cost them their self esteem. Fortunately, police stumbled on the sex trafficking after it had been going on for only three days. They were responding to a disturbance at one of the trafficker's homes when a victim told them what was going on.

"She described how she was victimized," said Det. Jeff Strobach with the Wausau Police Dept. "She was told certain things, quick money. And she really didn't think it through. And it affected her psychologically and physically."

One Wausau man, Hassan Almoosawi, was convicted of using the girls' services, however, the girls told police they had sex with around a dozen men.

"We have such a caseload, that it's hard keeping up with what we have," Det. Strobach said. "It's difficult for us to be very proactive when it comes to those types of cases."

The three 17-year-old victims were also convicted of prostitution because under the law they're considered adults.

When asked if it seemed counterproductive to charge the victims, Wetzsteon said, "I wasn't involved in that part of it."

NewsChannel 7 asked the Wis. DOJ whether those sold in trafficking cases should be charged with prostitution. They declined to comment.

Police say four people were involved in operating the child prostitution ring. Nicole Rhiele has yet to plea. She's been accused of driving the girls to the various calls. Dominick West is still awaiting sentencing. The police report says he was responsible for recruiting two of the girls. Darrell Vaughn has been sentenced to three years in prison. He was involved in transporting the girls to hotel rooms and houses, and collecting the money after they had sex with the johns. Barbi Metzger faces the most serious charge, and will spend five years in prison. Prosecutors say she played a major role in setting up the meetings with the johns and posting the girls' pictures to backpage.com.

"Click click click, I upload the pictures," Metzger said. "Four days later, I'm sitting in the Marathon Co. Jail for prostitution, child trafficking."

Before going to Taycheedah Correctional Facility to do her time, Metzger agreed to do an interview with NewsChannel 7 at the jail.

She says the girls told her they were over 18 years old. "I didn't know they were young."

Metzger, 29, says she was swept in because she needed money, but that she was also a victim, working as a prostitute herself. She says she's been unfairly blamed for running the ring, something she argues she's not even mentally capable of doing.

"On paper, I'm actually younger than these girls," Metzger said. "I have bipolar, borderline personality disorder, paranoid schizophrenic tendencies, and I'm mentally 15 on paperwork."

Prosecutors disagreed. Metzger was found guilty of pimping the girls and running a place of prostitution. The child trafficking charge was dismissed.

Although she doesn't think she should spend so much time locked up, Metzger says she takes full responsibility for being involved at all.

"It's wrong, yes it is wrong," she said. "But in the same aspect, you can't prevent it. It happens all over the place."

-----------------------------------------Part 3---------------------------------------------

It takes just one click and a predator can gain access to the most intimate details of a child's life from miles away.

"It's one of the things that has changed since my youth," Van Hollen said. "Your parents would warn you, don't talk to strangers, don't take candy from strangers, don't get in a car with a stranger."

Now, strangers are able to disguise themselves as friends, classmates, even family members. The internet has created an entirely new way for child sex traffickers to find their next targets. It's also made it harder for law enforcement to investigate. Criminals are able to entice kids from their computers and pimp them out to a broader list of customers via the web.

"We definitely could use more enforcement of that because a person could go online now and hook up within a matter of probably five minutes. It's that blatant," said Det. Strobach.

But with few resources and an already full caseload of armed robberies, drug overdoses and domestic disputes, the Wausau Police Dept. has had to make the tough decision to focus on the more urgent crimes and investigate sex trafficking crimes later.

"I think it is very dangerous if we have segments of society that are doing nothing," Van Hollen said. "Because essentially what you're saying, is if you're not focusing on child sex trafficking, it's legal because nobody's going to enforce the laws."

Van Hollen recognizes both the strain this type of criminal activity puts on law enforcement and the immediate action it requires.

"In our budget, we've requested five special agents and analysts to work on child sex trafficking," he said. "And right now we do have agents working on that, but they aren't designated for that cause. So we take them away from working on our internet crimes against children, child pornography and solicitation type of work."

The DOJ has also taken several proactive steps in recent years. Wisconsin's "Internet Crimes Against Children" Task Force provides training for officers so they know how to conduct searches and look at hard drives for things like child porn. More than 180 local law enforcement agencies are now ICAC partners, including Merrill, Stevens Point Marshfield and Wausau.

The Wausau Police Dept., along with the Marathon Co. Sheriff's Dept. conducts sting operations a couple times a year, using escort sites like backpage.com.

"We'll purport ourselves as being a john or even a prostitute and try to hook up with people," Det. Strobach said.

"We have a fine line to walk between attorneys general and law enforcement, between pressuring places like backpage.com to do things to prevent this from occurring on their website," Van Hollen said. "Versus at least wanting to know what websites are being used so we have the leads so we can try to save these people from being further victimized."

When prevention isn't enough, the penalties can at least help deter traffickers from committing the same crime again. A child sex trafficking conviction carries a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.

"We're sending a much stronger message in Wis.," Van Hollen said. "That you can't hide behind the safety of your computer and you have a very great risk of getting caught."

*Name has been changed

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