There’s a perception that human trafficking is a big-city problem that doesn’t happen in rural states like Wyoming. The truth is, however, that its ruralness and connectivity to major interstates makes the state prime for underground activity as a growing number of human trafficking cases are reported every year. This series takes a look at the nature of the problem, the people and groups tackling it and how awareness is changing law enforcement’s response and state legislation.
Ashley Garcia thought she’d found her soul mate. She was 17, and the two had met at a house party in Casper. He was 20 and from out of town, ostensibly in Wyoming to visit family, he told her. They dated for the month he was there, before he returned home to Minnesota.
Not long after he’d gone, Ashley discovered she was pregnant. She called him, and he told her to pack up everything and move to St. Paul to be with him. He promised to take care of her and the baby.
As a teen growing up with a quadriplegic mother who had always been in charge of taking care of her family, the idea of someone else taking care of her for a change sounded pretty good.
The boyfriend said he would pay for her gas money, but first she had to accompany one of his friends on a mission to sell fake ‘cocaine’ to a buyer, which back then didn’t raise any flags, nor did she question the danger of the situation that he’d just put her in as he waited for her to arrive in Minnesota.
Instead, she packed up her car and told her mom she was spending the weekend with a friend, which was nothing new for the teen, so nobody questioned it. She made the 14-hour drive in one night. When she didn’t return after the weekend, her mom called Ashley’s phone to check in with her daughter.
Ashley was pretty vague about her whereabouts and told her mom she’d call her back when she felt ready to talk. Then she threw her phone in the garbage, so nobody would know where she’d gone.
The first night was awesome, she recalled. Not only had he genuinely seemed happy to see her, but he also reiterated his promise to take care of her and the baby. After that first night, she woke up feeling almost guilty about her great new life and that she hadn’t shared any details with her mom and family.
Then that great new life began.
In the morning, her boyfriend’s demeanor was noticeably changed. She woke up to find three of his friends in the house with him and was told that he needed her to run them around town doing errands. She did, at which point, he asked for the rest of the money from the fake drug sale, so he could put into the bank. She handed it over.
After a long day of driving around he and his friends across the city, he asked Ashley to park the car in a dark alley and get out. She did. Then the four beat her unconscious.
When she woke up, she was locked in a dark closet naked with a bowl of water on the floor. If she needed to use the bathroom, she went in the corner. Sometimes she got food. Otherwise, she was let out only to be hosed off and raped.
Telling herself how blind she had been to willingly enter this life wasn’t exactly helpful.
In a million years, she wouldn’t have seen this one coming. Nothing in her life had prepared her for such evilness. She tried to question the ‘boyfriend’ about why he was doing this and what she’d done to deserve it as he washed her off or helped her out of the closet. He had no response.
Instead, she turned inward and tried to shut reality out and just get through the days. Later, she would find out she’d been there for three weeks.
One night, a guy had treated her unusually kind, and once she was returned to her dungeon, she could hear him arguing with her ‘boyfriend’ about something. A few hours later, feeling bolstered by the kindness, she decided to knock on the door and ask for water. When she tried the door, it was open. She peeked into the bedroom and saw her ‘boyfriend’ asleep on the bed with her car keys at his side. She crawled across the floor and grabbed them. She’d almost made it to the door when he woke up and grabbed her.
“I fought him with everything I had,” she said by phone Wednesday morning as she looked back on that night more than a decade ago. “And somehow I got out.”
Naked, she sped off in her car and found a convenience store with a pay phone to call her mom. A woman stopped and gave her a coat to wear. She didn’t tell her mother the full story, just that she was ready to come home. Her mother wired her enough gas money to make the trip back to Casper.
She was too scared to report the man, given his connections in Casper and the fact that she’d had no idea of where she’d been. It would take her a long time to finally tell her mother the whole story.
“I was scared,” she said. “I thought it was my fault because I’d willingly gone to be with him.”
Back then, she tried – and failed – to work through the experience with therapy, which she said had felt too invasive given the rawness of the event. She lost the baby and was told by doctors that she’d likely experienced too much damage to ever have children on her own. Ultimately, she was sent to stay with a family friend in Los Angeles for a month and eventually spiraled into a self-destructive pattern rife with abusive boyfriends and self-loathing.
Eventually, she was able to right her life after years of floundering. Up until three years ago, she’d never considered what happened to her as a crime given her complicity. As she read more stories about human trafficking, she realized finally that none of this was her fault.
Today, married with a stepdaughter and three children of her own and a new life in her hometown of Sheridan, she’s an outspoken advocate against human trafficking and openly shares her story publicly in hopes of raising awareness for other parents and caregivers.
That’s the biggest takeaway in her mind; helping others understand that it does happen in Wyoming.
If there’s anything good to come out of her experience, it’s this, she said. It’s part of her healing and helping other young adults from making those same mistakes while shedding light on the misnomers about human trafficking.
“It doesn’t always look like what you think it does,” she said. “Most people have a very skewed image of what it is because of movies, and there’s not that much information about it.”
This is the problem when it comes to human trafficking, Terri Markham, co-founder of Uprising in Sheridan which does outreach and trainings to raise awareness, said. Most people don’t know what it is, which fuels rumors on social media that human trafficking means getting snatched up in parking lots or other locations and forced into prostitution or labor.
The truth is that human trafficking is much more insidious and typically less dramatic than depicted in movies and on television. In many cases, she said, the victims themselves have a hard time labeling their experience as such, including fellow Uprising Co-founder Alexandra Stevenson, who had been trafficked by her ex-boyfriend who demanded she strip to pay for their bills. Because she willingly complied with the request, she didn’t consider herself a victim.
“They think that just because someone didn’t hold a gun to their head and make them do it, they weren’t exploited,” Markham said. “But they were.”
There’s a big difference between selling your body for profit and exploitation, Markham noted.
In cases of prostitution, a person is willingly taking sex for money. In trafficking, however, that person is being exploited in return for something of value, with a third-party profiting from that transaction whether it be prostitution or pornography or other.
The fact that a person is selling their body doesn’t always mean it’s at their free will, which historically has been a problem for many in differentiating sex for money versus exploitation.
A second problem is the proliferation of urban legends masquerading as truth on social media, which gets widely shared. Locally, there have been several posts about zip ties left on car mirrors or mailboxes, marking them as a target, or obscure messages found on bumpers in public parking lots indicating ‘1 f (one female), 2b (two boys)’ or some derivative thereof as well as stories about seeing vans with blacked-out windows and locks on the outside of their doors.
In her experience, Markham has never heard or seen this personally – nor has it been mentioned in trainings with police –which was concurred by Gillette Police Detective Christine Winterholler, who says these posts are misleading at best. In most cases, Winterholler said people are not abducted from parking lots, and to her knowledge, there have been no cases of such in Gillette.
Yes, it happens, but typically victims are more insidiously enticed into human trafficking by predators online or their own families, she said, as in a recent local case where two women were prostituting their children for money.
About 90% of human trafficking victims are turned out as children, Winterholler said, with particular vulnerabilities to those children in the foster care system or those whose activities are not being monitored online. Runaways are particularly at risk, she noted, with statistics showing that most are picked up by a predator within 48 hours of being missing.
“Predators are very good at this,” she said, “and are expert at manipulating vulnerabilities.”
For those who don’t think this is happening in Wyoming, Markham has a message. In every single youth class she’s conducted over the past in Sheridan County, she’s received a disclosure from a youth who was experiencing trafficking, which up until then, they hadn’t realized was a crime.
“There’s any number of ways a predator preys on their victim,” Markham said.
Typically, the victims that she’s seen have been metaphorically – and sometimes literally – stripped of their identities in which they feel dependent by their perpetrator.
She described a case of a 12-year-old teen in Sweetwater County who was being groomed online by someone she’d met on the internet. Her mother, Christal Martin, was able to intervene, but not without her daughter experiencing severe psychological trauma, requiring residential treatment. Martin has since started an agency called Sweetwater Against Trafficking.
In another instance, Markham’s group was contacted by a frantic parent who called to report that her 18-year-old daughter was getting on a plane after a man she’d met online sent her a plane ticket and promised to take care of her. In this instance, because the teen was 18, there was nothing Markham or the parents could do. She has no idea what happened.
“The grooming process is powerful,” she said, noting that the predator preys on vulnerabilities by fulfilling a need, then isolating the victim from friends and family in order to gain control.
Hiding in plain sight
Markham, a Texas native who has spent much of her career advocating on behalf of exploited women and victims, was stunned to see how easy it is to arrange for paid sex with minors, women and other partners.
In a recent training with Sheridan Police detectives, they placed an ad on a website (on the internet, not the dark web, that County 17 is deliberating not naming) advertising sex with a young woman at a local Sheridan hotel. By 8:30 a.m., the burner phone had already received several texts from interested parties.
“This is on a Tuesday morning in Sheridan,” she said. By the end of the second day of training, they’d received at least a dozen texts asking to set up appointments.
Unfortunately, she said, there’s always a buyer, and humans are a renewable resource.
“It’s an issue of supply and demand,” she said, “and human trafficking has become the second fastest growing criminal industry behind drug trafficking.”
In Gillette, GPD Detective Winterholler pulled up a website on her computer with various overt offerings, including a category for ‘sugar babies’ – complete with nude pictures and videos, encouraging would-be customers to text a number for an appointment.
Though they’ve done several stings in the past to catch solicitors, Winterholler said the goal is not to bust the victim but rather the trafficker, which is a much harder mission in that most victims won’t give up a name and much of the activity is coming from out-of-state circuits with stops in cities throughout Wyoming.
With regard to whether or not these women are being trafficked, Winterholler said there may be a few clues in the photos. Typically, those prostituting on their own volition will take their own selfies or close-up photos while those being trafficked have more posed shots that have been taken by someone else. Not always, she said, but a lot of the time.
Unfortunately, Winterholler noted, much of this activity is out there in plain view, and there are so many avenues on the internet, including apps and websites, that make children particularly vulnerable.
She reiterated Markham’s advice that parents or caregivers pay attention to their children’s online and social media activity. There are any number of apps that seem innocuous enough, such as calculator vault, which some parents may actually believe is being used to do math when in reality a set passcode would expose secret apps used to hide photos, videos, files and browser history.
After attending a human trafficking conference for law enforcement in Sacramento in February, Winterholler has a new appreciation – or lack thereof – for the culture that not just glamorizes human trafficking but openly perpetuates it in rap songs and videos.
She pulled up a video by rap singer Drissy Bo, who openly talked about trafficking his ‘bitches’ in a video publicly posted on YouTube. Bo was eventually arrested for trafficking in California, but there are many others where he came from.
In another video still up on YouTube, one pimp videotapes his ‘bitches’ fighting over their respective positions in a hotel room, where he was later arrested after other guests complained. The video is still up.
This glamorization of the lifestyle is what Winterholler referred to as ‘selling the dream.’ As the culture becomes more mainstream, some teens glamorize the perpetuated lifestyle, having no background knowledge of the exploitation that it entails, she said.
Winterholler returned to the importance of parents being involved in their children’s lives.
“Know what your children are doing online,” Winterholler said. “Pay attention and educate yourselves.”
The next three parts in the series examine the exploitation of children on the internet, the laws and legislative history surrounding human trafficking in the state and the stories of two private investigators who volunteer their time to find missing youth and adults throughout Wyoming.