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.
The commotion was enough to draw attention to the vehicle. As the car careened down I-80 near Rawlins, someone texted 911 to report what appeared to be a man and woman fighting.
“He is going to kill her,” the 911 text message ominously read, prompting dispatch to send out law enforcement.
A Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper and Carbon County Sheriff Office deputy caught up to the vehicle at a Shell gas station near Walcott Junction, according to a Feb. 23, 2016, article in the Rawlins Daily Times. There they questioned the driver, 38-year-old Lester Tucker and his 27-year-old passenger, Janice Marie Scott, who both had suspended drivers’ licenses. They told authorities they were married, but not legally.
Two other female passengers were also with the couple, one of whom stood outside near the back of the car. The trooper saw her mouth the words ‘help me.’
The officers separated the young women from the couple, and it turned out they had a story to tell.
Their story began when the two 21-year-old women from Pennsylvania had hitched a ride with the couple in Philadelphia en route to California. Along with giving the girls a ride, the couple had promised to help them find work once they landed. It seemed like a safe enough bet. The trip began cordially enough, according to the affidavit filed in the case, though that friendliness abruptly ended once the car crossed state lines, at which point, the couple threatened the girls and demanded they turn over their cell phones.
Scott and Tucker then told the women, later identified as S.P and N.B., that they planned to force them into prostitution once they hit the West Coast. When one of the young women protested, begging for her phone and to be allowed to return home, Scott held her arms while Tucker hit one of her fingers repeatedly with a hammer. The women were despondent by the time the vehicle rolled into Wyoming.
One of the women tearfully told the officers that Tucker had raped her at a truck stop down the road, reiterating his intent to traffic them once in California. Both women corroborated the same story.
Tucker and Scott were subsequently arrested on two counts of first-degree human trafficking and were held on bonds of $250,000 and $100,000, respectively, with the prospect of facing up to 50 years in jail.
See something, say something
Luckily, law enforcement was able to intervene, Walt Moran, assistant special agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Wyoming and Montana, said. The two women were taken into protective custody and returned home.
“This definitely thwarted their plans,” he said.
He can’t stress the importance of reporting anything that looks suspicious, even if it turns out to be nothing. The Department of Homeland Security’s blue campaign provides information about what human trafficking looks like – including labor, child exploitation and personal servitude – as well as where and how to report it.
Increasingly, human trafficking is becoming a problem both in the U.S. and Wyoming. Moran wouldn’t comment on cases currently in the works other than to say that the numbers speak for themselves. In the fiscal year 2019, HSI was involved in 1,024 investigations with a nexus to human trafficking, resulting in 2,197 arrests, 1,113 indictments and 691 convictions. Of those, 428 victims were helped.
In the U.S., the average age of a girl entering into sex trafficking exploitation is between 12 and 14 years old, according to the Center for Exploited and Missing Children, while the average age for boys is between 11 and 13. According to the same stats, trafficked victims can spend an average of four to five years enslaved.
And though Wyoming is not necessarily a major hub when it comes to sex trafficking, Moran said there’s definitely through traffic from states like Colorado, Texas and California and other urban areas. Wyoming Highway Patrol (WHP), along with port authority workers and groups like Truckers Against Trafficking, has been instrumental in playing a role to root out some of these traffickers along Wyoming’s interstates and highways.
This past June, WHP arrested a driver wanted on a warrant for felony child sex abuse. The tip had come from a Colorado Port Authority worker who reported a suspicious interaction with a young lady who looked about 30 years younger than the male driver she was accompanying. After questioning her, the young women said she was an out-of-work model, depressed with no money. Though both their driver’s licenses cleared the system with no red flags, something about the exchange seemed off to the worker, who reported it to dispatch.
While the driver was arrested on the outstanding charges, the woman said he hadn’t in any way tried to harm her. She had nothing to report. Instead, she received counseling on the early warning signs of grooming and was given a hotel room for the night.
Whether or not she was actually a victim was never disclosed. This is part of the problem, Moran said. In fact, many victims do not consider themselves such due to the complicated deception and manipulation of the grooming process in which perpetrators make the relationship seem consensual and voluntary.
The psychology behind the grooming process is complicated, according to Todd Scott, a 23-year veteran agent and crisis negotiator with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Wyoming. He’s seen firsthand the hold that the handlers have over their victims. For him, it was an eye-opening experience.
He referenced one of his first human trafficking stings in 2017 at Cheyenne Frontier Days, which was a joint operation between the FBI and the Cheyenne Police Department (CPD). This followed their first ever operation the year prior in which they arrested 15 people involved in sex trafficking and solicitation.
That following year, they arrested a California man, who was running prostitutes from behind bars in a prison cell in San Bernardino, California, using a contraband cell phone. Over the course of a 30-day period, the FBI traced more than $20,000 that three California women were sending to the inmate, Charles Bernard Owens. None of the women had ever met him. Instead, he’d groomed one woman online as the primary prostitute – colloquially known as ‘the bottom bitch’ – who had recruited the other two women, who had also never met Owens.
This in itself took Agent Scott aback, giving him insight into the insidious, yet effective, ways that perpetrators manipulate their victims through emotional and physical coercion.
Although the primary prostitute herself had been a victim, she was also charged with trafficking, along with Owens, for having recruited the other two women.
This was the hard part, Scott said. They had no choice but to charge the lead prostitute when she refused to turn on Owens.
“We had a lot of heartburn over it,” he said. “She didn’t consider herself a victim and was so afraid of him that she just pled out.’
That’s the type of psychological hold these guys have on them, he noted, which admittedly was pretty shocking even to him, a well-seasoned FBI agent. He’d listened in on several of the phone calls between Owens and the women, in which Owens proceeded to break them down, only to build them back up through fear and intimidation.
It was heartbreakingly manipulative yet effective, he said, as was the hard shell the women had developed over the course of time, which not even the victim advocates could breach, despite offering a variety of support and assistance to help them get out of the life.
“They weren’t ready,” Scott said. “It’s a hard sell to ask a person to give up everything they know and trust law enforcement.”
That’s hard for some people to understand, he acknowledged, but it’s complicated.
Terri Markham, co-executive director of Uprising in Sheridan, a nonprofit focused on human trafficking outreach and education, gets it. She’s seen it firsthand herself when talking to women who had clearly been victimized but instead see it as their fault.
“I hear often from survivors that they carry a lot of shame and guilt, one of the reasons they may not come forward or even identify as a trafficking survivor/victim is this guilt, because they didn’t ’have a gun to their head,’” she said. “But although there is no literal gun, there is psychological hold. We call it trauma bonding. Many times, a trafficker will utilize many different tactics that make this trauma bond stronger. It can lead to a perceived inability to escape.”
The perpetrators are skilled in identifying vulnerabilities in their victims, who typically come from abusive backgrounds where they have been emotionally or sexually abused, sometimes by family members. Some have been abandoned by family and placed into foster care and suffer from low self-esteem, no support system or other resources and little to no education or skills.
This makes them particularly vulnerable, Markham said, to anyone who gives them attention or love.
“The control is real,” she said, “especially when they are isolated from family and friends and are being coerced by violence, drugs, emotional tactics or money.”
Up until around five years ago, law enforcement didn’t make a point to aggressively pursue prostitution charges given that it was perceived to be a pretty straightforward transaction between two consenting adults, Scott said, a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to a $750 fine and six months in prison.
Now, however, with the onset of human trafficking training across all levels of law enforcement and the courts, prostitution has taken on a much more serious tone given the number of women and men who are not willingly selling their bodies on their own volition. Where the misdemeanor crime was once a minor offense, it’s since become the nexus into much larger investigations, sometimes unearthing national or international criminal enterprises.
This attitudinal shift was late to arrive in Wyoming, which was the last state in the nation to enact laws in 2013 making human trafficking a felony crime. In subsequent years, those laws have continued to tighten.
The move to reeducate law enforcement, health providers, first responders and those in the criminal justice system was driven primarily by a top-down effort on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice who had since identified human trafficking as one of the fastest growing crimes in the world and the second largest criminal enterprise behind drugs, Scott said. This followed the realization that trafficking was not just a third-world problem but was actually happening in the U.S., including Wyoming.
“It just looks a little different here,” Scott said, “but there’s definitely a demand.”
His first joint sex trafficking operation between the FBI and CPD had been pretty eye opening, he said. FBI agents from the Denver office had driven over to give their Wyoming counterparts a crash course. They asked where the track – or street where prostitutes congregate – was in Cheyenne. Scott had to laugh at his big city colleagues. Prostitutes aren’t exactly hanging out on street corners in Wyoming, he explained. In the absence of a known track, they created one. After advertising sex with a prostitute on a couple different web sites, they set up their decoys on Lincoln Way and sat back and waited. But not for long.
The response was pretty staggering. Within hours, the traffic was so backed up that they had to shut down the operation and remove the decoys.
“That’s when I realized we had a problem,” he said, “particularly on the demand side.”
They had no idea that so many men would respond to the ad or the gritty economics of supply and demand.
“We didn’t know,” he said. “I didn’t know. We just wanted to test the waters, and what we found was staggering.”
The final story in the series will examine child exploitation and the vulnerability of runaways as well as the story of two private investigators who volunteer their time to find missing youth and adults throughout Wyoming.
If you are someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-(888) 373-7888. The hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in more than 200 languages. All calls are confidential and answered live by highly trained Anti-trafficking hotline advocates.