Human Trafficking

It happens here and The Women’s Community is helping police target those behind the scenes of prostitution
CP Cover 092415 4C-page-001On a cold day this past February, a woman wearing a white coat and grey pants waited on a corner in Weston for Everest Metro Police to arrive and pick her up. Temperatures were frigid, but not as chilling as the experience she described to police.

Just moments prior, she had escaped from a man who had planned to sell her to six men, according to police reports. Their payment was to be a large amount of methamphetamines (meth) in exchange for raping her. The would-be pimp, who picked her up a few days earlier at a hotel in Hudson, allegedly told the men he didn’t care what they did with her afterward because nobody knew her or cared who she was. Police say he had plied her with drugs and told her not to inform anyone she was in Wausau.

According to the criminal complaint, he told the six buyers to make sure she didn’t kick or scream. If she fought back, he said he didn’t know what would happen.

The woman’s phone battery died on the way to Wausau, she told police, but she found a charger and managed to plug it in just long enough to turn on the phone. As her fingers worked the screen, the first man who came into the hotel room for his “purchase” saw her operating the phone, according to police. He panicked, then the other men freaked, and they all took off, taking the meth with them.

The woman told police that while the would-be pimp got on his phone attempting to coax back the men and their drugs, she gathered her things and escaped, calling the police.

The man, Bee Her, 36 of Weston, was arrested and charged with one count of human trafficking. His case is still working its way through court.

Most people think of human trafficking as something limited to Third World countries, or at least bigger cities. They don’t think it happens in central Wisconsin. But police officers investigating these cases and advocates for the victims say otherwise.

“We know human trafficking happens in every county in this state,” said Jane Graham Jennings, executive director of the Women’s Community of Wausau, at a recent conference at the Wausau Police Department.

It’s not necessarily a new phenomena, but putting a new name on it drives home the understanding that many women are being coerced or controlled into prostitution—in some cases kidnapped—to make money for someone else.

In a bust, the woman might get arrested. The customer might get arrested. But the person behind the scenes who arranged it all often walks away.


Prostitution around Wausau

About three years ago, a man walked into Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel’s office. “I want to show you something,” he said.

He asked the chief to pull up a webpage, then pointed to an “adult” advertisement. The chief clicked on it. The man pointed to the young woman in the prostitution ad. “That’s my daughter,” he said— a local high school student.

Ever since, Wausau police have been conducting sting operations to curb prostitution in the area. They’d been made aware of the growing problem taking place at hotels and motels, and apartments. The “johns” (those who solicit prostitutes), came from all walks of life, police discovered: Poor people, rich people, unemployed people, business people, young, old.

At first police targeted the prostitutes, says Captain Matt Barnes. Then they realized they were unlikely to keep up with the amount of prostitution happening. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Barnes pulled up to show the adult listings. Five different ads listed women available for prostitution for that day in the Wausau area—and it was not even 1:30 in the afternoon.

So police started going after the johns, conducting stings “frequently enough that those individuals involved in prostitution constantly have to fear arrest,” Barnes says. Eliminating the demand for prostitutes “is not going to happen, but the idea that you can openly do it in our community as easily as ordering a pizza is not acceptable.”

But police now acknowledge that arresting the prostitutes and johns still addresses only part of the problem. Although some women prostitute themselves on their own, often a third party is making the deals and taking most of the money. That pimp—or trafficker as they’re more frequently being called—may be manipulating the women into prostitution.

Sometimes they prey on women with drug addiction issues, offering the next fix in exchange for their cooperation. Sometimes they simply kidnap a woman, and hold her under the threat of exposure or violence.

And this “boss” behind the scenes usually gets away while his victims are arrested. Fearful of reprisal, untrusting of authority figures who just arrested them, and with nowhere else to go, the women often take the fall.


An advocate

That’s where The Women’s Community in Wausau will come in. The agency is in the process of hiring a person as an advocate for trafficking victims.

Jennings, the agency’s director, says the position, funded by a grant from private donors, will serve two functions: One, to work with women caught in police prostitution stings to find out if they’re being trafficked. The advocate will help those women reintegrate into society with jobs, education, housing and even tattoo removal. Many victims of human trafficking are brought into that lifestyle at an early age and tattooed as a sort of brand.

“Most of these women aren’t in the life because they woke up one morning and decided this is how they want to make a living,” Jennings says. “For a lot of them, it’s the only life they’ve known.”

Jennings says the advocate will also provide public outreach, as human trafficking is largely misunderstood in the area. The hope is that some of that messaging reaches local solicitors of prostitution.

Police now often tell the johns caught during stings that many girls and women aren’t prostituting willingly, but are victims of trafficking. Barnes says most of the johns express surprise, as if it had never occurred to them this was could happen.

Several years ago, a woman in a Wausau hotel made her way to the front desk. She found a rare moment away from her pimp and took the opportunity to seek an escape route. She told the hotel desk clerk to call the police. She was afraid for her life.

Police later arrested Derrick Thornton on multiple charges, one of which included human trafficking. According to court records, Thornton had taken the woman off the streets of Milwaukee on Oct. 15, 2010, as retribution for escaping from him in 2009. He moved her and another woman between hotels in Wausau, Eau Claire, Milwaukee and Green Bay. She told police he’d beaten her and the other woman with a belt, and that they had seen him burn another woman in the hand and kick her in the head.

Thornton was convicted in 2012 of kidnapping, human trafficking, pandering/pimping and solicitation of prostitutes. He was given a 30-year prison sentence, which included 17 years behind bars.

Thornton appealed the case on the grounds he felt his attorneys had provided a shoddy defense (an appeals court decision disagreed). He maintained that the woman he was pimping did so willingly. A jury thought otherwise.

But that demonstrates the difficulty of prosecuting human trafficking cases. It can often be one person’s word against another.

And that’s if you can get the women to talk in the first place, which is why local police are welcoming the help of an advocate from The Women’s Community.

Getting busted by police doesn’t put the women in a mood to talk with an officer, Barnes says. “It’s hard to sit down and have a conversation with someone about whether they’re being trafficked.”

The Women’s Community is best known for working with domestic abuse victims, and in many ways human trafficking resembles domestic abuse in the power dynamics, Jennings and others stress. The victims are controlled by fear, or a relationship or by simply having nowhere else to go.


A statewide problem

In the early morning hours of Sept. 27, 2013, a 14-year-old girl ran screaming from a hotel room in Mercer, a town in Iron County, shouting for help.

It turned out the girl was a runaway from Milwaukee, picked up by three women, also from the Milwaukee area, who were trafficking her and other girls around the Northwoods. Police discovered nine separate incidents of prostitution in two weeks.

The 14-year-old girl had been promised to an elderly man in the area, who paid $300 for travel expense and another $1,000 for an overnight visit.

That case is one that U.S. District Attorney John Vaudreil points to in order to dispel the notion that human trafficking happens somewhere else. “Trafficking is not just an urban, big city problem,” Vaudreil says. “It’s a problem in every rural community.”

In fact, rural communities can often be ideal for traffickers, who prefer seclusion, he says. Law enforcement in those areas aren’t always looking for trafficking, and might not be aware that it’s happening in their community. Less resources in those communities mean even if an arrest is made, it’s likely to be the prostitute who is arrested, not the trafficker.

According to the Trafficking Resources Center, 23 human trafficking cases have been reported so far this year in Wisconsin; 43 cases were reported in 2014, 42 cases in 2013 and 27 in 2012.

Sex trafficking is the most common, but labor trafficking also happens. A significant number of people trafficked are minors, and roughly a third of those trafficked are foreign nationals.

A total of 877 calls have been made to Human Trafficking Hotline from Wisconsin since 2007, and that has led to 177 criminal cases, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Of the 23 cases this year, five involved minors.

Lisa Sennholz of Antigo has seen the problem firsthand. Sennholz is the founder of Damascus Road, an organization that helps victims of human trafficking and builds awareness of the issue.

Sennholz started in Nevada with a group that reached out to women working in brothels, to offer support and friendship. That led Sennholz to groups that reached out to prostitutes in other cities. Knowing it can happen anywhere, she’s now raising awareness in Wisconsin.

Traffickers target nearly every major event in the U.S., since those events bring a lot of potential customers. Sennholz and other volunteers have worked six different Super Bowls, the EAA AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, and even the recent PGA tournament in Sheboygan. Their efforts teach convenience store and hotel workers to watch for signs someone is being trafficked. Volunteers monitor sites like and make sure police are aware.

Locally, Sennholz works in Antigo with students, teaching them what traffickers look for on social media, and the signs of poor self-esteem traffickers will target when looking for victims.

There are different types of traffickers, she says. The “boyfriend” convinces her she’s only prostituting temporarily, as he lavishes her with gifts and praise. The “gorilla” uses the threat of violence or exposure to keep her from running away. The “CEO” convinces a woman she’ll be a model or will make a lot of money, then threatens exposing her if she doesn’t do what he says.

All of those create a dynamic that keeps the women scared and reliant on their pimps—which also means they’re not likely to talk to police when arrested.

For one 33-year-old Appleton woman, the local nature of human trafficking is very real. “Ellie” didn’t want her real name used for fear of damaging her professionally as a nurse now. She always wanted to be a nurse but after one semester in school, she dropped out and became an exotic dancer.

Her story demonstrates the often gradual approach into the world of trafficking. It first happened through a man and woman who started paying attention to her at the strip club. After being stranded at a party with them, they kept her in a hotel room for more than 24 hours, telling her she worked for them now. Meanwhile, another woman in the room they had kidnapped escaped and called the police, who later arrested the man.

Then she was pimped out by someone she considered a boyfriend, who abused her and convinced her she was making money for both their sakes. The third was a man in Milwaukee who sent her by bus all over the Midwest to make money for him while he held her Social Security card and driver’s license. Ellie was ordered to stay away from “squares”—secure, confident people who would notice something amiss. They’d be likely to call the cops, she said.

Then she started talking about her situation with someone at the club (she was ordered to work there, too, as another revenue source). They hatched a plan to get her out by squirreling away money until she had enough to give herself a start. She told her pimp she was leaving, timing it so others were around and he wouldn’t hurt her. That was in 2004. She returned to school, became a nurse and now helps other women who have escaped trafficking situations. Ellie says there were few public resources for her at the time, but today people can call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline at 1-888-373-7888 if they or someone they know needs help.

This post originally appeared in City Pages, Wausau. All rights reserved by City Pages.


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