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A Dark Business in the Heartland
The Midwest remains stubbornly fertile ground for sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a major industry in the U.S., but one of the problems in identifying what it is is because it looks like many things to many people. In the Midwest, trafficking is dominant because of the intersection of federal interstates that easily transport victims through a circuit that can span all the major cities in just a week, spurred by online advertising that authorities say is difficult to stop. This new series will look at the sex trafficking of minors, labor trafficking found on major farm operations. A third story will look at how trafficking has hit Cook County, Illinois, the heart of Chicago, and how a local sheriff there has made stopping it one of his highest priorities.
“Hey, who’s available tonight in the nw burbs?”
The text message appeared August 21, 2017, on the phone of Blake Steckel, 33, an alleged sex trafficker from Wisconsin. It was just another Saturday night for Steckel, who, according to court documents, had been selling a 17-year-old girl from West Virginia for sex around Chicago’s outer suburbs since late July.
Promised the glamorous life of a model in Chicago, the girl became a prostitute under Steckel’s control within one week. Now the girl sat alone in her room at a Hyatt Place in Schaumburg, a suburb about 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, waiting for Steckel to text her information on her next client: Mike, 29, white, in construction.
This was her third night alone in the hotel room. Except for her “dates.” Mike was to be her seventh since she checked in. Steckel scheduled him to knock on her door at 10:30 p.m.
The Heartland of Sex Trafficking
Sex trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry across the world, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking advocacy group based in Washington. Statistics are hard to track because victims are often difficult to identify—and some don’t even see themselves as victims—but Polaris estimates they number into the hundreds of thousands. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said that, overall, human trafficking is “the second most lucrative criminal enterprise” in the United States, behind only trafficking in drugs.
What we do know is that total documented trafficking is trending upward as increased awareness sends more victims to seek help. Polaris says its national hotline handled nearly 6,000 cases in 2015, a 500 percent increase from 2008. The majority, about 75 percent, of all trafficking involves sex. Children are the most vulnerable: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that one in six runaways were likely sex trafficking victims.
The Midwest is fertile ground for traffickers for several reasons, the most obvious being the central location that made cities like St. Louis and Chicago such epicenters for commerce early in the 20th century. The intersections of interstates and rail lines are optimum for traffickers to move victims to nearby cities for weekends.
Andrea Nichols, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who co-wrote a 2015 study of trafficking in that area, says that while the “dynamics of sex trafficking are strikingly similar” to other regions of the country, the Midwest tends to have more domestic victims, compared to coastal or border states like Texas and Florida.
The St. Charles Outreach Coalition Against Human Trafficking is located in O’Fallon, Missouri, a small town about 45 minutes from downtown St. Louis. Started by two Catholic nuns who operate out of a converted chicken shack, the organization is dedicated to raising awareness in farm communities, because that’s where trafficking tends to operate in full sight without anyone seeing it.
“Traffickers are more hidden” there, says Sister Esther Hogan, the coalition’s executive director.
The coalition trains schoolteachers, hospital and hotel workers, and others to look for signs of trafficking.
“One simple question is ‘Do you get to keep your tips?’ If a person says ‘No, I gotta hand them in,’ that’s a very good sign that something is wrong at that restaurant,” Hogan says.
The challenge of raising awareness of sex trafficking is that it takes many shapes.
“If you look beneath the surface, you’ll find traffickers in malls, schools, religious groups, families. Trafficking is when a mother has to sell her child for crack cocaine or a daughter is pulled into trafficking because she is promised a model job,” Hogan says. “People don’t realize [victims are also] men and young boys.”
Minors tend to be trafficked by people they trust within their community.
Marisa Mansfield, a social worker with Braking Traffik, a program in Davenport, Iowa, that aids sex trafficking victims in Iowa and Illinois, says that she often works with victims who were recruited by older students when they were still in middle school or high school. They are promised new clothes, a style makeover, and more.
“You get to party, and you get drugs, and you get all this nice stuff — it’s very much a grooming process to get these kids to buy in,” Mansfield says.
Traffickers then plan weekend getaways to cities like Des Moines, Milwaukee, or Chicago, where the children are sold for sex. The trips are intentionally brief.
“Traffickers want to keep these kids in school to not raise any red flags to teachers or parents,” Mansfield says. “They are aware of keeping these kids close enough to home so Mom and Dad don’t know what’s going on and report them missing.”
Christine McDonald was trafficked for 21 years without being identified. She now helps run a home for trafficking victims in Kansas City, Missouri, called Restoration House. It transitions women from the street to normal life by teaching them work skills and reinforcing everyday habits like setting a schedule for the day and developing healthy diets. Sex trafficking tends to be overlooked in smaller cities like Kansas City, McDonald says, because people assume it only happens in bigger cities in faraway time zones.
“We think of the Midwest as a wholesome, safe environment,” she says. “Because of that, we’ve let our guard down, which has created a fertile environment for exploiters.”
McDonald, who has written two books about her experience, says that the mainstreaming of pornography and online accessibility are factors in helping lure vulnerable young people into the life. She says traffickers no longer fit reliable stereotypes — men in long trench coats dangling candy from windowless vans — and the informality of social media gives them a better sense of who to target.
“We’ve done ‘stranger danger’ for decades, and that’s what everyone looks out for, but today it can be anybody,” McDonald says.
The Most Vulnerable at Risk
Nichols in St. Louis says the anti-trafficking movement has matured since the 1970s, when it was referenced primarily as juvenile prostitution or child exploitation. It took the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 to change the conversation when it defined sex trafficking as any commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion with anyone younger than 18. The statute does not require transport of victims, because trafficking can be performed out of a single house or a motel.
The reason the St. Louis area is such a heavily trafficked region, Nichols says, is that it possesses all the risk factors: a high level of economic inequality in the education system, no adequate minimum wage, and a cross-section of interstate highways.
“Any place where you have vulnerable people, you’ll have trafficking,” Nichols says.
Homeless and runaway youth are prime targets. Unlike the stereotype of victims held against their will and trafficked, young people cast from their home often fall into “trauma bonding” with their trafficker, which prevents them from self-identifying as victims when they interact with social workers or the police, says Lara Gerassi, a social work professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies trafficking victims. “So, if we’re looking for people to scream ‘I’m a victim,’ we are missing most of the people who are going to be impacted by trafficking.”
It took just days for Steckel to enforce a bond with his 17-year-old victim.
Court documents show she was lured from West Virginia to the Chicago area in late July after Steckel found her on Snapchat. They text-messaged, and he told her he worked for ExplicitChicago.com, a website that promised work and travel for beginner models. He paid for her flight to O’Hare International Airport and an Uber to his apartment in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. Steckel had her pose naked for photographs before he dropped her off at a nearby Super 8 motel. After two nights alone, she texted Steckel that she was hungry and had no money. The only remedy, Steckel allegedly told her, was prostitution. He added that if she didn’t comply, he would post the naked photos to her Facebook and Instagram pages.
After working out of several hotels near O’Hare over the next few days, the victim said she was homesick. Steckel allegedly paid for her to fly back, but the homecoming was brief. She encountered the wrath of her mother and the scorn of her friends, who heard rumors she was working as a prostitute in Chicago. With few options, she contacted Steckel, who paid for her return trip. This time, he told her she owed him for some of the hotel costs and demanded reimbursement for the flights. Tied up financially with the only person who showed her attention, the victim stayed put. Her pimp’s one instruction was that, if anyone asked, she tell people she was 18 years old.
Fighting Trafficking by Protecting Victims
A survey conducted two years ago by Thorn, an anti-trafficking advocacy group, found that 70 percent of children trafficked for sex were sold online. Sex traffickers like online classified sites like Craigslist and Backpage because they are free and promise anonymity. Both sites promised to drop its adult services ads, but critics say those postings simply jump to other portals on the site and the problem continues. Traffickers routinely use the sites to advance sales before they pass through a town.
Advocates say the solution needs to take place at the federal level.
“We know demand pushes this business, and unfortunately traffickers are choosing trafficked individuals over drugs because they are reusable,” says Meghan Malik, trafficking project manager of the Women’s Fund of Omaha, an advocacy group.
Each state has human trafficking laws on the books, but there are differences in the statutes, such as which elements are required to prove guilt and sentencing requirements, which can range from 12 months to life imprisonment. Still, increased awareness is helping push through convictions at a greater clip than before. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that it won convictions against 439 traffickers in 2016, nearly double the number from the previous year.
“The problem is epic. It’s not getting worse, but it’s only now that we are recognizing what it is,” McDonald says.
There remains a gap in protecting victims, advocates say. Thirty-six states have approved “vacatur” laws that allow survivors to vacate or expunge their criminal convictions that result from being trafficked, which ultimately will smooth their reentry into society by making it easier to get jobs and housing.
“Our culture needs to look at these individuals not as criminals but as individual victims, and we need to provide them services and economic opportunities out of the life,” Malik says.
Federal prosecutors say Steckel used Backpage to advertise the 17-year-old girl at the Schaumburg Hyatt Place. Mike, the construction worker with the 10:30 p.m. appointment in late August, turned out to be a federal agent. A half-hour earlier, agents recovered the girl, who was told they were there to help her because she was a minor. Steckel was charged in federal court with sex trafficking of a minor, production of child pornography, and transporting an individual in interstate commerce for purposes of prostitution.
It was not his first time in court. According to Chicago’s ABC News outlet, Steckel had been charged in March 2015 with promoting prostitution but only received a one-year conditional discharge and a small fine. Light sentences like that, advocates say, embolden traffickers to resurrect their business, even if they need to start fresh.
“The reality is it’s too easy to find another victim,” McDonald says. “It’s easier to go find a new one than to find one who’s left. That’s tragic, but it shows the disposability of these precious people to the exploiters. It’s always easy to run down to the bus station to find someone who looks lost.”