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11.09.10

Inside the Child Prostitution Sting

The gangs recruited girls as young as 13, nabbing them on their way to school, and luring them with promises of manicures, haircuts and clothing. Christine Pelisek reports on a vast sex trafficking ring just uncovered.

The indictment reads like a modern-day horror story.

One girl was just 13 years old when the gang members forced her into prostitution. Another girl, at 18, was raped by multiple men in a hotel room. Still another was forced to have sex with nine different men over a two-day period by a pimp named Hollywood, who later videotaped her with his cell phone having sex with a number of men in a car.

But according to an indictment unsealed on Monday, the horror story may finally be over.

Federal authorities have charged more than three dozen Somali gang members with prostitution, burglary, car theft, and credit-card fraud, according to an indictment by the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee which details how the gang members, who operated in Minnesota, Tennessee and Ohio, sold the girls into prostitution in exchange for booze or marijuana.

“Child prostitution continues to be a significant problem in our country,” Shawn Henry, executive assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, said in a statement connected to a separate three-day, nationwide federal sting named Operation Cross Country V which this week resulted in the recovery of 69 children and the arrest of 884 people, including 99 pimps, according to the FBI.

In the Twin Cities case, some girls were runaways, given a place to stay and money in exchange for prostitution.

But other girls were recruited at home—or on their way to school—by the gang members’ girlfriends, who lured them with promises of manicures and pedicures, haircuts and clothing, Dahir Jibreel, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, told The Daily Beast.

Other girls were recruited at home, or on their way to school, by the gang members’ girlfriends, who lured them with promises of manicures and pedicures, haircuts and clothing.

“Gradually the youngsters [were] made to become full sexual slaves—that [was] the beginning,” said Jibreel, who, since the arrests, has been in contact with five of the girls forced into prostitution. “The stories they told me were shocking, really shocking. They told me there were organized pimps and madam houses and all that kind of thing.”  

The gangs that carried names such as the Somali Outlaws, the Somali Mafia, and the Lady Outlaws lured the girls with presents, telling them to “tell your mom you are going to study with your girlfriend, and you’ll be back in two or three hours,” or occasionally threatened the girls outright, saying they’d call the police, said Jibreel.

Disturbingly, some advocacy groups became aware of the problem years ago but were unable to get anyone in the Somali community to talk about it and continually encountered “roadblocks” when trying to unravel what was going on.

“Community members said it didn’t exist, and we knew that wasn’t true,” Heather Caillier, a marketing and development manager with the Minneapolis based non-profit Breaking Free, told The Daily Beast.

Breaking Free, which provides health services and counseling for girls and women who’ve been involved in prostitution and/or sex trafficking, has begun to work with Jibreel’s organization to provide services in the Somali community, which is one of the biggest in the country.

“The cultural barriers are significant. It’s difficult to reach them. We finally found someone who says ‘yes there is a problem and lets work together and get them the help they need,’” said  Caillier. “Until now, it’s been extremely underground and many people have not been willing to talk about it. Now they will be forced to address it as a community.”

Human trafficking investigators from the St. Paul Police Department began looking into the case two years ago, after Somali parents and elders approached the authorities. “They had concerns this was going on and we needed their help,” said St. Paul Police Department spokesperson Andy Skoogman. Finding that the girls had been taken across state boundaries, St. Paul police contacted federal authorities that handle sex trafficking cases. Jibreel told The Daily Beast that he heard about the sex trafficking investigation two months ago after a local television reporter stumbled upon the search warrant affidavit at the county court house.

The KTSP reporter, Jay Kolls, who originally broke the story for the local ABC affiliate, said he contacted the police to get a comment but the authorities immediately downplayed the importance of the search warrant. A few hours later, however, the station’s news director was contacted by the police and the U.S. Attorney’s office and asked to keep a lid on the story, explaining that the investigator who filed the search warrant had inadvertently forgot to seal it, and that they feared the suspects might flee, if news of the investigation became public. “I had no idea I got my hands on something that was supposed to be sealed,” said Kolls, who eventually broke the story and covered the arrests of the gangbangers. “In the end it turned out good for everybody.”

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.