An early August morning raid on a Hessen Cassel Road home turned up more than guns and drugs.
Allen County sheriff's deputies and detectives found 12 girls, nine of whom were under the age of 18 – one of them 14.
One girl, seen being dragged out of the home in July and reported by a city worker who happened to drive by, told police the 34-year-old man who lived there was running a prostitution ring.
He was charged with dealing in marijuana, maintaining a common nuisance and unlawful possession of a firearm by a serious violent felon, but no charges were filed for human trafficking.
“It set off red flags for everybody,” said Capt. Kevin Hunter with the Fort Wayne Police Department. He is head of the vice and narcotics unit, which has participated in human trafficking and prostitution sweeps with the FBI.
“It was looked into further, and there was not enough to be able to charge him with that crime. We're not sure that was going on,” Hunter said.
Human trafficking occurs globally and in every state in the U.S. Victims are recruited, transported, transferred or harbored through force, abduction, fraud or coercion for improper purposes including forced labor or sex, according to the United Nations.
It differs from prostitution, Hunter said, which involves the illegal act of “receiving money for a sexually gratifying act.”
While the issue is getting more attention, available statistics probably do not accurately measure the extent of the problem, sources said.
Fort Wayne police investigated three cases in 2018 and one in 2017, according to FBI's Uniform Crime Rate statistics.
Few cases have been reported since 2013, when the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana joined the Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Persons Task Force.
Fort Wayne has a large number of runaways – at least 735 between 2016 and 2018, according to one report. Some of those individuals could become prey to human trafficking, officials said.
The Allen County prosecutor's office has not filed any charges of human trafficking, nor has it “received a human trafficking case for review,” spokeswoman Robyn Niedzwiecki said. “We make charging decisions based on cases we receive from law enforcement for review. We have never received a human trafficking case for review.”
Two weeks after Niedzwiecki sent the information in an email, the prosecutor's office did file charges against a local man on Oct. 31 for promotion of child sexual trafficking. The charge is pending.
Jeremy Greenlee is regional coalition coordinator for the Indiana Trafficking Victim Assistance Program of the Indiana Youth Services Association. He is also a member of the executive team at the Anti-Trafficking Network of Northeast Indiana.
“We're just really starting to get a handle on this issue,” Greenlee told a class of Purdue University Fort Wayne students last month. “We know there's a lot more cases that are not being captured.”
Destiny Rescue, a Christian organization that fights human trafficking in six countries, including Cambodia and Thailand, relocated its headquarters from North Webster to Fort Wayne less than two years ago.
Human trafficking came under greater scrutiny in 2004 when the U.S. Department of Justice held a conference in Indianapolis.
“The department believed the Indianapolis area was at high risk for human trafficking given information from similarly situated cities in the country,” according to a 2016 report issued by Indiana attorney general's office, the first and only state-issued report on human trafficking. Indiana, a state with a number of intersecting national highways, is the “crossroads of America,” the report added.
In 2004, The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana formed the Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans Task Force, also known as IPATH, an organization of 75 groups including state and federal law enforcement, social services, health care and legal service providers, faith-based, community and education organizations to fight against human trafficking, the report said.
From 2004 to 2016, 88 human trafficking charges had been filed in Indiana, the report said. A spokeswoman at the Indiana attorney general's office said a new report will include cases that have occurred since, but did not say when the update would occur.
A victim's trauma
Human trafficking can be difficult to prove, law enforcement and human rights workers said. Victims won't talk, or they're addicted to drugs and dependent on their trafficker. Many forced into labor don't speak English.
“One of the many complexities of this crime is that victims don't consider themselves victims at the point they encounter law enforcement,” said Caren Benjamin, chief communications officer for Polaris, an international anti-human trafficking organization in Washington, D.C.
Capt. Hunter of the Fort Wayne Police Department said it can sometimes take a couple of days before victims say what happened.
“They're more afraid of the trafficker than they are of the police,” he said.
Individuals are more at risk of becoming a victim if they have run away from home; have had sexually explicit photos or videos taken of them; have ties to gangs or organized crime; have been sexually abused or raped; or been physically abused by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Another risk factor is having a primary caregiver engaged in prostitution or having been in the foster care system.
Only occasionally is the victim kidnapped, said Genevieve Meyer, 39, who at age 15 married an older man and is founder of The Resiliency Foundation in Fort Wayne.
Like Greenlee, Meyer is on the executive committee for the Anti-Trafficking Network of Northeast Indiana, a group of organizations that coordinate services for victims and offer training and seminars.
Statistics show that a runaway will encounter a predator within 48 hours of being out of their house, Meyer said.
“If you're walking around and you've got a big bag with all of your belongings and you're crying and you're distraught, a predator is going to try to help you,” Meyer said. “Vulnerability leads to exploitation.”
The victim, who could be at a mall or a friend's house, often has a bad family life and might be doing drugs, and the predator promises them a better life, Hunter said. Predators haunt group homes and homeless shelters, strip clubs and hotels. They recruit through schools and church groups, Greenlee said.
The predator may treat the victim very kindly at first – “buy them clothes, treat them like the family who should be doing this kind of stuff,” Hunter said.
Then the theory of reciprocity kicks in.
The would-be benefactor might say: 'I've gotten your nails done, so now you're going to have to do something for me, just this once. You're going to have to meet up with this guy and have sex with him. It's OK. It's good. Nothing is going to happen.'
“Many times those victims will do that, only because this person has treated them better than anyone else ever has,” Hunter explained.
The victim may get picked up, promised a better life and then held for 12 to 24 hours, Meyer said.
“It's not real common to be trafficked in the same place where you're picked up,” Meyer said. “Somebody in Fort Wayne could be put on a bus or driven or put on a plane and taken to New Orleans.”
Traffickers are always “five steps ahead of us, so once we figure out some patterns, they shift,” Meyer said.
Trafficking can also take place in the home, but it's often referred to as molestation.
“I've heard story after story about children being trafficked by an adult in their home, (someone) that brings in men or clients from outside and lets them have sex with them (the child) right in their own home or bedroom,” Meyer said.
Drugs play a part in it or a need for money. Those victims can be difficult to identify as trafficked because they never left home.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are 1.6 million runaway children each year and between 100,000 and 300,000 youth at risk for commercial sexual exploitation in the United States.
Children in foster care “are the most exploited kids across the country,” Meyer said.
“In 2017, an estimated 1 out of 7 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims. Of those, 88% were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran,” according to the Polaris website.
Meyer calls these children “throwaway children. Some of those aren't even reported as missing, and so you have a child found murdered or from drug overdoses and we can't even connect them to families.”
According to a 2018 annual report from Fort Wayne Police, the city had between 735 and 851 runaways from 2016 to 2018, although there are no numbers for long-term missing runaways. Assistant Chief Karl Niblick said the number of runaways fluctuates and can be as high as 1,000 in any given year. Most runaways are returned to their families or caregivers, he added.
What to look for
Without giving away how the police work, Hunter says his unit tries to stay on top of potential human trafficking here, and the search normally starts online.
“We pick random hotels. We look at the ads that are out there and see what we can do with those. There's got to be an offer for sex in exchange for money before we can make an arrest. We have to know there was somebody involved that may be controlling that person.”
Greenlee said police told him “there's not one hotel they haven't investigated.”
FBI Indianapolis Special Agent Jeffrey Robertson said major cities, like the ones found on the Polaris “hot spots” map, are where most trafficking occurs.
“We will see labor trafficking and sex trafficking in Indiana; however, sex trafficking for Indiana is our biggest problem. The general rule of thumb we use is that if there is a hotel, you will find sex trafficking,” Robertson said.
Signs include vulnerable youth frequenting a location that looks suspicious or going to a hotel, and individuals who don't make eye contact with people or look like they don't want to talk to others or have been told not to.
“If it looks suspicious, it probably is,” Hunter said.
He recalls one incident in which Fort Wayne Gang and Violent Crimes Unit officers were able to intervene before a young girl was trafficked. The girl was seen in the back seat of a car at a traffic stop.
“She had all kinds of makeup and provocative clothing on. The further they (the Gang Unit) started looking into it, she was being trafficked. They were able to remove her immediately. She wasn't a family member. She didn't really belong there.”
Sgt. Gary Hensler said his officers recalled finding her in the car “late at night, high, drunk and with two older males and was going back to their place for some 'fun' after a night out.” The officers took the girl to the Allen County Juvenile Center, and the Indiana Department of Child Services was contacted.
Meanwhile, the local man who escaped human trafficking charges has a two-day jury trial scheduled in March on his original charges, according to Allen County court records.
At a glance
• 83% of human trafficking victims are Americans, and 60% are white.
• 178 youths were trafficked in 2016, with victims as young as 7; 94% were girls and 60% were white, according to the 2016 Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking.
• One human trafficking investigation is opened each month by Indiana law enforcement authorities, according to Purchased, an Indianapolis-based anti-human trafficking organization.
In Allen County:
• 35 cases of potential trafficking have been recorded since 2007 when the National Human Trafficking Hotline started; nine occurred in 2018. Most of the calls reported sex trafficking.
• The Fort Wayne Police Department reported none in 2013, 1 in 2014, none in 2015, 2 in 2016, 1 in 2017 and 3 in 2018.
• Promotion of human labor trafficking. Level 4 felony
• Promotion of human sexual trafficking: Level 4 felony
• Promotion of child sexual trafficking; promotion of sexual trafficking of a younger child: Level 4 felony
• Child sexual trafficking: Level 2 felony
• Human trafficking: Level 5 felony
• Level 2 felony: 10 to 30 years, with an advisory sentence of 171/2 years
• Level 3 felony: 3 to 16 years, with an advisory sentence of 9 years
• Level 4 felony: 2 to 12 years, with an advisory sentence of 6 years
• Level 5 felony: 1 to 6 years, with an advisory sentence of 3 years
Penalties are more severe under federal law, including mandatory minimum sentences. Case circumstances determine whether the FBI will pursue federal charges, said Jeremy Greenlee, with the Anti Trafficking Network of Northeast Indiana.
If you suspect trafficking, Call the Indiana Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-800-5556, or the national hotline: 1-888-373-7888; Text: 233733