She went to Las Vegas with a drug dealer she knew under the guise of scoring more product. In reality, the dealer double crossed her and sold the Pueblo teen to a sex trafficker. By chance, she ended up back in Colorado and was able to flee her captors and get help.
The girl is one of 20 Colorado teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 saved thanks to the efforts of a joint FBI and law enforcement task force dubbed Operation Cross Country IX.
In a single week, the federal agents and local law enforcement officers from Colorado and Wyoming jailed seven of the alleged pimps and 40 of the Johns.
“We’re not playing around here, if you’re caught trafficking our children, we will work with prosecutors to do everything we can put you behind bars forever and take away your freedom,” said Thomas P. Ravenelle, Special Agent in Charge of the Denver FBI Field Office, during a news conference Tuesday.
Ravenelle said victims are routinely coerced, threatened and beaten for what is a lucrative criminal business. Estimates suggest an average trafficker rakes-in $100,000 per child each year.
“When they don’t feel safe at home, they fight with their parents, they struggle at school or use drugs, they may run away from home,” Ravenelle said. “In fact, the average age that someone gets into the sex trade is age 12 to 14.”
The kids who were rescued were given food, clothes and shelter as well as medical assistance and counseling. The Innocence Lost program also works to find stable living environments if there are problems at home.
The Bureau took time during the news conference to recognize a handful prosecutors who aggressively pursued felony cases against the alleged pimps.
“The avenger in me, the justice seeker in me tells me that we will crush those who do this to our children,” said Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler.
He thinks state laws are too lenient on child sex traffickers because they don’t carry mandatory prison sentences.
“I think as the legislature has show over the past 10 years or so, it is reluctant to provide those kinds of tools to prosecutors to eradicate this level of crime,” Brauchler said. “In fact, we’ve seen the opposite and that is more focus on trying to keep people out of prison.”
Brauchler was also critical of an “instant gratification society” and pointed to cultural decay for creating Johns that seek out sex with children and the pimps that provide them.
“Whatever giant walls that separated us from good and from evil before have quickly become smudged chalk lines that we call moral relativism.”
Despite the success of the sting, the FBI reports the problem is much more widespread. An estimated 2,000 children from Colorado and Wyoming alone are said to be exploited every year.