Stolen for sex: Child prostitution in Los Angeles County
04/08/2016 1:08 pm PDT
In Crime Watch Daily's special series "Stolen for Sex," Matt Doran rides along with a vice squad in Los Angeles as they search for more victims.
"I could literally work this particular issue 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year," said LAPD Sgt. Ron Fisher.
For these hardened officers, the City of Angels rarely lives up to its name.
How can it be we're still seeing child prostitution almost in plain sight?
"It's not only almost -- it's blatantly in plain sight," said Sgt. Fisher.
Men on the prowl for kids in suburban Los Angeles at 8 p.m. on a Friday.
"We've had serial rapists out here who specifically target the prostitutes as their victims," said Fisher.
Residents tell police they often see sex acts being carried out in cars on their streets.
"I've had one instance where a citizen explained to me they had their child out here and the child picked up a used condom and was blowing it up like a balloon," said Fisher.
On this night, highly trained human-trafficking detectives will make a number of arrests. Crime Watch Daily joined them undercover, trailing violent, armed traffickers, and identifying the women and children under their spell.
The operation on this night is targeting Sepulveda Boulevard, what police describe as one of the most infamous and high-volume prostitution tracks in America. Every night here, women are bought and sold, and the grim reality is that many of them are underage.
The planning for the operation begins at the Van Nuys Vice Squad headquarters under the guidance of veteran Sergeant Ron Fisher.
"Our goal tonight, which is as it is always, every night, is to rescue victims of human trafficking," said Fisher. "We're going to be doing that as safely as we possibly can."
But the reality is these rescue missions are high-risk.
"The pimps that we are dealing with that are involved in human trafficking, the majority of them are hardcore gang member with lengthy criminal histories who are frequently armed," said Fisher.
Once identified, the pimps will be brought back to HQ, and the "johns," or customers, will be cuffed, charged and processed.
"Sometimes they acknowledge what they are doing is wrong," said Fisher.
The victims themselves -- more often than not, children -- receive a much more delicate reception.
They are taken initially to unlocked rooms, where the goal is to extract information about their pimps.
"There's a trust issue," said Fisher.
"We are seeing a significant paradigm shift in law enforcement's approach to this problem," said Fisher. "Typically, as police officers, you got a problem, we fix it with these things [handcuffs]. And I'm telling you, that it isn't working."
And that victim-centered approach is top of mind as the undercover officers gear up and prepare to head out on tonight's sting.
Within minutes of leaving the station, detectives have made contact with a number of scantily clad streetwalkers who openly discuss sex.
Moments later, one of their targets walks straight towards our car, and suddenly, police move in for the arrest.
The young woman tells police her name is Special.
"At the age of 13 I was kidnapped and involved as underage, minor sex-trafficking," said Special. "I got kidnapped from my parents. I was forced underage, I was physically abused, mentally abused."
Police say there's a good chance Special's arrest is being watched by her pimp.
"I can guarantee you if he's out here, he's watching what's going on here right now," said Fisher.
We tail two undercover officers posing as customers. And they have just been approached by two young women.
We follow them to a nearby shopping center parking lot, and then the officers pounce.
The two young women are handcuffed, and charged with soliciting for prostitution. One of them was even happy to pose for our cameras.
"This is my job, and I just got busted," she said. "This is my choice of life. This is what I'm smart in. Some people are book smart, some people, street smart. I happen to be street smart."
Do you work with pimps, or is this something you do independently?
"No I don't sir, I don't even know what a pimp is," she said.
Police aren't surprised by her claim to work independently. They say 99.9 percent of trafficking victims are too afraid.
"We need to get them in a safe place, away from the pimp, away from that influence, and that's really how the ball starts rolling," said Fisher.
There has really been a seismic shift in the way police are approaching this problem. They won't just take these girls and throw them in a cell, leave them there and that's it. They'll actually refer them on to services that might be able to help them get out of the life, if that's what they want.
There would be many more arrests in the hours to follow.
The sad faces of a growing epidemic nationwide, young girls ultimately coerced into a life that will forever leave scars.
"You could think of it as a mental leash," said Fisher. "I had a girl 18 years old, however she had a diminished mental capacity. In fact she had an I.D. on her for disabled persons. It was like talking to an 8 year old. I got angry," said Fisher.
And Sgt. Fisher wants us to get angry too -- angry enough to want to help.
The victims are called "children of the night," and Crime Watch Daily got a chance to see what happens after they are picked up by police.
At the non-profit organization Children of the Night, they aren't any ordinary classrooms, but these students will leave with a diploma. Here, solving the equation can mean the difference between life and death.
The girls, all between the age of 11 and 17 years old, are child prostitutes.
"When I was doing the prostituting, I'd try to block it away from me," said one girl name Carly. She was scooped up by a pimp when she ran away from home, prostituted even before puberty.
"I knew I was in a situation, but I would in my mind think that I'm somewhere else, or I'm with someone that really, really wants me," said Carly.
Those somebodies were husbands and fathers, even grandfathers, prepared and often anxious to pay her for sex.
"I can tell that they knew that I wasn't over age, I had like a babyface," said Carly. "I think the younger they are the more they want them, so when I look at it now, it's kind of disgusting."
"They're doctors, they're lawyers, they're politicians, they're movie stars, they're musicians, you name it," said Dr. Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night.
"I had a little boy tell me, a 14-year-old boy, that a man picked him up on the streets, took him to his home, walked him past his wife and his two young children into the back bedroom and had sex with him," said Lee.
Thousands of the kids they have abused have found refuge in the Californian safe house called Children of the Night. For 37 years it's been run by Dr. Lois Lee, a woman as incredible as she is fearsome.
How many children might the refuge have helped save over the life of this operation?
"Over 10,000 children," said Lee. "It's only a few hundred each year. It's not that big, I don't think."
And yet it's monumental. Dr. Lee effectively raises these kids from the ashes: Housing them, educating them, and feeding them, all for free.
Lee found her calling in the darkest of places after a tip-off about a young prostitute who was sent to meet a man named Angelo Buono, one-half of the murderous duo now infamous as the "Hillside Stranglers."
"I called the police, they had me in the police station, and they wouldn't send a car because they said she was just a whore," said Lee. "She turned out to be Hillside Strangler victim number 11."
The girl's rape and murder sent Lee on a personal rampage. She advertised her home phone number on television and asked children in need to call her.
"My home phone was the hotline for strip club owners, organized crime, pornographers. It took me right into the underground," said Lee.
"One young lady told me when she came in, she was in the shower and was just crying and crying, 'This is my home. I have a home now,'" said Lee.
Tiffany cries too when she remembers what she went through to get here.
"I still think about it every day," said Tiffany. "I think about different faces every day."
The faces of the monsters who stole her youth.
"Consistent sex all night long," said Tiffany. "I cried, I begged them to stop, and it was like, 'Oh no, just a little bit more.' I was 14."
Often the girls are branded with vulgar tattoos: Dollar signs, or the names of their pimps -- kids reduced to barbaric billboards.
"The man who tattooed his name on the side of 50 girls' faces right here in Los Angeles County -- no one held them down like cattle and branded them against their will," said Lee. "For the first time in their lives, someone claimed them."
It's precisely that inhumanity that worries Dr. Lee the most.
"They're considered, 'This is what you were made for,'" said Lee.
Her alumni have gone on to work as teachers, police officers, lawyers, even at Homeland Security.
"It's great, it's like bringing back a childhood you haven't had," said Carly, one of the residents.