It was the early 1980s, and the evolving Block E of downtown Minneapolis had life, with hustlers and prostitutes interspersed with the suit-and-tie crowd that spilled out of skyscrapers at 5 o’clock.
Jenny Gaines, 14, had heard about the place from a girl she’d befriended at a group home, a place where people had tried to tame her rebellious, self-destructive behavior. The girl, Pam, was good at doing hair, wore Guess jeans and constantly talked about her “daddy.” She drew elaborate pictures of herself in a fur coat, “Daddy” in his suit and the two of them getting into a limo. It all seemed so glamorous, her life in prostitution.
Jenny listened, hungry for a change. She’d recently swallowed a bunch of aspirin, hoping her somewhat absent father would come to the rescue. Between stays in behavioral homes, she fought stubbornly with her mom or fled to her dad, who was often gone overnight.
One night, a couple of weeks into a treacherous year at a big new high school, Jenny ran away. On the streets downtown, she could be someone else.
Standing next to the jukebox playing “Superfreak,” Jenny saw the man who would become her first pimp walk into the Fun Center arcade in downtown Minneapolis. She was in her Madonna phase, and he looked like “Beat It”-era Michael Jackson. He walked in, commanded the room with his dance moves, then took her hand and pulled her outside.
“You’re gonna be with me,” he said.
Beneath his Jheri curl, the older “Alexander” looked Jenny in the eye, told her she was pretty and took her on a coffee date at the McDonald’s a few doors down. His middle name is used here for safety reasons.
“I couldn't believe that he was talking to me, you know?” Jenny recalls.
It was the beginning of what would lead to decades in the world of sex-for-sale.
‘A sixth sense’
Like Alexander, pimps generally have a knack for identifying vulnerable girls -- girls like Jenny, whom they lure and then trap with threats of violence and distorted love. At bus stops, in malls or online, they’re experts in catching the girls who feel belittled, misunderstood or deserted by family and society. Pimp as safety net.
“Any player can tell when a girl has the look of desperation that you know she needs attention
or love,” one Chicago pimp stated in a 2010 DePaul University study. “It’s something you start to have a sixth sense about.”
That same study found a pimp’s prime candidate is a blonde runaway.
“These guys are better at their jobs than we are at ours,” said Rob Fontenot, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation agent in charge of trafficking investigations. He describes pimp recruitment as being like a pursuing lion on National Geographic; the cunning predator doesn’t go for the fastest gazelle, but the limping one with the broken leg.
“Everybody thinks about this as Laura Ingalls Wilder bounding through the prairie and gets snatched up. But that’s not the common way this happens,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said. “The common way it happens is they look for the right person, the vulnerable person, and that’s how they get in the life.”
Once he’s found that girl, the hungry one who’s mad at Mom, he captures her with a feigned love interest. Then the perceived love turns into an ask. And then he turns her out for a profit.
The women whose names fill blacklists at Oil Patch motels, whose risque outfits draw attention and scorn in small Dakota towns, whose sensual and often fake photos flood the Internet site Backpage, aren’t always operating of their own will, experts and former sex trafficking victims say. And, the girls aren’t always brought in from the outside. Pimps often recruit from within communities.
“It is something that you need to be worried about if you have daughters and sons, grandkids or whatever,” said Windie Lazenko, who works with victims in Williston. “It’s your issue, too, because it doesn’t discriminate, and it can happen to anybody.”
‘North Dakota’s got a problem’
Alexander frequently would bring Jenny into the then-seedy Block E bars. Seven years shy of legal and running away for a few days at a time, Jenny felt grownup. Other nights, they’d drive down Minneapolis’ Lake Street.
“There’s a working girl right there ... what do you think?” Alexander would ask.
Jenny would balk. “I couldn’t imagine walking down a street and just getting into strange cars,” she’d say. Dismissive.
“Only a strong woman can do that,” he’d counter. Calculated.
“I actually admire her, you know, I respect the hustle in her,” he’d say. “She’s doing what she’s gotta do to take care of her kids and her family and her man.”
Today, just as the marketing of sex is moving toward the Internet, so too is the recruitment of victims. Pimps will browse social networking sites, looking for young frustrated girls who air their anxiety in sullen posts.
“The pimps tell us that they can pick these girls out,” St. Paul police Sgt. Ray Gainey said, “that they can just spot them.”
American Indian reservations present especially vulnerable girls who often suffer generational violence, dysfunctional families and alcoholism causing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, said Suzanne Koepplinger, formerly the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. What’s left is a population of girls, including at the Fort Berthold reservation in the heart of the Bakken, who may struggle to understand cause-and-effect and have a deep need to please.
“When you have vulnerable kids and particularly Native girls and Latinas, and you have a market, you’ve got a problem. And North Dakota’s got a problem.”
Lazenko calls it “sleeping with the enemy.”
Now an advocate for victims in Williston, Lazenko lived the life of prostitution and sexual exploitation from age 13 to 32.
Pimp control is the art of making a girl feel wanted, enough that she suffers the punches for the emotional connection. Experts say trafficking shares the dynamic of domestic violence, but society’s awareness and understanding of trafficking today is where domestic violence was 20 years ago. Through psychological manipulation, the pimp brainwashes his victims into thinking only he can provide for them and that no one else understands them, especially law enforcement. To police and domestic violence centers, a woman will call a pimp her boyfriend, her “daddy.” And especially if she comes from a broken or violent home, she may not realize she’s a victim.
“You wait on your man hand and foot,” Jenny says. “You go to prison for him, you take cases for him, you go get his money every night, rain, sleet or snow. You pull other women for him. You do all this stuff.
“That’s the life; it’s the game. It’s the life you live. And you buy into all of that, and you don’t understand that you’ve been victimized or brainwashed.”
Jenny can’t entirely explain the control Alexander had over her at the time, but she remembers the way he made her feel.
“I wanted to please him, you know, because when it was good, things were really, really good. I mean he really knew how to make me feel so special, you know?” she says.
“But as soon as I was getting too confident or whatever” -- she snaps her fingers -- “he knew how to shut it down, too. So after the abuse would happen, you’re so broken, so then when they come with the love, I mean you just soak it up.”
If not for the emotional element, the girls would leave, said Sandi Pierce, a St. Paul-based researcher who focuses on the sex trafficking of girls of color and is a survivor of sex trafficking.
“Violence is the heart and soul of pimping. … But the psychological is what keeps the girls loyal and unable to escape,” said Pierce, who is of Seneca Indian descent.
When the psychological manipulation doesn’t work, and a victim doesn’t want to turn her sixth trick in a day, the pimp breaks her down and builds her up into what he wants her to be.
“They don’t want to damage that girl because she won’t be worth as much. [It’s] more coaxing and loverboy method,” Pierce said. “But once she’s in, there is a breaking process.”
Lazenko, who said she was molested as a child, said she remembers the deep need to feel safe and wanted after a troubled upbringing.
“You'll take it from just about anywhere, even from someone who raped you or beat you the night before,” she said.
Often these women are controlled through dependence on drugs, concern for children fathered through their pimps or fears for their immigration status.
None of his threats may be true, but that’s the psychology of pimping: control over what’s real.
With tattoos, pimps brand the women in their “stables,” as if they were cattle.
“They want people to know that this person is spoken for,” said Vanessa Chauhan, North Dakota’s representative from Polaris, a national anti-trafficking group.
And usually they are.
Pimps will talk for their victims in hospital visits or on traffic stops, according to information presented to nurses and cops at trafficking detection trainings. The victims won’t make eye contact. Like a batterer, a pimp will enforce trivial demands and monopolize a girl’s world to keep her compliant and fearful.
A pimp recently convicted in Minnesota federal court had a guide in his possession when he was arrested: “Pimpology: The 48 Laws of the Game.” The man, Dontre D’Sean McHenry, also had handwritten notes.
“Are u homeless?” one read. “Tired of your mom/dad getting on ur nerves?”
Pimps are masters at making unwanted, perhaps discarded women feel wanted, said
Minneapolis police Sgt. Grant Snyder, who has trained law enforcement officers, including in North Dakota, in handling trafficking cases. “They make them feel relevant when everybody in their lives has made them feel irrelevant.”
The pimp will sift through a victim’s emotional history and latch on to vulnerabilities. If she had issues with her father growing up, he’ll be “Daddy” during the loving part of recruitment. If she has low self-esteem, he’ll tell her she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.
Sociologist Tim Pippert, who’s studying sex trafficking as part of his research into the community effects of western North Dakota’s rapid growth, said victims may say to themselves and others that they chose a life of prostitution as a survival mechanism. He compares it to homeless men and women who say they choose to live on the street.
“If you can say you choose to be there, you say to yourself that that’s an option, right, that ‘I could always leave if I wanted,’” said Pippert, an associate professor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Control from afar
In one of the days between her escape from a pimp and his arrest, a 23-year-old woman was coloring at Lazenko’s home. The woman looked at her phone and began shaking. Her face turned white.
Levell Durr had texted the woman a red dot. The dot was on a map showing exactly where she was sitting, Lazenko said.
Durr is now in custody in Devils Lake, awaiting sentencing on a trafficking conviction in federal court. He told his victims they couldn’t look anyone in the eye, especially men, and had to kiss his hand when they handed him their money, one of those victims told investigators. They had to give him everything they’d made, less enough for them to buy food from a vending machine. In his plea deal, Durr admitted to enticing two women to work in prostitution in North Dakota, but he didn’t admit to using force.
Once he was behind bars, his control just took a different form.
When another man began to follow Lazenko and the victim she was assisting around the Williston WalMart, he could’ve just been a pimp on the prowl, trying to recruit girls, Lazenko said. But as he followed the woman through the clothing aisles, and then when the same thing happened twice more, it became more apparent she was his target. The message was clear: Durr had eyes on her from behind bars.
He was in jail, but his victim still wasn’t free.
One of the men stalking her approached her in the checkout aisle at WalMart. “Where’s your man?” he asked, wanting her to say she had gotten him locked up. She froze.
“That’s when I left our stuff at the checkout, just took her and walked out,” Lazenko said.
A pimp’s control is so insidious, so grounded in psychological abuse, that it’s present even when he is not.
“She still has a quota,” Lazenko said of when pimps go to jail. “They’re conditioned. They are trained to continue on and report to him because eventually he’s going to get out. If they don’t have their required money, they’re going to suffer the consequences.”
Pimping is a twisted game, and breaking the rules brings penalties.
When one victim hid money from Durr, she was locked for two days in one of the kennels he keeps for dog-fighting, and she could barely walk when she was let out, another victim told investigators. This is believed to have occurred in the Milwaukee area, where Durr was known as a pimp to law enforcement, an FBI special agent testified in federal court in Bismarck.
Lazenko said nearly every trafficking case she’s seen in North Dakota involved physical violence. In severe cases, girls have suffered broken jaws and other facial fractures.
Free from a pimp, but not from the game
Jenny remembers once trying to leave Alexander. He found her, though, and kept her two days and tortured her.
“He was really angry that I had left him and [said] that I wasn’t gonna leave him no more, and if I ever tried to leave him again he was gonna get my brothers and sisters and my mom -- he knew where they all lived -- and I better not ever try to leave him again,” she said. “Every time he looked at me he’d just throw a shoe at me or something.”
And then one last time, he exploited her.
“He wouldn’t even let me wash up. I still had blood … he just put me out on the street and he told me he’d be back in two hours and I better have some money.”
That led her to dig out the card of a compassionate cop and get Alexander locked up. He went to prison, but his control was still there -- his friend later saw her in the parking lot of a Kmart, took her money and beat her, punishment for snitching.
Jenny needed protection. She felt guilty because she wanted to be the “ride-or-die chick.” So she went back to the Fun Center.
And soon she met her next pimp.