“Milan” says she is 19 years old, and that may be true. She has beautiful black hair, tan skin and a full figure peppered with tattoos – all of which she shows off in the many selfies lining the right side of her advertisement on Backpage.com.
She was only in Missoula for a short time before she was whisked away to a new location. If you call the number she left, it won’t work. She’s moved on, most likely with her pimp, to another hotel room in another town. The only trace of her is her lingering advertisement on Backpage – a sort of haunting, digital footprint.
“Lots of people who think of human trafficking think that it’s occurring in another country or a big city somewhere else and they are oblivious to the fact that it’s happening here,” Missoula Police Detective Guy Baker explained. “But you know if you are not in that realm of society, if you are not seeking out girls or on these websites or engaging in this type of activity, well yeah, the average person isn’t going to know what’s happening.”
Baker is a leading law enforcement officer in western Montana investigating human trafficking cases. Since 2012 when human trafficking made its appearance on a nationwide scale, he’s worked about seven such cases. He said he's worked a dozen since 2010.
Meanwhile, the Missoula community and Montana in general are slowly catching on, with recent forums about human trafficking and measures like House Bill 89, carried by Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, "putting some teeth into the law," Baker said.
The bill will create a fund to provide victims with services, while also protecting the underage victims involved in the trade.
It also requires people picked up for purchasing or providing sex trafficking services to register as sexual offenders.
Dudik explained that some lawmakers were looking at updating the Montana laws regarding human trafficking before the session. After speaking with victims' advocates and prosecutors, legislators realized there were some sex trafficking laws, but many times they penalized the victims and were as flexible as the aggravated prostitution statutes.
"So people were being incorrectly charged with aggravated prostitution," she said. "Then these people who are being trafficked are getting prosecuted, but they aren't willingly doing this so we wanted to stop that.
The measure helps shift the blame and prosecution from the victim to the actual perpetrators of the crime. Identifying the perpetrator in crimes that have historically been painted with a wide brush and labeled prostitution, remains a difficult concept for jurors, too, Baker said.
“It’s also difficult for people to understand how it happens,” Baker said. “It’s easy for someone to picture a girl who is chained or locked up somewhere against her will being forced to engage in sex. That’s easy for someone to perceive as trafficking, yet that’s not how it usually happens.”
"It’s more open and out there and people don’t understand how the females involved in it can’t get themselves out of it, but it is really similar to domestic violence where people say ‘just leave him,’ ‘call your family, call the police,’ ” he added.
On a sunny spring morning, Baker, who has been with the police force for 25 years, was sitting in a coffee shop in plain view of the Missoula County Courthouse, where he has worked with prosecutors to successfully try several human trafficking cases.
He said the day before there were five advertisements for prostitution posted on Backpage.com. (Baker said there are at least four more websites that are used for the sex trafficking trade.) He types the webpage into Google and then reacts coolly to the numerous sex advertisements that pop up under the escorts category.
During the fist 12 days of March, there were 26 advertisements for sex posted on the site. Many of the girls, like Milan, advertise that they are 18 or 19, but could be younger and more claim they are “just in town” or “in town for a few days.”
That movement is one of the elements that defines human trafficking, Baker explained. The victim doesn’t technically have to be moved across state lines or a country’s borders, but most times there is movement involved because it makes it more difficult for the pimp to get caught if they are gone in less than a week.
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It also makes it more difficult for the victim to feel comfortable enough to run away or to make contacts. Victims like Milan are usually in town for a few days before being shuffled off to the next place, Baker said.
Baker calls the I-90 corridor from Spokane to Missoula and Billings and up to the Bakken oil patch a circuit. Milan, for example, provided a number with a Spokane area code. If she followed the circuit, by Sunday she will be working in the Bakken after hitting Bozeman and Billings.
Probably the most important element that defines human trafficking is force, fraud or coercion.
Baker explained there are two types of pimps that prey upon these young women: the gorilla pimps and the finesse pimps. Baker said most pimps are the latter, not the former, but both are equally dangerous.
A "gorilla pimp" controls the girl or woman with brute force and will physically force them to comply, but a "finesse pimp" first befriends the girl, who is typically young and vulnerable due to her age and past abuse.
He then mimics protection and love, tells her he cares about her and loves her, while providing her with the basic necessities. It's a method of persuasion, Baker said.
Sometimes there can be violence, but with the introduction of highly addictive drugs like methamphetamine and heroin, it's not always needed.
"Everybody seems to think that prostitutes are doing this because they want to and some may be doing that, but ... if a person or a woman is not in control of her situation, does she really have a choice?" he questioned. "It’s like the people on the top of the World Trade Center when it was burning and they chose to jump rather than burn up. … I mean, did they really have a choice? Did they choose to burn up?"
"If you don’t have control, you don’t have choice," he added.
As horrifying as human trafficking is, Baker said it's difficult oftentimes to charge or convict the pimps and perpetrators for an impressive array of reasons. Like domestic violence, victims frequently protect their perpetrator, while jurors have a hard time understanding why the women didn't leave.
In his human trafficking cases, Baker said the women he's spoken to tend to be mistrustful of law enforcement and don't self-identify as a victim.
"They are worried about what's going to happen to them – the consequences from their pimp," Baker said. "No one is going to take care of them, but he does. They can seem scared and timid like an abused woman or they could have an attitude and be uncooperative. It takes a lot. It takes a lot to gain their trust."
Baker said that's why he works with victim's advocates to help prosecute the perpetrators, but he would like to see a better understanding of human trafficking in the community.
He said people need to understand this is happening here in Montana and more than it ever has before because of the Bakken oil boom.
"This is a terrible crime. The victims deserve our support and our attempts to protect them," Baker said "If we can get one person out, that should be pretty rewarding."