ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) – This week, KMOX News is telling you about Children for Sale – the hidden sex trade in St. Louis.
Investigators believe it’s happening in some of the nicest places in town. But even if they uncover sex trafficking, there is no guarantee a case will ever get to court.
Marble floors, extravagant art, designer furniture. This could be one of dozens of hotel properties in the St. Louis region that detectives suspect are the staging ground for the underage sex trade.
“We don’t have that issue here, ‘we’re a five star property.’ ‘We don’t have that issue here, we’re a family resort.’ When indeed it did happen at those hotels,” says Kimberly Ritter, Senior Account Manager and Trafficking Initiative Coordinator for Nix Conference and Meeting Management.
Special Report: Children For Sale
About 5 years ago, Ritter was asked by a group to find them a hotel that took a stand against trafficking. “When they said child sex trafficking, I had no idea what it was. I thought it was something that happened in a third world country.”
Ritter discovered evidence of it happening across the United States. Not just at the no-tell motel. “I could look on the internet at a website called backpage.com, where you can buy a washing machine, you can buy a meat grinder, and you can buy a girl,” says Ritter. “I could look at the photos of the girls, and recognize the hotel that the girls were being sold in.”
The reaction from big chains was denial.
“On the lucky occasion the girls would be posed so that you could see out the window and you could see monuments in the city,” she adds
Including St. Louis.
KMOX News contacted a number of hotels. None returned our phone calls.
Ritter found one, the Millenium, willing to sign a pledge and train employees on the red flags. “Housekeeping may receive a call for fresh towels or sheets, ice cream to settle down a younger girl,” Ritter says.
Her internet research has led her to believe its a significant issue. “It’s happening on a nightly basis and it’s not just a few girls,” she continues.
Yet if you look at court cases, there isn’t a huge stack.
The federal courthouse in St. Louis has seen some notable ones.
- Waquita Wallace admitted she beat and tortured a mentally disabled girl she invited to live with her and sold for sex.
- Carl Matthews. Sentenced to ten years in prison after admitting he beat and threatened to kill a woman, forcing her into prostitution for two years.
- Latasha McFarland. Prosecutors say she lured a 13-year-old runaway into prostitution — posted pictures of her online and drove her to hotels for johns.
Plus several other pending cases involving teens who were also advertised online.
How big is sex trafficking in the St. Louis region?
U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan says, “We think its a little more widespread than we’ve been able to crack, but we really don’t know.”
On TV dramas you see sting operations lift the door on a semi where they find dozens of girls packed into a trailer. So far in St. Louis, most cases have involved just a few victims at a time. “I like to think we don’t have those large prosecutions because it doesn’t exist but it could be we haven’t discovered it yet,” he adds.
Not every suspected trafficker that has been busted has wound up in court. “You need the cooperation of the victim. If the victim doesn’t believe they’re being exploited, that becomes a lot more difficult,” Callahan says. “Getting cooperation can be problematic. “We’ve had prosecutions where the runaway continued to runaway on us and we weren’t able to have any confidence that, come trial, we’d be able to produce the witness.”
The agencies who work with victims say there are many things holding them back. For one, the threat of violence or death.
Dedee Lahman of Covering House says, “it’s hard for people to wrap their minds around why aren’t these men being prosecuted. The girls have come forward and they have to testify and they’re scared.”
Katie Rhoades of Healing Action Network says they’ve worried about survival. “If they don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal, where they’re going to put their head down, where they’re going to get their baby’s formula, they don’t care about the prosecution.” Read her story HERE.
Experts say they have been brainwashed into believing things are better with their captors.
Lara Fallon, Social Work Coordinator at the International Institute in St. Louis, remembers a massage parlor bust several years ago. “You could tell that the women had been trained on what to say if they were ever caught by law enforcement.” Fallon says it was obvious what was happening.
“And they all lived in a back room. And you could see where they were sleeping, where they were eating,” she says. They kept silent. “They claim that they weren’t victims, which does happen. And they were just booked on prostitution and they were released and then they were gone.”
What will it take to expose more sex traffickers in St. Louis?
More on that Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 5:21 p.m. as this KMOX News special report “Children for Sale” concludes.
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