JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – The descent into slavery began with a friendship.
Jessica Luebbert, a Jefferson City native, worked as a bartender and dancer in Columbia. Sean, a regular customer at the bar where Luebbert worked, would tell her he simply wanted to talk with her, she said. That’s something not many customers desired.
“Sean paid me about $100 an hour just to sit and talk with him,” said Luebbert. “It was regular conversation. Nothing perverted. He was a friend.”
The Columbia Missourian reports, he eventually lured Luebbert into sex slavery under false pretenses of a modeling career by building up a friendship over time. She was drugged, raped and beaten in a villa for three days in Maui, Hawaii, she said.
Luebbert’s story is one of many trafficking situations in Missouri. The state is tied with Washington, D.C. for No. 20 in most reported human trafficking cases in the U.S. last year, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center defines human trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery in which traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control victims for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or labor services against their will.
Since 2007, more than 1,500 calls have been made from Missouri to the National Human Trafficking hotline, the same site reported.
St. Louis and Kansas City are hotspots for human trafficking. Missouri is responding through legislation, law enforcement and grassroots organizations that work to combat and raise awareness about trafficking.
“The FBI has stated that St. Louis is one of the top 20 trafficking destinations in the country. Because of our highway system, highway 70 and 44, we have a lot of possibilities for that. So we do know it’s a problem,” said Republican Rep. Elijah Haahr, chair of the Human Trafficking Task Force. “People attribute it to being an East Coast, West Coast problem. It’s a Midwestern problem, both sex trafficking and labor trafficking.”
As the friendship progressed and trust grew, Sean opened up to Luebbert about his career as a modeling agent, and he said she had what it took for the industry. He offered her an all-inclusive trip to Maui, Hawaii, for a photo shoot.
“You’re the girl,” Sean told her.
“I was floored and stoked,” Luebbert said. “It was an `I won the lottery’ sort of feeling.”
After signing a contract, Luebbert was on her way to a modeling career, or so she thought. She only read the first couple pages of the lengthy contract and later realized within those lines must have been an agreement to “sign her life away.” Luebbert said there were no red flags at this time.
The coercion continued as Luebbert was scammed into an industry that generates approximately $150 billion globally, according to the International Labor Organization.
There are approximately 21 million slaves in the world today, which the International Labor Organization says is a modest estimate.
Although modern slavery is pervasive internationally, it hits closer to home than many might realize.
As Sean drove Luebbert to the airport, red flags began emerging as their plans switched unexpectedly. Their planes were somehow changed and postponed. They missed their flight. When they finally boarded the plane, Sean disappeared. On the second flight, the airline switched. They suddenly needed to fly to Los Angeles. Then they missed their flight again.
“In reality, he was probably getting things rigged up with the other people in on the gig,” Luebbert said.
Finally, the two boarded a plane for Hawaii. After the flight, Luebbert never saw Sean again.
A sleek, black car immediately met Luebbert at the airport, and she was told that Sean was already at the resort. As she leaned forward in the car, Luebbert noticed five or six pictures of girls. She said she thought they were models.
The car stopped outside a villa where Luebbert was left without any of her belongings. The black car was gone, and Luebbert opened the villa door to find three older men, about 65 years old. She was immediately injected in the arm and hip and suddenly felt heavy, almost as if she was under an anesthetic.
At this villa, Luebbert said she was drugged, raped and beaten for three days by these men who said they bought her from Sean. Luebbert said it was a vicious cycle: shots of medicine, rape, the medicine would wear off, she would fight back and be beaten.
“I had no idea what that meant, that they bought me,” Luebbert said. “I had no idea what they were talking about.”
Over time, Luebbert said she noticed a trash man outside that would come every now and then. On the third day, she knew this man was her only hope for freedom. Luebbert busted through the villa door to the trash man.
“I literally attached my legs around his waist and my arms around his neck,” said Luebbert. “I repeatedly yelled to call 911.”
Law enforcement arrived quickly and took her from the villa. But instead of relief, Luebbert said she felt shame.
“I felt like I had done something wrong,” she said, “like I had murdered somebody.”
Luebbert was able to fly back to Missouri with the help of a mentor back home. She immediately isolated herself in her apartment for about 13 days.
She was later diagnosed with curable diseases like gonorrhea and chlamydia, but some more severe injuries from the abuse still afflict Luebbert. Severe arthritis from fractures in her neck and spine creates problems in her spinal cord and nervous system.
Luebbert said she did not realize she had been trafficked until seven years after the incident when she heard another survivor tell a story about being trafficked.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone. I ran out bawling because I realized what had happened to me,” said Luebbert.
She has been sharing her story with people for the past four years.
“Each time I share it, I think I heal a little more,” Luebbert said. “One more person is educated, and they will tell others. That’s why I share my story.” Luebbert shared her story on a panel at Stephens College in January for National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month.
Four bills are making their way through the Missouri legislature that would raise awareness for human trafficking and expand the definition of sex trafficking.
House Bill 2561, sponsored by Republican Rep. Cloria Brown, would require various establishments to hang posters with information about human trafficking and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline. It has been passed by the House as well as the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence.
The establishments that would be required to hang the posters include hotels, motels or other establishments that have been cited as a public nuisance for prostitution, such as airports, train stations, emergency rooms, urgent care centers, women’s health centers, massage parlors and more.
The bill covers most avenues for traffickers to ensnare victims, like false pretenses of massage parlors, brothels, escort services, street prostitution and Internet-based prostitution.
“The hotline number can help, not dramatically, but even if it helps one percent, that’s one percent,” Luebbert said.
A study conducted by the Urban Institute in March 2014 found almost all types of these commercial sex venues in major cities in the U.S.
The institute studied Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, San Diego and Washington, D.C. It found that as of 2007, the sex economy’s net worth was estimated between $39.9 million and $290 million.
Sex trafficking takes place in public and private locations, including strip clubs, according to the Office on Trafficking in Persons. Victims may start off dancing or stripping in clubs and later be coerced into situations of prostitution and pornography.
The other three bills would broaden the definition of human trafficking to include advertisement of a child in a commercial sex act.
House Bill 2332, sponsored by Republican Rep. Kevin Corlew, passed the House, the Senate Judiciary and the Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and has been placed on the Senate calendar. Senate Bill 804, sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Onder, has been passed by the Senate and referred to the House Select Committee on Judiciary.
House Bill 1562, sponsored by Republican Rep. Elijah Haahr, was passed by the House, Senate and Fiscal Review. This is the second time Haahr has filed the bill.
“Our hope is that the bill will move fairly quickly through the Senate and then on to the governor’s mansion,” Haahr said. “Last year, it was on the Senate when the Senate shut down at the end of session. It was probably my biggest disappointment from last session.”
Four bills moving through the legislature would aid police efforts to combat human trafficking.
“(House Bill 2561) would be useful to us for notification purposes to our department if the public is aware of instances of human trafficking,” said Detective Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn-Muldrow, supervisor of human trafficking in the St. Louis Police Department.
The other three bills would also be helpful because they will give the department more opportunities to charge traffickers, she said. But the bills do not solve the problem.
“The issue is not just a sex worker issue, but it is a demographic issue as it relates to income, gender, race,” Clayborn-Muldrow said. “It’s just a social economic problem that begins way before human trafficking is involved.”
Last year was the first for Missouri’s Human Trafficking Task Force, chaired by Haahr, which aims to identify long- and short-term strategies that can combat trafficking now and in the future, Haahr said. The task force’s 22 members range from legislators, law enforcement, public safety officials, organization members and survivors.
“(Human trafficking is) a problem everywhere, particularly anywhere that is on a major highway,” Haahr said. “One of the things about trafficking, one of the things that makes it so attractive to a trafficker is, unlike a good like a drug that you sell and need to replace, you can use a human body as many times as possible, and so it’s a reusable item. That’s what draws that trafficker to that industry. It’s extraordinarily difficult to break that cycle.”
Missouri passed some legislation in 2010 and 2011 to combat human trafficking.
Senate Bills 586 and 617 passed in 2010 to restrict sexually-oriented businesses because they were linked to crimes like prostitution and sexual assault, according to a previous Missourian report.
The law requires adult businesses in Missouri to close from midnight to 6 a.m. Strip clubs are allowed to stay open, but the law bans full nudity at all times and physical contact between semi-nude dancers and patrons. Dancers must have their lower breasts and buttocks covered at all times under the law’s definition of semi-nude, according to the Missourian article.
It also restricts new sexually-oriented businesses from setting up shop within 1,000 feet of any school, house of worship, day care, library, public park, residence or another sexually-oriented business.
House Bill 214 was passed in 2011 to authorize the Department of Public Safety to establish procedures for identifying human trafficking victims and to develop training programs. The bill also authorized establishing protocol for appropriate agencies on how to educate employees on identifying and assisting victims.
The Department of Public Safety does not currently fund any anti-human trafficking organizations, but some anti-trafficking organizations may receive grant money from the department.
Despite these advancements, Luebbert said there are more areas that deserve attention, such as education for younger generations and law enforcement.
“I do not feel that we are anywhere close to where we need to be,” Luebbert said. “I do believe we’re getting somewhere, I don’t think we’re getting enough or fast enough, but that’s coming from someone who survived this.”
St. Louis police officers are required to attend training biannually, and human trafficking is addressed during one of those sessions. The department also has detectives who specialize in human trafficking and work with local organizations that combat trafficking, Clayborn-Muldrow said.
Clayborn-Muldrow said trafficking is increasingly difficult to recognize.
“Human trafficking can be very difficult to identify,” Clayborn-Muldrow said. “Most communications and arrangements for contact are done via social media and over the Internet.”
Backpage and Craigslist are popular sites used by traffickers.
The department offers training for businesses, organizations, schools and other groups interested in learning about human trafficking. The class covers the definition of human trafficking, how to identify it and who to contact if they believe human trafficking is taking place. Clayborn-Muldrow said the training is more popular now that human trafficking receives more media attention.
Most identified victims of trafficking in St. Louis are black juvenile females.
“Everything,” Clayborn-Muldrow answered when asked what more needs to be done. “There is no one way to tackle the issue.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri launched the Human Trafficking Rescue Project in 2006 to combat trafficking. The project was created to help identify victims, provide them with immediate protection and support and work with survivors to further investigate and prosecute traffickers.
The operation has successfully investigated and convicted large human trafficking scandals since 2009.
The Columbia Police Department offered a three-day training session on how to identify human trafficking crimes in 2013, according to a previous Missourian report. The training was hosted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri.
Officers learned about the history of human trafficking, how to recognize trafficking and how the community can help police identify trafficking situations.
But there has still been no institutionalized training for all levels of law enforcement in Missouri.
“I think it’s safe to say everyone would say we can’t be confident that there’s a high level of awareness among our law enforcement simply because as a state we’ve not been able to offer training across the board to all those levels of state law enforcement,” said Nanette Ward, co-founder of the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition.
There are more than 15 organizations throughout Missouri that help raise awareness about human trafficking and rehabilitate survivors.
The Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition has aided trafficking survivors since April 2008. Nanette Ward, one of the coalition’s founding members, has served survivors ever since. The coalition works to abolish trafficking in central Missouri through education, community outreach and supporting survivors.
The coalition has worked alongside legislators since 2011 by giving survivor testimonies at public hearings and allocating funds for law enforcement training to the Department of Public Safety. Members of the coalition have been a part of the Human Trafficking Task Force and worked with Haahr on bills to include advertisement in the definition of sex trafficking.
Ward said the current legislative measures are necessary pieces to trafficking prevention.
“That toll-free hotline has been shown to be a very effective tool, texting and calling. Texting was put in place after the toll-free number, and that was a huge deal, specifically in keeping the victims in mind who would not be able to just make a phone call but could rather text more discreetly and safely,” Ward said.
Most importantly, the posters that would be mandated through House Bill 2561 omit a zero-tolerance policy for traffickers in Missouri, she said.
“Those posters to me are a symbol of saying, `We do not tolerate this’ to the traffickers,” Ward said. “Of course we’re wanting to make the community aware so they can call in tips, and of course, number one, the victims who can reach out for help … but also a message to traffickers that this is not okay. … I think that’s a strong message for us to have.”
But the battle to end trafficking is far from over.
“We just have to keep at it,” she said. “There’s the funding issue, there’s training issue, there’s protecting children who are trafficked. … There’s just a lot. … It’s gonna take a long while.”
Some law enforcement agencies have received some training from local organizations that are able to offer it, Ward said. Law enforcement education is part of St. Louis Rescue and Restore’s initiative to inform the public about sex trafficking.
“We want to change the perception of law enforcement so they don’t automatically look at people engaged in commercial sex as criminals,” said Amanda Mohl, organizer for St. Louis Rescue and Restore. “Victims may not be doing this on their own free will.”
St. Louis Rescue and Restore trains law enforcement to ask more questions, build rapport and take a victim-centered approach, Mohl said.
Mohl and Ward both agree that the key to identifying and preventing instances of sex trafficking is education.
“We are hoping that by teaching people what this is, what it looks like and who to talk to, we can increase the amount of tips we receive. This will ultimately increase prosecutions and bring large amounts of people out of this situation,” Mohl said.
One of the biggest obstacles to engaging people in education about trafficking is their disbelief in its relevance to their lives, Ward said.
“When you are able to … give examples, the broad spectrum of very real examples within Missouri, then again things begin to shift in people’s minds, and then it does become relevant for them,” Ward said. “Once you have that opportunity to educate, it’s really not that hard for folks to realize that, yes, indeed it’s a very relevant issue for them.”
Supervising editors at the Columbia Missourian are Gary Castor and Daniela Sirtori-Cortina.