Reporting Holly Wagner
OAK PARK HEIGHTS, Minn. (WCCO) – A Twin Cities community is searching for solutions to a growing and disturbing problem – the sex trafficking of young girls.
Faith leaders, law enforcement and survivors attended a community meeting in Oak Park Heights Saturday.
Earlier this month, the FBI ranked Minnesota 13th in the nation for sex trafficking.
Pastor Bill Hieb of Riverside Church in Somerset, Wis. led the conversation at Boutwells Landing Senior Living Center in Oak Park Heights.
Sgt. Grant Snyder, an investigator for Minneapolis Police Juvenile Trafficking Unit, gave the group an inside look at some of their recent cases.
One of them involves a 56-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico named Bernard, who is a level 3 predatory offender.
Snyder says Bernard, whose nickname is “Little Man,” ran a sex trafficking operation out of a converted porch in a home in Minneapolis.
He says Bernard locked up the young girls and held them captive in an 8-foot by 7-foot room, and made them follow a list of rules.
“Girls have to stay 45 minutes, you can’t use a condom, you have to take a shower, you won’t get paid until you’re done,” Snyder said.
Investigators rescued a 15 year-old girl out of that room when they made the bust.
Sgt. Snyder says there are many more out there. He says young girls are lured into sex trafficking through their peers, and some are runaways targeted by pimps.
“These predators, they’re lurking out there. They’re waiting for that next child. They’re waiting for that next victim to hit the streets, whether it’s Minneapolis, whether it’s St. Paul, whether it’s Duluth, whether it’s Stillwater. They are waiting to find their next victim,” Snyder said.
In Heidi Carlson’s case, she was lured into the sex trafficking world at the age of 20 as a promising college student.
“Actually can’t even count how many times we’ve been beaten or raped,” Carlson said.
Carlson won’t call herself a survivor, but says she’s a “thriver.” She now works for the Domestic Abuse Project counseling abusive men.
Part of her message to the group of concerned community members is victims of the sex industry have different stories and come from different places.
She says she was a small town girl from a good family Pine City.
“What it shows is that nobody is immune,” she said.
Carlson and Snyder hope that people who attended the meeting left with a better understanding of how human sex trafficking is impacting their community.
“Law enforcement can’t fix this, the faith community can’t fix this, advocates can’t fix this,” Snyder said. “A community can fix this. That’s what it requires.”
He urges people to be more aware. He gave the example of a recent case where a sex trafficking operation had been going on for several years in one Minneapolis neighborhood.
When police made the bust, neighbors told officers they had noticed young girls coming and going, and could even describe them – but no one called police.
Snyder also says parents should talk to their children about sex trafficking, and specifically about internet sites like Backpages.com, which has been linked to the trafficking of young girls.