She was 15. He was 16.
She liked him. He knew it.
He was dangerous. She didn’t know it.
He courted her. It worked.
In late July 2015, Emma (Editor’s note: Name has been changed to protect the source’s identity) left her hometown Manteca, Calif. to spend time with Nikko Anaya. They went to a coastal beach far from home to have a picnic. She said it was the happiest day of her life.
But the next city in Northern California held a much darker future. It was there that Emma said she was sold and forced into sex slavery.
Emma’s captor, Anaya, and three others — Brianna Day Morales, 20, Fabio Bettencourt Silveira, 20, and Elijah Joel Wolfson, 19 — allegedly created and controlled social networking sites where they posted photographs of her, and “Johns” (buyers) would respond with interest. The trafficking ring controlled her phone, negotiated the deals, determined the costs and picked the locations, she said.
This continued for four days.
According to San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) Lieutenant John Bledsoe, Emma was driven to residences in at least three cities, where police think she was forced into having sex eight to 10 times per night. As the traffickers would call it, she was “pulling tricks.” She had no money and just a few belongings. All of her moves were controlled by this trafficking ring, headed by the boy who had betrayed her, she said.
The group eventually made it to a motel in San Luis Obispo, where the manager said he recognized men suspiciously coming and going, some with guns. It wasn’t until the traffickers left her alone for a short period of time in the motel that she was able to call her father, who then contacted the police.
SLOPD put together a team and went to the motel where Emma was staying. When they got there, she was terrified and alone, according to Bledsoe. They rescued her and arrested her captors.
All are being tried as adults for the sex trafficking, including Anaya, who was underage at the time of the crime. And all defendants have pleaded not guilty in the case against Emma and are scheduled to appear in court for their hearing on Aug. 8 in San Luis Obispo.
Emma’s story is not an isolated incident. Human sex trafficking is the “fastest-growing business of organized crime and third-largest criminal enterprise in the world,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Major hubs in California include Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fresno, but it happens in smaller cities too — even San Luis Obispo. Whether the victims of sex trafficking are brought in, sent out or sold on the way to other major cities, it’s happening in the “Happiest City in America” and Bledsoe said he thinks it is a growing trend.
“San Luis Obispo is a target-rich environment for this type of crime,” Bledsoe said. “Most of the time it goes unnoticed and many people are either naïve to its existence or not willing to get involved by reporting it.”
What is sex trafficking?
The Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization, defines sex trafficking as “a form of modern slavery that exists throughout the United States and globally. Sex traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will.” Those forced into commercial sex trafficking are made to do things such as dance at strip clubs, act in pornographic videos and perform sexual acts for money.
There are an estimated 27 million human trafficking victims worldwide, according to Sowers Education Group, an anti-trafficking and survivor awareness group. One million of those victims are in America and 300,000 of those million are under the age of 18.
Children can get caught up in this $32 billion annual industry as young as age 10, with the average ages being 12-14 for girls and 11-13 for boys. The child prostitutes have an average life expectancy of seven years after entering the business, according to a Child Welfare Council report.
The San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas are three of the nation’s most saturated child prostitution regions. Between 2011 and 2013, California’s human trafficking task forces identified 1,277 victims, 72 percent of whom were from the United States.
With San Luis Obispo lying halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it lends itself as a popular pit stop and according to Tracy Shiro, the assistant director of social services for San Luis Obispo County, traffickers can find “Johns” to do business with here.
Almost 30 years ago, Carissa Phelps was living on the streets of Fresno at the age of 12 when a pimp named Jimmy “Icey” Jackson kidnapped her. He kept her, abused her and sold her to men on the street. Phelps managed to escape that lifestyle and went on to pursue a college education. Jimmy was arrested for other crimes and taken to High Desert State Prison.
She was 19 and attending Cuesta College when she saw an advertisement in the back of a local paper to “dance” (strip) and make quick money — approximately $100 an hour.
Feeling like she might as well try it out after already experiencing so much in her life, Phelps responded to the advertisement and met with the advertiser for an “interview.” They met at a local Denny’s, where she discovered that he was a Cal Poly business administration student.
Phelps said the student took her to his house, where he coerced her into performing sexual acts with him. He forced her to strip down so he could look at her as a product, she said. He told her what to change about her appearance before she could work for him as a private dancer. She said he then handed her a pager and told her how to evade law enforcement. But it was all a front.
Phelps was sent to a man’s house. When she got there, she said she found the man waiting for her — naked. He said he wasn’t looking to have sex, but Phelps quickly realized the Cal Poly student was looking to have her do more than dance with the men she was visiting. After Phelps confronted the student, she said he admitted as much.
“He was basically sexually exploiting students, and many of them Cuesta students because they looked at Cal Poly how they look at it: like a holy grail,” Phelps said. “He was exploiting them and acting like he was providing for the people working for him.”
Phelps said she met with him a couple more times, but returned the pager before the situation got worse. Still, Phelps thinks she was just one of many girls he was contacting and setting up on calls. She never thought to report him to the police because at the time, she did not think what he did was illegal.
“Usually you don’t know what you are getting into, and you want the dream of easy money to be true,” Phelps said. “From that moment, it is a quick transition and pull into a world you may be ashamed of being a part of.”
Today, Phelps is the author of the memoir Runaway Girl, and acts as the CEO and attorney for her company that goes by the same name. The company works toward anti-trafficking solutions from all angles, including lobbying and projects such as books, plays and other art forms by which survivors can share their experiences to raise awareness.
“Your defenses go up as people on the outside of this world believe a lie that you tell about how glamorous your life is now. But no matter how it appears, the internal battle that a survivor will go on to fight is real,” she said.
Carissa’s message: Sex exploitation can happen anywhere, and it is happening in San Luis Obispo.
The first San Luis Obispo sex trafficking case that Bledsoe can recall in recent history took place in July 2011.
“Most of it is covert,” Bledsoe said. “We don’t know when or where it is happening most of the time.”
Oct. 24, 2013 saw the “righteous human trafficking case” that woke SLOPD up to the prevalence of sex trafficking in San Luis Obispo, according to Bledsoe. In this case, two runaway girls from Southern California had been held at Motel 6 North, where detectives found one 16-year-old girl (the other had escaped the night before). They had been kept by two Fresno Bulldog Gang members, Michael Andrad and Javiar Solis — nicknamed Joker and Dove — for a few days. Both gangsters pled guilty to human trafficking and are now serving up to 25 years in federal prison.
“This case was really an eye-opener, that ‘Wow, this stuff is really happening in San Luis a lot more abundantly than we thought or knew,’” Bledsoe said. “Until you really know it’s out there or recognize it, it could be underneath you the whole time … We just didn’t know the magnitude of it and probably still don’t at this point.”
San Luis Obispo has also seen a growing trend in the number of children in the child welfare system roped into sex trafficking. Since April 2014, the county’s child welfare hotline has received 13 referrals confirmed to be related to sex trafficking. Three of those referrals were for children from San Luis Obispo County. Seven referrals were for children from other counties passing through San Luis Obispo, and three of those seven were for the same child.
“I think there’s a large business and I think that we are only now beginning to really find out what we are dealing with in this county,” Shiro said.
Despite the recognized trend of sex trafficking in San Luis Obispo, SLOPD does not have a designated task force to deal with this issue.
For Phelps, it’s less about recognizing a growing trend and more about opening people’s eyes to a problem that has always been around. According to her, the issue is that nobody knows it’s happening in San Luis Obispo. It is happening in unconventional ways, such as taking advantage of young college students who are vulnerable and away from home.
“It scares the shit out of me here because nobody is looking for it. Everybody thinks it’s not there and guess what? The traffickers know that, too,” Phelps said. “So they just prance right on in and take whatever girls they want, rape whatever people they want, get them to go on trips with them. Yes, it’s a problem.”
Even well-off students at esteemed universities similar to Cal Poly can be victims of sex trafficking. Rachel Sowers was a student at Emory University when she was tricked into the sex trafficking business.
She said she was at a popular college hangout with her friends when a well-groomed man dressed in a three-piece suit walked up to her and introduced himself as Mike, a modeling agent. Flattering her, he politely offered to jump-start her modeling career. He said he knew talent when he saw it and guaranteed she could get her first paid modeling gig within a month.
She turned him down at first, saying she wasn’t interested in a modeling career and continued to dance with her friends. Half an hour later, a college-aged girl named Michelle approached Sowers and told her she was there with Mike. She said she had been watching Sowers after she turned down Mike’s offer, and thought she really had what it took to be a model. Because Michelle seemed like somebody she could trust, Sowers took Mike’s business card, she said.
She called him the next day and Mike immediately set her up on a professional photo shoot for that upcoming weekend.
Three days after the photo shoot, Sowers said she got another phone call from Mike who said he had sent over her images. She had already been cast for her first modeling gig for a Lil Jon music video.
After performing in the glamorous music video shoot, she had to fill out a W-4 tax form to get paid. The form asked for her full name, parents’ address, current address and social security number. Without thinking twice, she filled out the form and handed it over to Mike.
About a month later, she signed a one-year contract with the agency.
After five weeks of modeling, Sowers found herself in the backseat of a car with Mike and Michelle en route to an industry party. At some point during the car ride, a song came on the radio and Mike asked Michelle what the song was. For whatever reason, Michelle did not respond so Sowers answered his question, Sowers said. This set Mike off. He slapped Michelle in the face, and she started profusely apologizing and crying, she said.
Coming from a happy, upper middle-class home with a church deacon as father and a lawyer for a mother, Sowers had never seen or experienced any sort of violence like that in her life. At the time, she knew nothing about human trafficking and assumed Mike and Michelle were in an abusive relationship. Nonetheless, she knew it was not something she wanted to be a part of.
The next day, Sowers called Mike to tell him, “thanks, but no thanks.” She asked to put her modeling career on hold to focus on schoolwork.
To this, she said Mike responded: “Bitch, I own you. You’re going to do what I tell you to do.”
He ordered her to meet him later that week and threatened to hurt her parents if she did not show up, she said.
That was when Sowers realized that when she handed over that W-4 tax form at the music video shoot, she was unknowingly giving Mike personal details he could use to threaten and manipulate her.
In fear, Sowers did what Mike said. When she met with him, there was already a buyer set up and waiting for her. That was the first night Sowers said she was forced into sex trafficking.
She continued to be exploited for the next 10 months.
Mike never posted pictures of Sowers on the Internet and never had her stand on a street corner, but she said he set her up on calls where she was expected to meet and have sex with buyers. Sowers and the other prostitutes were told that if they went to the police, he would kill them, their roommates and their family, she said.
Eventually, another girl working for Mike mustered up the courage to go to the police. Mike was arrested, and after a police investigation, they discovered Sowers was only one of 75 women Mike was trafficking.
“If only someone had told me that a trafficker could come in a three-piece suit,” Sowers said.
Sowers got her life back. She started Sowers Education Group in 2012, which works for education and prevention practices to combat human trafficking. The group focuses on survivor empowerment and creates opportunities for survivors to share their story.
Rachel’s message: Anybody can be a victim of sex trafficking. There is no “type” of victim. Even cautious college students are at risk.
With her safe upbringing and successful college career, Sowers may not fit the typical profile usually associated with a trafficking victim.
“We have a certain profile of a victim. None of it is true,” Phelps said. “What really happens in exploitation is that you can be exploited by someone that looks like your best friend.”
Victims of sex exploitation cross all socioeconomic ranges. It’s not just the poor families or broken families. It’s anyone.
“This isn’t just kids in the foster care system,” Shiro said. “This is confident young women and men just like you that happen to have a vulnerability, whether it is a lack of connectedness to family, money, where it’s a desire to be a model or dancing or any form of entertainment that can be exploited from people that want to use that and then turn it into something else for their profit.”
According to Phelps, traffickers thrive on people who are actively looking for a job or part-time gig. If a job opportunity seems too good to be true, Phelps warns, it probably is. Unsuspecting college students like Sowers are subject to this form of victimization.
“I know it’s born on campuses as well,” Phelps said. “I know that young men and young women who are looking for something in their lives or financially have an unmet need end up falling prey to these predators, exploiters.”
From the mouths of traffickers, Phelps has heard that if the victim does not already have a vulnerability, the traffickers will create one. For instance, according to Phelps, those living on the streets without families will get picked up and lured in with the false allure of a support system.
Perpetrators also look for those who need money like college students. They purchase ads online and in newspapers that advertise dancing to make quick money, which could eventually lead to commercial sex exploitation.
“Sometimes it says straight-up stripping and dancing. But it doesn’t say that there’s a 99 percent chance you’ll be raped on the job. It doesn’t come with those disclosures,” Phelps said.
What is San Luis Obispo doing about sex trafficking?
Sex trafficking is an international issue, and the “Happiest City in America” is not an exception.
The silver lining: Authorities in San Luis Obispo are at the forefront, collaborating to fight this issue.
“This is a happy city. Majority of what goes on here is very good,” Bledsoe said. “Leaders care about the city and people want to live and vacation here. A lot of people just don’t know it’s occurring.”
City leaders, the District Attorney’s office, law enforcement, social services, behavioral health, drug and alcohol services, mental health, advocates, RISE and Safer are just a handful of the organizations working together to address sex trafficking and help survivors, according to Shiro.
Early this year, the District Attorney’s task force and the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Collaborative Response Team (CSFC), who responds to reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children in San Luis Obispo County, combined to form a new task force to combat sex and labor trafficking in San Luis Obispo. SLOPD is a part of this task force.
“Bad things happen everywhere. I think the thing that makes this one of the best communities in America is that people care and that people come forward and they report it. So we just need to make sure that we let everyone know,” Shiro said.
A study showed that a large percentage of victims were in the foster care system, according to Shiro. To combat this, the county Department of Social Services is working with law enforcement to be proactive from the time of the first initial response. Once social services receives a call, they immediately take the victim to the hospital to get treated and provide them with services. Advocates, social services and law enforcement are with the victims through the whole process to get them where they need to be, according to Shiro.
Though SLOPD does not have its own task force designed to stop sex trafficking in San Luis Obispo County, Bledsoe anticipates one’s creation in the near future. Detectives hold regular meetings to discuss the issue and potential formation of a task force, which hinges on funding, resources and amount of available personnel in the department.
Bledsoe said he has faith that eventually, sex trafficking will be recognized as a prevalent and serious enough issue in San Luis Obispo County for SLOPD warrant a task force.
What can you do about it?
If you have information about human trafficking in the area, tell somebody. Law enforcement could use the tips and social services wants phone calls.
“We can’t work together with the people that are committing the crimes or the victims in many cases. But there are people out there that know these victims and know what they are involved in,” Bledsoe said. “They are either afraid or unconcerned about it and are not reporting it.”
If you or anybody you know is experiencing any form of human trafficking, there are plenty of available resources in San Luis Obispo including RISE, Safer and University Police Department (UPD).
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center is another available resource that can be reached at 888-3737-888.
“If you have been in a situation that you’re not sure of, you can still call the hotline for clarification. It takes years to realize, name and process almost every form of abuse and trauma,” Phelps said. “It is not meant to be something you process alone or overnight. Reach out. Get support. Repeat.”