By ALLEN SCHAUFFLER
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY
A Bend man in September was arrested for seeking sex online with a girl he thought was 17.
Turns out it was a police sting, a fake online posting that attracted a lot of attention – 27 different responses.
It was just more proof, said police and victims’ advocates at the time, that prostitution and sex trafficking are problems in Central Oregon.
Victims hope to spread the word and stop the cycle; but the Deschutes County district attorney says it’s not a priority because forced proposition just doesn’t happen here.
We start tonight with a victim.
“When you get in that kind of situation and you understand the magnitude of how much trouble you’re in and just the danger and the manipulation and the I several times I was like, oh bleep I am in trouble here.”
To get a sense of what trafficking victims experience, listen to Sara Perkins of Bend. These are pictures from high school, just before she moved to Portland and fell under the control of a pimp named Larry. She survived more than two years being sold for sex; not here, but in Portland, Las Vegas and other cities.
“Larry would always say things to me, over the two and a half years ‘This is who you are, once a ho always a ho, you love it. If you can just accept this it will be so. I had already gotten in this mentality of ’that’s just who i am.'” I remember once asking him for some food and he said ‘bitch, time is money and you want me to go spend and waste time?'”
She’s been out of what she calls “the life” for 12 years now, helped by Nita Belles and the Tumalo-based non-profit she founded to fight sex trafficking, an organization called “In Our Backyard”.
“We are a town that is fairly naive about human trafficking” she says, “so we think it doesn’t happen here, we think that we’re safe, we think that we live in a safe town. And and it does happen here. We have a lot of conventions that come though here. So people travel from somewhere else, they’re away from their wives, away from their families.”
But she says not all Central Oregon buyers are visitors; some are local.
“The men that are buyers here in Central Oregon, they want somebody they’re not going to run into at Safeway. So they’d be looking at these ads for somebody from another area.”
Belles brings up the ads she’s describing on her computer, showing us one us just one of the many websites where sex is for sale. She keeps the search local.
“I’m going to say I want to go to Bend, Oregon, and then I’m going to click on that I want a female escort; and really the majority of them are not escorts, they’re going to be trafficking victims. We’re seeing horrific pictures of nudity in different forms, of women being advertised for sale and this is bend specific.
She scrolls through dozens of pictures and ads, thinly veiled offers of specific sex acts and prices.
“Here’s another one. We don’t see her face. We look at her body. It looks young but we cant tell for sure; she’s not well developed. She says she’s doing in-calls in Redmond. She’s running a special, $150 an hour. This one says cash, Visa, Mastercard or Paypal.”
Belles’ organization has posted stickers and placards inside restrooms in bars, gas stations, convenience stores; here and across the country, giving trafficking victims a number to call. But she’s puzzled the local criminal justice system doesn’t see sex trafficking as a very high priority.
“I haven’t seen a lot of prosecutions for trafficking. We see trafficking, we see police activity trying to do something about it but I’m not seeing many prosecutions.”
And why not?
“Thats a good question,” she says.
When we asked Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel why there weren’t more prosecutions for sex trafficking, this was his response.
“In the four and a half years I’ve been D.A. we’ve had one case. Because we don’t believe it exists, beyond the one case we’ve found. We do find prostitution; it’s adult women who are not doing it against their will. Still a crime, but not human trafficking.”
But Nita belles says it’s ridiculous to think all the women pictured in online ads are independent operators doing something they want to do. Hummel is adamant that victims advocates like Belles are over-dramatizing the situation.
“I would ask them what are the crimes of human trafficking they’re seeing that my office is not prosecuting?” Hummel said. “They won’t be able to give you any. I’m confident that it’s not a problem in Deschutes County; it doesn’t exist in Deschutes County.”
The D.A. describes trafficking as a crime that happens in the shadows and he and victims advocates say it’s a difficult crime to prosecute. The victims, the women and girls involved, can be threatened and intimidated. They have to be willing to testify publicly against the very people who have been controlling their lives and selling their bodies and as Sara Perkins reminds us, they worry about their own legal vulnerability.
“You’ve been committing this crime; the hotel rooms are in your name, the cars are in your name and guess what? in a court of law you’re going to prison.”
Also, D.A. Hummel says it’s a matter of priorities. He’d rather see more resources put towards combating things like domestic violence and traffic crimes.
“I sometimes get frustrated when advocates want to divert funds of thousands if not millions of dollars focusing on a crime that doesn’t exist when we’re under-resourced on crimes that do exist,” he said.
It is a hard crime to get good data on. It’s difficult to nail down how often it happens, who the victim are and how many are out there.
Our research turned up a few numbers.
J-Bar-J is a Bend non-profit which provides social services for at-risk youth.
Checking a progress report on a federally funded program, we found they provided services to 49 different sex trafficking victims over an 8 month period ending this May and made 26 referrals to other programs. But those statistics don’t specify how many women or girls were victimized here and how many might have been brought in from elsewhere.
Bend Police records show 33 arrests for prostitution in the last year, 18 arrests for promoting prostitution, seven for sex trafficking and one for purchasing sex with a minor.
For Nita belles those numbers make her case; it’s here, and it’s a problem. She believe there are women and girls who need help.
“I like to say this happens in every zip code in the united states; I know it happens in every zip code in Central Oregon.”
Sara Perkins managed to escape “The Life” and now works with “In Our Backyard”, helping warn girls away from the horror she survived as a teen.
“I’m at a point in my life now that when i look back at it I think its really unfortunate that it happened and that amount of time in my life was taken away from me and I had to experience those things. Because they still affect me now.”