Photos: Devin Ream
“I got into this job for a number of reasons, and whether you believe or care – whatever your preconceived notions about me are – does not matter to me. I’m going to do the same job for you as I would for anyone else. So, regardless of whatever you think of me, I’m going to help you if you’re being victimized.” – Detective Brendan McGuire, Portland Police Bureau – East Precinct
Detective Brendan McGuire investigates sex crimes. He didn’t choose to be a police officer with that specific career path in mind, but that’s how it worked out. McGuire chose to do his job simply because he believes that it needs to be done.
“I don’t do this for the recognition. The stock answer is the whole altruistic, ‘I got into it to help people,’ which – for firefighters and police – I think there’s a certain amount of that,” he says. “But I mostly got into this because I love puzzles, figuring things out, solving problems. And there’s nothing that makes a puzzle like human interaction.” The human interactions in sex crimes cases are elaborate; from inter-agency cooperation, to jurisdictional issues, to protecting and recovering victims off the streets, to actually building a case in front of a jury, Oregon’s detectives are the experts trying to stop local sex trafficking one day at a time.
McGuire, 41, has been a member of the Portland law enforcement community since February 1996. Following 12 years as a patrol officer, he was promoted to detective in January 2008. Since then, McGuire has been the lead investigator for more than 225 cases, and has personally made more than 50 arrests. And though he’d worked different assignments as a detective prior to taking a position on the East Precinct’s Human Trafficking Unit (HTU), in 2011, as a result of his success on the HTU, McGuire was also assigned to the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force (CETF) – giving him deputized jurisdiction over federal cases (e.g., child sex trafficking).
Along with his duties as a detective, McGuire also has family responsibilities which can conflict with work. “I can easily slip into taking my cases home and working too much,” McGuire says. For this, he relies on his wife and 11-year-old son to help him disconnect from his cases while off duty. “I take the badge off as often as I can, but I will admit that it’s hard,” he says. “I’m more able to disconnect from the cop thing, but it’s definitely heightened that level of fatherly protection.” Being constantly immersed in the world of sex and human trafficking can be a challenge as anyone in the field will admit; but something consistent in each of their testimonials – the thing that transcends any apathetic or ambivalent feelings toward the issue at large – is their desire to make a difference in whatever way they can. In order to create change, they put themselves on the frontlines of the battle. The detectives are there and they live their cases. They remember each one. Really, they can’t forget.
In 2003, the FBI along with the Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children established the Innocence Lost National Initiative. Intended to combat the sex trafficking of children in the United States, “The initiative has resulted in the development of 69 dedicated task forces and working groups throughout the US involving federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies working in tandem with US Attorney’s Offices,” according to an FBI press release. In Portland, the CETF is that federal task force.
By working together in a more organized, coordinated effort, the US law enforcement community has made great strides in recovering underage and adult victims of sex and human trafficking. And, importantly, they have brought many traffickers to justice. In June 2014, 168 minors were recovered and 281 pimps [*See Editor’s Comment below] were arrested as a result of Operation Cross Country VIII – “a week-long enforcement action meant to address commercial child sex trafficking,” which utilizes 54 FBI field divisions in 106 US cities. Stemming from that operation’s efforts in Oregon, three individuals were arrested and charged with promoting prostitution: Joseph McKenzie, 41, by the Portland Police Bureau; Courtney L. Milan, 23, by the Beaverton Police Department; and Alexandra R. Roberts, 22, by the Eugene Police Department.
In eight operations since 2008, Cross Country has been responsible for the recovery of 434 child victims and the arrest of 581 traffickers nationwide. In the 11 years since the implementation of the Innocence Lost Initiative, more than 3,500 children have been recovered and 1,450 convictions have been achieved. It’s national operations like this which help officers clean up their streets locally.
Interstate-5, stretching 1,255 miles from Seattle to San Diego, is the main west coast artery servicing human trafficker travel. Through the use of the I-5 corridor, adult and child sex trafficking victims are shuffled from city to city down myriad branching highways almost undetected. By accumulating information through a vast network of sources (online and offline), law enforcement personnel endeavor to keep tabs on trafficker and victim movements. It’s no small task.
“We go at it with more intelligence in our back-pocket, instead of just buckshotting a bunch of [online] ads, and calling and hoping that we’ll recover a victim,” says Denise Biehn, Special Agent for the FBI and coordinator for the CETF. “We get information from a lot of sources. When we hear something, that’s when we focus on specific individuals.” Law enforcement agencies utilize informants and also follow online services like backpage.com to track victim movements. Backpage.com is like craigslist.org, the popular classified advertisements website, but with fewer regulations. This makes it possible for traffickers to post advertisements for escorts – a legal profession often used to belie engaging in prostitution. Anytime the Internet is used to solicit prostitution, traffic a minor, or transport trafficking victims across state lines, regardless of which state-level law enforcement agency initially investigates, the crime will fall under federal jurisdiction. However, jurisdiction is not always so clearly defined.
“A case is rarely purely state or purely federal,” Biehn says. “It’s especially true in this arena where you have, at least most the time, an [online component] used, or some sort of conveyance of inter-state commerce. In theory, those could all be federal cases, but in practice they’re not because of capacity.” Simply put, the FBI does not have the resources necessary to take on every trafficking case it gets. To manage these jurisdictional issues there are detectives like McGuire who, although officially employed by the state, are given legal authority to handle some federal cases. One such case involves two traffickers from Washington State.
The two men had brought two girls – a 16-year-old and a 15-year-old – from Tacoma to Portland hoping to find new clientele with a predilection for young girls, McGuire says. The pimps had been working the girls on the streets around Seattle during the previous week, but sex trafficking minors requires pimps to change locations frequently to avoid detection. Upon their arrival in Portland, they rented a hotel room near Portland State University and quickly went to work putting up backpage.com ads for both girls.
While on patrol in a Portland neighborhood, a Multnomah County deputy noticed the 16-year-old sitting on the porch of a house, looking lost. While speaking with the her, the deputy took notice of the two men from Tacoma as they drove by his police cruiser, looking hard at the girl. Recognizing the situation and reacting quickly, the deputy called for backup to track the men down. After being stopped, the two men explained that the girl (who they claimed was 19) was the driver’s girlfriend and that they had been trying to find her. Meanwhile, the girl was telling the deputy that she had no idea who the men were. As their stories began to unravel, she panicked and disclosed the real reason for being in Portland: she was being prostituted.
The federal prosecution that stemmed from the resulting case took two years to wrap up, McGuire says. One of the men ended up turning on the other as part of a plea deal. “The first guy was very low-functioning,” McGuire says. “He was basically duped by the trafficker into being a driver for drugs.” The driver’s plea earned him four to five years, while the trafficker received a 15-year prison sentence. “The big success from that one was that the girl had never done it before,” McGuire says. “She got wrapped up in it for a week or so, had this happen, and hasn’t done it again since.” Whether or not the girls had voluntarily put themselves into that situation to begin with wasn’t entirely clear. Cases of voluntary prostitution (i.e., prostitution without a pimp) are tricky to define.
“Those who volunteer to put themselves out there on 82nd Ave. [a known prostitution zone in Portland] – it’s a misnomer,” says Glen ‘JR’ Ujifusa Jr., one of two Multnomah County District Attorneys assigned to the HTU and CETF at Portland’s East Precinct. “You have to look at the totality of why they’re out there. It may not be a trafficker with a baseball bat, but it may be a drug addiction, or a controlling boyfriend. It’s oversimplified to say whether it’s voluntary or not. We view these women as victims. We’ve tried to engage them in services rather than jail them and try to get them out of the life. We know that a majority of the time, there are traffickers behind it. Sometimes it can even be a family member.”
To effectively combat the pervasive issue of sex and human trafficking, along with the psychological problems faced by the trafficking victims, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have teamed up with human resource departments, like the Department of Human Services, the Sexual Assault Resource Center (SARC), or Lifeworks NorthWest to incorporate mental and physical health specialists into the recovery process. Biehn says that they’ll often have a victim’s assistance specialist go along when they make a recovery (i.e., taking a victim out of the dangerous environment in which they’re being trafficked and leading them towards social services), in order to offer the victim help from the very beginning. Both McGuire and Biehn acknowledge that their areas of expertise only go so far as finding and recovering victims and bringing traffickers to justice. The need for people who are willing to help the victims after the initial recovery is equally great and every bit as important as recovering them in the first place.
It’s not uncommon for a trafficking victim, even after being recovered, to find herself involved in the business of selling sex again – either through an associate of the trafficker, or of her own volition. “I’m never surprised when I need to find that individual again,” Biehn says. Because of the sometimes cyclical nature of sex trafficking, human service specialists are needed to handle much of the psychological repair that occurs after being recovered. For the officers, it’s reconciling the burden of trying to help versus what they’re actually capable of doing on a pragmatic level. Many of them admit they’re simply not capable of tackling the health and wellness challenges that many victims ultimately face.
“You see the same girls over and over and over again,” McGuire says. “If I fixate on trying to get her into a better place, it just burns me out. That shouldn’t be my goal here because I’m not equipped to make that goal a reality.” One of the primary goals of detectives is to be a gateway for victims to find other options in life. However, often all they can do is encourage victims to seek out services that may help them change their lives for the better. “My number one goal is to recover that victim,” Biehn says. “But number two is building a case against that trafficker.”
How successful building a case is depends upon how efficiently the men and women from these various sectors work together. Because it requires the involvement of multiple agencies across multiple states, counties, and cities, a constant, open communication must be maintained in order for all the separately moving parts to coordinate. Due to the heavy caseloads that both federal and state investigators share – with some instances of case overlap between departments – working with partners is vital. “[Ujifusa] runs a meeting that all taskforce members attend,” Biehn says. “We meet once a month and roundtable our cases and talk about issues we’re seeing, individuals that are popping up, trends. Whatever the issue of the day is.”
Though she isn’t allowed to be specific, Biehn acknowledges that she’ll have “quite a few” cases open at any given time. Ujifusa says that he will have one or two dozen indicted cases that he’s working on, and perhaps an equal number of unindicted investigations. McGuire adds that he maintains 12 to 15 unindicted investigations on his own and that “less than a majority” ever make it to indictment.
Ultimately, getting an indictment boils down to the victim’s willingness to testify against her trafficker. “It’s extremely rare that we have a case where we don’t need the victim,” Ujifusa says. “There are cases where it has been done, but most of these crimes occur behind closed doors. Trying to prove that a person used force or intimidation to compel her to engage in prostitution without her talking can be difficult.”
Minimizing and mitigating the impact on the victim is always at the forefront of the detectives’ and prosecutors’ interests, but more often than not, McGuire says, they need the victim to take the stand and make an on the record statement. “We try to go the extra mile on the front end so the DA is in a much better position to negotiate a plea that doesn’t require a victim to take the stand at a trial,” McGuire says. Unfortunately, 95 times out of 100, they need the victim to testify. “Imagine telling your story in front of 12 strangers in a courtroom, under oath, in front of a judge, while having your trafficker watch you,” Ujifusa says. “You can imagine the type of stress and fear that these victims have.”
It can be compared to a physically or psychologically abusive household. It’s brainwashing, it’s victim dissociation, and it can even be a form of Stockholm syndrome. “These women and these girls have spent a significant portion of their lives – certainly their formative years, in many cases – having every decision made for them,” McGuire says. Removing the victims from those environments has produced mixed results. Usually they appreciate the recovery, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’ll even return to their trafficker. And try as they may, law enforcement professionals cannot always help survivors understand that they are victims.
“The reality of sex trafficking cases is that these are nightmares for the men and women who have dealt with these situations. They have been forced to do horrible things at the hands of very manipulative and sometimes very clever individuals who sometimes use force, sometimes use intimidation to get them to do pretty horrific things, if you actually think about the details of these crimes,” Ujifusa says. “We try to lower that burden off their shoulders.”
To do that, DAs will continue to work with detectives well after an arrest has been made in the interest of obtaining as much information for the case as possible. “It’s the way these cases have to be done because they’re so complex and there are so many moving parts,” Ujifusa says. “People think that once the handcuffs are on, the case is done. These cases just start when someone is in handcuffs, and they continue on through trial.” In the interest of building a stronger case or disproving defenses, the DA will often continue to send detectives out to scour for witnesses or more evidence throughout a trial. However, building a stronger case isn’t all that’s required while a trial is in progress.
“The other thing that we work on a lot during trial is witness intimidation and tampering through associates, through the defendant themselves or through jail calls,” Ujifusa says. “In almost every case there is some form of attempted intimidation.” Even while incarcerated, a trafficker’s reach can be quite far. “The psyche of these traffickers is that everything in their life is about controlling someone else,” McGuire says. “Even if they’re not actively involved in sex trafficking, they’ll have people out boosting [stealing and reselling items] from 7-11 or doing other crimes for them.” There has even been a case where a victim has stopped engaging in prostitution because she gets a legitimate job, but will then send that money back to her jailed trafficker, Ujifusa says.
Yet, even though they experience moments of frustration, Oregon’s detectives and prosecutors continue to fight the battle to end sex trafficking. What’s more, they work through lengthy, nuanced cases often unnamed and without thanks so that the community might be safer. “Trafficking is not accepted here, and the risks associated with trafficking are higher than the rewards,” Ujifusa says. “The community at large needs to be educated enough to know what the realities of trafficking are, what traffickers do – what actually happens to victims – so that they don’t tolerate it.” Cases open and cases close. Ujifusa, Biehn, and McGuire will continue to be there as they do. Someday, there may be no more traffickers to prosecute and no more victims to recover. For now, unfortunately, they’ve got their work cut out for them.
*Editor’s Comment: There was some debate over whether to use the term “pimps” or “traffickers” to describe the criminals discussed in this story. “Pimp” is a colloquial term for “trafficker” generally not used by the legal system. However, because the FBI used the terms “pimp” and “trafficker” interchangeably in several press releases, Ethos used them interchangeably as well.