In every corner of Colorado, from the Front Range to the mountains to the plains, prosecutors found enough probable cause in more than five years to charge 369 people with crimes related to child sex trafficking.
Rocky Mountain PBS analyzed statewide court data for cases related to human trafficking, pimping of a child, procurement of a child for sexual exploitation, pandering of a child and other child prostitution charges between Jan. 1, 2012, and July 31, 2017.
At least six men were arrested and charged last year in Durango in connection with a sex-trafficking sting conducted by local law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
During a three-day sting, undercover law enforcement posted provocative advertisements on public websites such as Backpage.com in an attempt to lure people in the Four Corners willing to pay for sexual encounters with a child.
All six men took substantial steps toward carrying out the crime, with some exchanging money and others getting cold feet and driving away from hotel parking lots in Durango.
“We haven’t seen a lot of prosecutions relating to human trafficking, but that doesn’t mean isn’t happening in our community,” said 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne.
Victim advocates say the court cases likely undercount hundreds of other related crimes that are never prosecuted or brought to light, including many sex crimes against kids that are carried out anonymously, online or within the privacy of a family.
“I think the problem is huge, and we’re getting really good at identifying it,” said Stephanie Fritts, chief trial deputy district attorney in Adams County.
Those cases that are prosecuted involve serious allegations. In one Arapahoe County case, police said they arrested a man who arrived at a hotel with “newly purchased high heel shoes” to be worn by two little girls with whom he anticipated having sex.
Detectives said the man believed he was making online arrangements to have anal sex with the girls, ages 11 and 13, on Backpage.com, but the girls were not real.
Suspects find children onlineFritts said a common misconception about child trafficking is that the crime is mostly international.
“The majority of the trafficking happens within our state borders. It’s our children. It’s our youth that are being exploited,” she said.
Champagne said he is heartened to see more focus on human trafficking cases as well as sex crimes in general, including victims coming forward with their experiences about harassment and sexual assault.
“It’s a very positive development to shed light on this very insidious crime,” he said “... Many people believe it’s a big-city thing, that you go down into some seedy neighborhood and you try to find a prostitute, but really it’s much broader than that.”
During the first seven months of 2017, 40 people in Colorado faced charges for similar crimes against children.
Some of the cases are ongoing. Others ended with a variety of outcomes including plea deals or convictions on different charges.
More than a third of those cases involved online stings in which a man replied to an online advertisement offering sex with children. Most of those police set-ups occurred in Adams County.
While some suspects expressed concern with the age of the children and the possibility of being arrested, they showed up at a suggested location to have sex anyway.
“Put me down for the full monty,” one man told an undercover officer when he was offered oral and anal sex with a minor for less than $250. “Id wanna (sic) go home and shower before,” he wrote in a text exchange with the Aurora police officer before he was arrested.
Another man told an undercover officer in Fort Collins that he would give her pain pills and even sign over the title to his van in exchange for sex with a girl whom he believed was 15.
And an investigator in Adams County discovered a Craigslist ad searching for “dirty little panties.” In the posting, the suspect wrote, “I have always wanted a pair, but have been too afraid to ask anyone.”
When an undercover officer replied to the message, the man said he would enjoy removing the child’s underwear.
While many cases involved online advertisements for sex with children, RMPBS discovered most cases involved real girls and boys who police said were abused at the hands of their own family members, acquaintances or complete strangers.
The majority of accused criminals during the first seven months of 2017 were men in their 30s.
What is trafficking?Offenses related to the human trafficking of a minor involve selling and purchasing sex, transporting, recruiting and enticing a juvenile to participate in a sexual scheme that often results in a financial benefit or something of value.
“I think it’s the most sickening thing I have heard in my life,” said Sabrina Jones, who believes her daughter, Lashaya Stine, 16, was sex trafficked. Lashaya was a student at George Washington High School when she disappeared from her Aurora home during summer 2016.
The teen left behind many of her belongings when she vanished, including her cellphone charger. She also missed a job interview and an internship.
Authorities discovered a street surveillance video of Lashaya, wandering near Montview and North Peoria streets, during the early morning hours of July 15, 2016, but they haven’t seen her since.
“If this is hell, I’m in it,” Jones sobbed.
Although police detectives have not obtained evidence proving Lashaya was trafficked, RMPBS found Jones’ concerns are not unfounded. Trafficking-related crimes are prevalent around the country.
Since 2012 in Colorado, they have been uncovered and prosecuted most often in Arapahoe, Jefferson, El Paso, Denver and Adams counties. Each district attorney’s office in those jurisdictions charged at least 30 cases since 2012.
Between January 1, 2012, and July 31, 2017, Arapahoe County charged 101, the most child trafficking-related cases of any county in Colorado.
“We are a tough prosecutorial office in this jurisdiction,” said Cara Morlan, the senior deputy district attorney assigned to human trafficking cases in Arapahoe County.
In 2016, Morlan’s office, run by District Attorney George Brauchler, launched a special team to tackle human trafficking crimes. That team includes a special human trafficking investigator, Dan Steele, who previously worked as a sergeant for the Denver Police Department and as a member of the FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force.
Vulnerable youths, like runaways and homeless teens, are often targeted for trafficking, he said.
“It’s sold as a relationship,” Steele said. “It’s sold as an opportunity for something you want to get away from. Maybe there’s abuse in your home. Maybe there are other activities like that that you want to escape from, and this person is providing an out for you, and it may not seem like what it is on the surface.”
One such case involved seven defendants who were accused of running a violent sex-trafficking ring in Arapahoe County.
According to court paperwork, the accused ring leader, Brock Franklin, recruited girls through Facebook and at hotels and nightclubs, and he used drugs and violence “to control the victims and coerce them into engaging in commercial sex acts for his financial gain.”
Franklin will be sentenced for his role in the organization during a hearing Nov. 21.
“We’re going to go after and hold those offenders accountable that want to target children and vulnerable young women and men to sell sex,” Morlan said.
TrainingThe Colorado Human Trafficking Council, created by the state Legislature, will release its annual human trafficking assessment and recommendations for the state in early 2018.
In its most recent report, the organization, which includes police, attorneys, victim advocates and survivors, reported a “lack of awareness of human trafficking issues” in Colorado. In early 2017, CHTC recommended additional training for current and future police officers who receive Peace Officer Standards and Training certification, but the state has not yet made human trafficking training mandatory for police.
According to Shared Hope International, a trafficking prevention organization, 17 states currently have mandated human trafficking training for law enforcement
A Rocky Mountain PBS survey of Colorado’s 22 district attorney’s offices, meanwhile, revealed staff at nearly half of those offices had received little to no official, organized human-trafficking training.
“We’ve made a ton of progress, but that being said, I still think that we have a long way to go,” said Megan Lundstrom, executive director of Free Our Girls, an organization that provides training and prevention programs.
Lundstrom said it is crucial for prosecutors and law enforcement officials to recognize the red flags among at-risk youth and to understand what type of behavior is considered trafficking in Colorado. Eighty to 90 percent of runaway youths engage in “survival sex,” she said. They perform sexual services in exchange for shelter or a meal. That is trafficking, she said.
“A lot of times we hear, ‘This child is choosing to prostitute themselves.’ That’s legally not possible. They’re not able to consent to commercial sex work,” she said.
A handful of district attorney’s offices have begun to use a Human Trafficking Risk Victim Identification tool to help identify cases in their jurisdictions. Jefferson County prosecutors said their county was the first to implement the checklist to evaluate whether juveniles are at risk of trafficking.
New state legislation required all county human services departments to implement a similar, standardized tool this year. The state’s official screening tool was developed with input from officials in Jefferson County and Denver County who are familiar with human trafficking cases, said Sara Nadelman, who works as a child welfare human trafficking specialist for Colorado Department of Human Services.
Colorado human services departments throughout the state have used the tool to screen at least 590 children since Jan. 1.
Herald Assistant City Editor Shane Benjamin contributed to this report.