US: The brutal world of teenage prostitution in Toledo, Ohio Print E-mail

Sunday, January 8, 2006

A series on LOST YOUTH: TEENAGE SEX TRADE First of three parts

Crackdown exposes Toledo as a hub of teen prostitution
Local residents provide management, muscle, recruits for national operation


If the brutal world of teenage prostitution were a legitimate business, Toledo would be among its top employment agencies.

It has supplied top management  ­ iron-fisted pimps who demanded worker productivity and loyalty.

It has supplied middle management ­ adult hookers under orders to beat discipline into underearning or renegade prostitutes.

And, most shocking of all, Toledo supplied the product ­ girls as young as 12, sometimes kidnapped, always sold for sex.

"I know the FBI is concentrating on Toledo, and I know Toledo is one of the top cities in the country for teen prostitution," said Celia Williamson, a University of Toledo professor known nationally for research of prostitutes.

Deb Hodges, a top Lucas County Juvenile Court official, agreed: "We had one of the federal investigators tell us that Toledo was the No. 1 recruiting spot in the United States. ... It was mind-boggling."

Until recently, it was also largely undetected.

"We here in Toledo had no idea that this was going on," said Dave Bauer, an assistant U.S. attorney in Toledo. One big problem, he said, is that underage prostitution is "a mobile business."

Recruited here, the girls didn't stay long. Pimps quickly shuttled them across the country, and "they would quite easily fly under our radar screens," Mr. Bauer said.

Federal investigators last month charged 31 men and women with herding teens - including at least nine girls from the metro Toledo area - across state lines as sex slaves in a highly profitable and violent prostitution ring.

These were neither street- walkers nor escort-service girls, authorities said. Instead, the teens were rotated among motels, truck stops, and highway welcome centers.

But while the feds are able to lay out the inner workings of the Toledo-based prostitution ring, they can't explain why a handful of local pimps became such big players on the national scene, providing girls to more than a dozen states stretching from California to the nation's capital.

"Everybody has been saying, 'Why Toledo? Why Toledo?' And we don't know why," said John Stossel, one of the FBI agents leading the investigation.

The indictments, part of a massive child-prostitution crackdown the feds called "Innocence Lost," spelled out the sophistication and high level of organization among pimps who managed the business: setting prices, establishing work schedules, and negotiating turf.

Gordon Zubrod, an assistant federal prosecutor in Harrisburg, Pa., called it a "loose confederacy" of pimps, each with his own turf but enough reason to get along.

"They're all homeboys from Toledo, and it's to their benefit to cooperate," he said.

The local network expanded two years ago, after the feds cracked down on another national sex-for-hire operation in Oklahoma City.

The Toledo defendants, many of whom had operated the sex trade for years, "stepped into the vacuum," Mr. Zubrod said. "This opened the door."

Brutal business
It's a business that traffics in human misery.

"The cruelty has been astounding," Mr. Zubrod said. "Most of the women will have testimony [ranging] from having been pistol-whipped to having bones broken."

It's clear how pimps benefit: The indictments track coast-to-coast wire transfers totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. But what lures girls too young for admission to R-rated movies into this Triple-X world?

A few are kidnapped and forced into the sex trade by violence. For many others, "prostitution is a continuation of the victim's sexual exploitation, not the beginning," FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker said at a Justice Department news conference last month in Washington announcing the arrests.

For these girls, he and others said, it's a simple trade-off: Prostitution looks better than a home life of neglect or abuse. A man who seems kind and attentive - at least at first - can be irresistible.

Still other girls leave home "for the thrill of it," stumbling into forced prostitution along the way, said Jim Anderson, one of the Toledo Police Department's missing-persons detectives. "They're 14, 15 years old. What do they really know at that age?"

Denise was 14 then. She knew.

A girlfriend told Denise, whose real name is not being used at her request.

"She said, 'I met this guy and he's a pimp … He's got all these ho's and they work for him and they give him their money.' "

To the South Toledo teen, the scenario sounded "fascinating" - or at least like an escape hatch from a home she said she shared with a hooker mother who was often drunk or high. Maybe, Denise speculated, that's why her mother never noticed that two family friends had molested the teen for years.

One day Denise found her mother crying at the kitchen table. "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked her child.

But in Denise's mind, the better question was: How could you not have known?

"I think I was hardened. I didn't cry," Denise recalled. "I think that's when the resentment began toward my mother."

She skipped school. She smoked dope. She was "deep into rebelling."

And one day, she simply didn't come home.

Standing at a pay phone at a church festival, she punched in the phone number for the pimp she got from her girlfriend.

"He was in Harrisburg. I tell him about the [latest] altercation with my mom. I said, 'Can I come out with you?' He said, 'You know what you'll be doing?' "

She knew.

"He said, 'You know you'll be prostituting?' "

She knew.

"He said, 'You know you're going to have to give me the money?' I said, 'Yeah, I want to be there.' "

A smack in the face
Hours after Denise stepped off the bus in Harrisburg, Pa., it wasn't the transactional sex that surprised her.

It was the violence.

Even now, seven years out of the business and removed from the control of any pimp, she still regards split lips and black eyes as mere occupational hazards.

"He was pretty good to me," she said of her pimp. "I can count on two hands the times he hit me."

Other girls, she added, had less merciful pimps and less luck with johns.

"I know girls who didn't make it out alive," she said.

Denise's story wasn't outlined in the recent indictments, but it might as well have been. In the world of paid sex, brutality is a standard means of maintaining a business structure - or, as prostitution researcher Ms. Williamson described it, "the rapes and the beatings and the stabbings and the brandings."

Ironically, investigators said it was the pimps who complained about working conditions.

"Both my hands were swelled up because I beat the bitch so much," the feds quoted one accused pimp as saying. That same man ended another beating only when he fractured his own hand, authorities said.

Another defendant confided to a fellow pimp that he beat a hooker for pulling in only $700 for a night's work.

Still another, authorities said, broke a woman's nose - an assault he'd been accused of twice before in Toledo. And in 2004, under investigation for a hooker's murder for which he was later exonerated, he talked bluntly with authorities in Indiana about pimp discipline.

"He said, 'Sometimes the only thing to get her attention is to hit her in the face,' " said Lt. Clarke Fine of the Hendricks County Sheriff's Office, near Indianapolis.

The brutality outlined in the indictments could indeed represent a long-standing practice of controlling women through force.

At least four of the Toledo men previously were accused of violence. In separate court cases, local police said these men, acting independently of one another:

Locked a minor behind an "iron door" and raped her.

Used a chain to beat another woman's face and body "for approximately three hours."

Kidnapped a female and forced her to perform oral sex until she finally managed to leap "from [the] moving auto at Summit and Cherry."

Smashed a bottle against a young girl's head.

The latest indictments claimed violence was sometimes even delegated to veteran prostitutes.

In another business setting, they might be called executive assistants. In the sex trade, they're known as "bottom bitches" - part enforcer, part cashier, and part recruiter.

Prosecutor Zubrod said these women will, "under orders, attack another prostitute and beat [her] with their fists or stab her or any number of things."

Fake IDs, real money
If Toledo was a recruitment hot spot, Harrisburg was its distribution center. Like no place else in the country, five major highways meet in the city, delivering an unending supply of paying customers.

"You can't do that in Chicago or L.A. or Atlanta," Mr. Zubrod said.

Wire transfers of tens of thousands of dollars - for food, fuel, clothes, and lodging - allowed the girls to crisscross the country.

Outfitted with fake identities, they remained as invisible as the underground economy in which they operated.

Denise picked up the routine quickly once she arrived in Harrisburg. Arrested? Never give your real name or age.

"You go to grown-up jail. You go to grown-up court. And you pay grown-up money. Then you're back to work," she said.

In one case last spring, a pimp turned to rote memorization to train two kidnapped Toledo teens.

"I know as far as the Social Security numbers and the IDs, both of the girls had to write on seven pieces of paper, front and back, on every single line, all their false information," the mother of one of the girls told The Blade.

Pimps monitored each other's product and services, purchasing women from one another and sharing trade secrets.

One inquired about another pimp's profits, according to the affidavit, which said "[he] replied that he had made a $10,000 down payment on a Cadillac and still had $17,000 left."

It was the "sophistication and the organization of the whole network" that stunned Mike Brennan, a longtime Lucas County juvenile probation officer.

"I was blind-sided by the magnitude of it. When I got a call from a federal prosecutor [about the network], I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, it's probably some overzealous prosecutor.' "

Now, he said, he has a keener understanding of how these men exploit children for a living.

"These aren't dummies we're dealing with," he said.

Too old for this
Now 26, Denise relaxed in her living room recently, her two girls playing on the floor and a Christmas tree in the corner.

In the end, she said, it was the gun pressed to the back of her neck that pushed her out of the business for good. The night it happened, she was six months' pregnant and tired.

She'd climbed into the tractor-trailer too willingly, relaxing her guard after the driver offered $60 for a $50 sex act.

Instead, she saw the flash of a silver handgun. He sneered. She pleaded for her life.

"You know what? I'm pregnant. Please don't do this."

He raped her and said she was lucky.

"I killed bitches," she remembered him saying. "I'm going to let you live.'"

Screaming, she ran from the truck.

She knew her pimp would find her. He did. She knew he would beat her. He did.

"He found me at a hotel. It was the worst he ever beat me."

From a hospital later that night, the battered mother-to-be sneaked out a back exit. If he found her again, she'd deal with it then. For now, she wanted out.

Anyway, she reasoned, she was getting too old for all this.

She was 18.

Contact Robin Erb at: or 419-724-6133.


Monday, January 9, 2006

LOST YOUTH: TEENAGE SEX TRADE: Second of three parts

Captive teenage cousins suffer crash course in forced sex trade

Police say Toledo trio enslaved 2 girls plucked from busy city street in May

The mother of 'Stacy' points to the house where her daughter and niece 'Cara' were held, while Cara's father looks on. ( THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY )


Tire iron in hand, an enraged man charged toward a southwest Toledo house.

He did not know what might be behind the front door - guns, weapons, or even a man as angry as he.

He did know he wasn't leaving until he got what he came for. Tired of waiting for the Toledo police, he was still reeling from what Michigan cops had told him just an hour ago.

Pimps, hookers, beatings, forced sex, and captive teens.

Shouting, he pounded on the door.

"Give me my daughter!"

Not every parent whose child is forced into prostitution gets a chance to rescue her. And very, very few of the teens who wind up in the sex trade get there after being plucked off a busy street while out walking with a friend.

Still, a two-year U.S. Justice Department probe of underage prostitution revealed a nationwide problem of such magnitude that it took many police and social-service agencies by surprise.

"Innocence Lost," the cooperative investigation by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies so far has saved 200 minors from the sex trade and led to more than 500 arrests.

The federal probe also revealed a "loose confederacy" of Toledo men who, according to investigators, have recruited local girls as young as 12 years old - shuttling them across the country and forcing them into the sex trade.

Authorities say pimps typically target emotionally vulnerable girls - those living in abusive and neglectful homes or ping-ponging in foster care.

They're lured by attention, promises of glamour and travel, or something as simple as a place to sleep and pretty new clothes. Others grow up in it, their mothers or fathers already part of the business.

But then there were two girls - cousins and best friends - who one afternoon in May just wanted a Frosty. Because they're minors and sex-crime victims, we'll call them Cara and Stacy.

"I was cooking dinner, which wasn't going to be for about another hour, so they asked if they could go," Stacy's mother told The Blade.

It was raining that day, and near Front and Main streets in East Toledo, a woman driving a white Lincoln Continental pulled alongside the girls. The man in the passenger seat looked familiar, like a friend's father.

"It was the sort of thing where one of the girls asked … 'Are you so-and-so?' And he went along with it. 'Yeah, I'm him,' " said Craig Raisanen, a Michigan police detective who would later investigate the case.

The rain began to fall harder. The cousins, ages 14 and 15, took the adults up on their offer of a ride. The girls later told police they picked up some Chinese takeout and went over to a Downing Avenue house.

The man who owns the two-story, red brick house is Deric Willoughby. Police said he lived there with Jennifer "Cashmere" Huskey, 23 - who'd been arrested before for prostitution in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania - and Brandy Shope, 18, who is known as "Envy."

Once inside, police said, Willoughby locked the door and set an alarm system.

"It was made clear to them they weren't free to leave," said Detective Raisanen. "They were told, 'This is your house now. Deric is your daddy, and that's how you'll refer to him, and this is what you'll be expected to do, and if you don't comply, there's going to be consequences,' … arguably for the rest of their lives."

The trio separated the cousins. One girl was taken to the basement, the other upstairs. It was the start of "hours of indoctrination," Detective Raisanen said.

The girls were sold for sex at least a dozen times over the next 10 days, as their families filed a police report and scoured the city.

But the girls were never left alone, always accompanied by either Willoughby, Cashmere, or Envy, who police said also ran an Internet escort service.

Escape thwarted
Only once did the girls try to escape, Stacy's mother said.

Federal officials said Willoughby caught them, throwing Stacy into the dining room table. Cara later told her aunt that Willoughby dragged her upstairs by her hair, "and then he kicked her down the steps, and then he pulled her up by her hair and kicked her down the steps again."

Their 10 days in captivity amounted to a crash course in the sex trade. According to a federal indictment, the cousins were told "how to behave [and] solicit customers."

They were given clothes and fake identities, and told authorities they were taken to hotels around Toledo and forced to perform sex acts. An adult always watched and collected payment.

Cara and Stacy learned quickly not to cry or speak without permission. They later told their families that whenever Willoughby drove them in his car he kept them hidden, ordering them to keep their heads between their knees.

When one girl broke a rule, they told authorities, it was her cousin who took the beating.

"When I first got into [investigating] it," Detective Raisanen conceded, "there was some skepticism involved. You can't believe they'd be so naive, can't believe someone could brainwash them so quickly. But the more involved I've gotten, you really do see how this works, and how it is possible for this to have happened."

On May 23, 10 days after they set out for a Frosty, the girls were taken for the first time to a truck stop off I-94 in Washtenaw County, near Ann Arbor, Mich.

Authorities were there. They'd gotten a complaint about hookers at the truck stop, and one deputy found Stacy and Envy inside a rig with a trucker.

Deputy's 'gut instinct'
Stacy stuck to the script about her fake age and name, but the deputy didn't buy it. For starters, she looked too young.

"I really respect the sheriff's department in Washtenaw County," Cara's father said. "The sheriff's department said it's just not right. They had no reason [to detain her], but they had a gut instinct."

Without proof of prostitution, the deputies released Envy and the trucker. Once Stacy was away from them, she told them the truth. Because state lines were crossed, deputies called the FBI.

They also called Stacy's family.

"It was a long ride. I swear to God it took 20 hours to get there," recounted Stacy's mother.

Stacy's mother and uncle met with detectives at the University of Michigan Hospital, where deputies took the 15-year-old to be examined.

"They told us everything," Stacy's mom said, "and we were thinking, 'Where's [Cara]?' "

Stacy thought she knew. Soon, the reunited family was flying south on U.S. 23, headed to Downing Avenue.

"I must have been going 90 [mph] to get back," Cara's father said. "As soon as I hit the Ohio line, I had simmered down. I called 911. They said, 'We'll send someone out.' "

They waited for Toledo police in their van outside the Downing Avenue home, joined soon by Cara's mother.

They called 911 again. Then they called the Toledo FBI office, but Cara's father couldn't wait anymore.

From the back of the van, he grabbed the tire iron. He marched to the front door, covered with five security bars, and punched out the windows.

The alarm system blared. Someone screamed. Upstairs, a window shattered.

Cara's dad reached through a broken pane of glass, unlocked the door, went inside, and gambled on a bluff.

'I have a gun'
"I'm screaming, 'I have a gun. Everybody down.' I just had to save my daughter," he said. "I didn't care what happened."

What followed was a chaotic melee between three parents and the house's three adult occupants, as Willoughby allegedly shoved Cara out a second-story window. Police, arriving a short time later, untangled the bloodied adults, sending two parents to the hospital and the three Downing residents to jail.

These days, Cara and Stacy's parents won't say where the girls are. But they say they're doing better and they're safer living outside Toledo.

"I just go on the bits and pieces my daughter has told me. I'm sure her counselor knows more than I do," said Stacy's mother.

The case was turned over to U.S. attorneys. The Downing trio was indicted Dec. 14, accused of two counts of sexual trafficking of children; two counts of interstate transportation of minors for prostitution, and conspiracy.

Two days later, the Justice Department announced the results of their "Innocence Lost" probe - a string of indictments against 31 men and women accused of running unrelated teenage prostitution rings.

Cara's dad said he feels fortunate. The girls in the other rings were moved around to other cities.

"Once I found out how big this …was, well, I just feel blessed to have my daughter again," he said.

Contact Robin Erb at: or 419-724-6133

 January 10, 2006


Dots on sex-trade picture largely went unconnected

Experts say pimps adept at luring vulnerable teens

After four years, ‘Crystal,’ 18, left the life of a child prostitute. ( THE BLADE/LISA DUTTON )


The problem with pimps is they’re so good at their jobs.

They have a radarlike ability to spot vulnerable young girls, and they’re masters at setting up prostitution rings so sophisticated that local police rarely notice.

“Why didn’t we know? Because it wasn’t going on here,” said Mike Navarre, Toledo’s assistant police chief.

A federal indictment unsealed last month revealed a subculture of brutality, high profit, and low regard for the lives of girls as young as 12. Dave Bauer, an assistant U.S. attorney in Toledo, called the 102-page document “a pretty damning manifesto of what’s been going on here.”

Judge James Ray of the Lucas County Juvenile Court agreed that teen prostitution went largely undetected.

“We didn’t know who these girls were because they were never charged with prostitution,” he said. “They’ll come in as runaways, or probation violations. We weren’t looking for prostitution, and lo and behold, we didn’t find any. We didn’t connect the dots.”

Authorities say pimps rotated Toledo teens through truck stops and rest areas in Pennsylvania, California, Michigan,

Indiana, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee, California, Florida, Louisiana, and other states.

“Key [pimps] were from Toledo, and they were befriending these young girls who ran away … and then they went to another state. Prostitution is about supply and demand, so they supplied the demand where it was,” said Mr. Navarre, who was chief of police when the Justice Department announced results of a sweeping, two-year crackdown on underage prostitution.

UT social work researcher Celia Williamson is helping to work on programs for teen prostitutes in the juvenile justice system. ( THE BLADE/ALLAN DETRICH )

‘Survivor sex’
The complexity of the prostitution ring took many here by surprise.

Less surprising, perhaps, was the ease with which pimps lure teenage girls into this violent underworld.

This was the case for a girl we’ll call Crystal.

She was 14 years old when she fled home, traumatized by several sexual assaults and angry at her parent’s divorce.

She turned to older male friends for a place to stay.

“You know, it’s a typical male thing. You know what … they’re going to want if you’re going to stay,” she said.

For four years, she traded her body for food and shelter ­ “survivor sex,” a social worker dubbed it. Not yet 18, her pimp sent her to what she described as New York City “cat houses.”

Last year, Crystal, 18, was interviewed by Deidra Bennett, a researcher working with Lucas County Juvenile Court officials to gauge the depth of teenage prostitution. Of the 50 girls suspected by court officials of selling their bodies, Crystal was one of five who agreed to be interviewed.

What Ms. Bennett uncovered mirrored what other researchers, and even an investigator in the recent federal case, have concluded.

“The common denominator, unfortunately, is runaways and children with some problems,” said John Stossel, a lead FBI investigator of the Toledo prostitution ring.

Pimps, he added, offer girls “something better than what they’re used to.”

Despite the degradation and violence, for emotionally needy girls, a pimp’s authority can even provide a much-wanted sense of belonging where none existed before.

“Our teenagers, they get hooked up into this group that becomes their sense of family,” said Laura Linthicum of Lucas County Children Services.
Starving for attention
Ms. Bennett’s interviews disclosed that each of the five girls came from homes of physical and/or sexual abuse. One was raped at 8 years old; another was a constant witness to her mother’s sex life. One girl’s mother and the mother’s boyfriend sexually assaulted her.

Each also had been battered by boyfriends. At 12 years old, one girl was thrown down the stairs after her older boyfriend learned she was pregnant.

But girls are vulnerable for other reasons too: depression, learning disabilities, and social isolation, say those who have worked closely with underage prostitutes.

Pimps out to recruit “go where the kids are, where they’re likely to be if they’ve left home or run away or would not like their parents to find them,” according to John Rabun, vice-president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “You cannot underestimate the skill of these guys.”

In just two or three sentences, said Mr. Rabun ­ a former Kentucky social worker who became a cop to battle child prostitution ­ a pimp knows if “she’s starving for attention.”

“He’s saying, ‘Oooh, honey, you’re so pretty.’ It’s what she needs and wants to hear,” Mr. Rabun said.

“Basically, it’s just talking ­ the very thing too many parents don’t do.”

The pimp buys her a burger. She stays a night or two. Eventually, guilt seals the deal.

“He says, ‘I’ve been taking care of you for so long, it’s time to pay your dues,’” said Olinka Briceno, who directs a social program in Boston to help young prostitutes and was in Toledo last fall for a national conference on prostitution.

“Their self-esteem is constantly dragged down. Their identity is lost. A ‘Kim’ becomes a ‘Diamond,’ and she’s constantly called ‘ho’ and ‘bitch,’ and pretty soon she believes it,” said Ms. Briceno.

Looking for help
Last summer, girls began showing up in Lucas County Juvenile Court’s detention facility under such minor charges as disorderly conduct and violation of court orders.

In fact, they were material witnesses to the feds’ ever-expanding case into teenage prostitution. Soon, as local court officials were briefed on the investigation, they realized they had a problem.

“We didn’t know what questions to ask, and the feds didn’t know squat about the juvenile justice system because they didn’t have any reason to,” said Judge James Ray.

What everyone did know: These girls needed special protection. Even within the county juvenile lock-up, a threat from the prostitution ring allegedly reached one of the girls, said Assistant Chief Navarre.

Apart from the safety issue, Judge Ray and others agreed that teen prostitutes ­ often traumatized by years of emotionally deadening transactions ­ are unlike other minors in the juvenile justice system. Yet no adequate facility or program exists here for such girls.

“Certainly there are no or few real professionals addressing the damage and trauma that teen prostitutes have experienced,” Judge Ray said.

Celia Williamson is out to change that. A Ph.D. social-work researcher at the University of Toledo, for years she has studied the lives of Toledo’s adult hookers.

Just last year, under a National Institutes of Health grant, she expanded her scope to include teen girls. And recently, she said, the Second Chance agency she started in 1993 for prostitution “rehab” was asked by county Children Services to accept teens into the program.

Last week, Ms. Williamson convened the first meeting of Prostitution Round Table: a coalition of criminal justice, social service, and health care officials who have agreed to cooperate in setting up communitywide protocols for helping prostitutes.

“We’re hoping that anywhere a young woman or adult goes for services, that when she comes in the door she’ll be asked some questions that can identify if she’s been involved in prostitution,” Ms. Williamson said. That way, appropriate referral or intervention can be arranged.

The only thing keeping her from opening a halfway house for adult prostitutes looking to exit the business, she said, is the expense of a sprinkler system for a North Toledo group home that is otherwise ready to open.

“With Celia’s help,” said Judge Ray, “were going to try and find a way to address the complexity of it all.”

Ms. Williamson has a strong sense of urgency:

“At least half of the [114] women I’ve interviewed over the years said they started when they were 14 or 15. We are overwhelmed by the need, and all we can provide is just a little drop in the bucket.”

Contact Robin Erb at: or 419-724-6133.