In October 2012, a woman sent an email to St. Paul law enforcement indicating that her 15-year-old granddaughter had been in a particular house in the neighborhood where suspicious activity had taken place. While hanging out playing pool in the basement, young girls started getting late night calls on cell phones and and an older man took them somewhere in response to those calls.
By piecing together other complaints and arrests around the state over time, a picture began to emerge about the sex trafficking operation the people based in that home were leading. The team of police and prosecutors were able to build an arrest case from a long paper trail that sprawled like a spiderweb across a wall. Two years later, Otis Washington (pictured above) was given the longest sentence in Minnesota history — 40 years. His brother Antonio was sentenced to 36 years. Two uncles were also convicted and sentenced.
It was another situation — like so many others — where the trafficking was hidden in plain sight. Girls were brought in and out of a residential neighborhood. They tended to be homeless and mentally challenged young women targeted and approached in public by the Washingtons.
How Targeting the Vulnerable Works
- One girl with a cognitive disorder was picked up at a bus stop and promised a ride to Minneapolis. She was taken to a motel instead, where she was assaulted, and photos were taken that went up on Backpage; she was forced to have sex with several men who called the phone number in the ad.
- One girl who was bipolar and unable to care for herself was taken from a homeless shelter by the Washingtons.
- One girl with mild mental retardation was so traumatized by what happened to her that she never reported it. When other girls were asked by the police to talk about other girls who had been exploited by the Washingtons, she was named and that’s how police were able to get her story.
In the end, there were so many girls used by the Washingtons — at least 50 — that girls who told their stories to police reported they couldn’t remember them all.
Text messages between Otis and a young girl who was considered a girlfriend pushed her to recruit other “dumb bitches” that “I can get change from.” He suggested she find out about them, if they are in an unhappy relationship, “u know how u females talk.”
How Do We Find the Vulnerable First?
At one forum, I learned the story of a cashier in a small town who noticed rather sad looking pre-teen girls in her convenience story, getting Ramen noodles and candy purchased by older men who did not look like family members. She did not know what to do, did nothing, and has been haunted by the memory.
In a case in which the full story is now known: A 14-year-old girl, whose mother was in prison and father was chemically addicted, regularly fed herself at McDonald’s, looking not particularly cared for. A trafficking runner was trained to notice exactly that kind of scenario, and did. So, the girl was approached by a nice-looking young man who offered to buy her some food… and the Grooming process began. He offered shelter away from her dad. Eventually, he offered housing in exchange for sex. In time, she was brought to a party, where she was encouraged to have sex with someone she didn’t know. And before she knew it….
- What if a classmate had heard her talking about an older boyfriend and mentioned suspicions to a teacher?
- What if a teacher had noticed her absence and asked around?
- What if someone at the McDonald’s noticed the approach and had a place to call? (Often it takes a series of tips to police to create a picture that leads to a case.)
- What if someone associated with the father had recognized the girl was at-risk?
- What if someone at the party had not felt right about what was happening and called 911?