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With landmark sex traffic sentence, experts reflect and look forward
With victim-centered approach, the region is cracking down on sex trafficking
Jan. 9 marked a historic day for the fight against sex trafficking.
Otis Washington, 30, of St. Paul was given the longest ever sentence for sex trafficking in the state - his penalty was 40 years in prison for an operation that he, his brother Antonio Washington-Davis and two uncles conducted, selling at least 10 vulnerable girls and young women for sex in the Twin Cities and throughout the state, over a period of two years.
Ramsey County attorney John Choi called the sentence one that “bolsters Ramsey County’s efforts to end the enslavement of young women and girls in the commercial sex trade in our community.”
The sentence, in hand with other similar sentences, is due, in part, to recent changes in law enforcement’s approach, as well as additional collaboration among police, prosecutors and organizations like the St. Paul-based Breaking Free, which advocates for victims of sex trafficking.
To Vednita Carter, founder and director of Breaking Free, the long sentence says to her that “at least St. Paul is putting their foot down on this behavior.”
“There is a price to pay for people who feel they want to buy and sell young girls,” she said. “Hopefully, it’s big enough to deter others who think this is a way to go make money.”
Carter lauded the recent efforts, saying that five years ago, traffickers such as Otis Washington might not have faced the same aggressive prosecution, nor the same lengthy sentence.
“It would have been very minimal, and they would’ve been right back out on the streets doing the same thing again,” she said.
Together, Choi said, the organizations take a victim-centered approach, and view women and girls engaged in prostitution as victims rather than as perpetrators.
John Bandemer, who until recently headed the Gerald Vick Human Trafficking Task Force at the St. Paul Police Department, described the recent strong sentences against sex traffickers as a sign of a cultural shift.
Bandemer is now the investigative commander for the police department’s Western District.
In addition to Otis Washington’s 40 year sentence, Arteco Rhodes, 38, of Chicago recently got a 26-year sentence for trafficking, and Timothy Cross, 20, of St. Paul and Fonati Diggs, 24 of Northfield each got 21-year sentences.
Choi said a lot of progress has been made since early 2011, when all of the Twin Cities county attorneys publicly stated they’d no longer be prosecuting children who had been trafficked.
It marked a fundamental change where law enforcement “started regarding them as the victim of a crime and a potential witness” as opposed to a criminal. This mentality goes into effect statewide in August, with the implementation of the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Law.
With this mentality, it’s possible to gain the trust of the victim, Choi noted, and “that, I believe, is really critical.”
Carter lauded the recent move to a collaborative effort, much of which got started with slain St. Paul police officer Gerald Vick’s initiative, she said.
“We have to work with law enforcement,” she said, “all of this goes together; all of us need each other.”
With the help of a grant
Part of recent successful cases have been due to a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota -- the organization gave grants to both the St. Paul Police Department and the Ramsey County attorney’s office to look into a backlog of data, looking for possible patterns that could indicate sex trafficking activity. This effort was effective in prosecuting Otis Washington and his brother and uncles, Choi noted.
They had bits and pieces of information that intersected -- a 15-year-old girl was in a vehicle in Inver Grove Heights with the Washingtons, police records showed. The following morning, a separate record indicated that the same girl called police telling them she’d been sold for sex. When the cops got to the scene, not having much to go on, they brought the girl to her home, Choi said.
The report about the incident didn’t lead to follow-up by officers, but it did end up being a part of the case thanks to the grant.
Then the 15-year-old victim’s grandmother called police, and because of the work the police and attorney’s office had done, the information the grandmother provided lined up with information they’d compiled.
From there, “we started making the connections and we were able to bring these charges forward,” Choi said.
The call from the grandma came in October 2012; the case was developed by July 2013, which led to convictions in November of 2013 and sentencing in January.
Choi said one of the victims in the case asked the investigator, “How come it took you so long to find me?”
More funding help on the way
The Minnesota Department of Human Services announced Monday, Jan. 27, that it would contribute $1 million towards helping combat sex trafficking. The department is partnering with four organizations to provide emergency shelter transitional housing and more for sex-trafficked minors.
The partner organizations include Breaking Free; the Link, which provides emergency shelter in the Twin Cities; Duluth-based Life House, which provides shelter; and Heartland for Girls based in Benson, Minn., which provides housing.
“This work will help carry out the intent of the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth law,” said Human Services commissioner Lucinda Jesson in a statement. “We recognize that sexually exploited youth are victims of horrendous crimes. We want to do everything in our power to ensure they get the services they need to recover.”
Not easy to testify
Victim testimony was a strong element of the trial against the Washington family, Choi noted, and it took bravery on the part of the victims.
“All of these victims had to take the stand,” he said, and subject themselves to cross-examination from their former pimps’ lawyers.
Erica Schumacher, community relations director at the Ramsey County attorney’s office, noted the difficulty for victims of describing traumatic events in a court room full of strangers and their former pimps.
It’s hard enough to go over such events in a less formal setting, such as at Breaking Free, she explained.
One area Choi said he’s hoping will be further addressed will be the demand side of the equation. “We wouldn’t have this problem but for men in our own community who are going online and buying sex services from young women and children as if they’re just buying a pizza,” Choi said.
Breaking Free has been working with the St. Paul Police Department to conduct “john schools” for men arrested for buying sex. A john school is an intensive, eight-hour course that strives to change the men’s attitudes about prostitution. The program, which started in 1998, now sees about 25 men a month. In all, over 1,000 men have gone through the john school.
But Carter said the john school is only part of the picture. She’d like to see more serious consequences for men who buy sex -- often the charge is a misdemeanor if the victim is over the age of 18.
“We know we have to do more than slap them on the back of the hand,” she said.
The Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Law, which goes into effect in August, will bolster the protection for underage victims of sex trafficking, and also increases the minimum fine amount for johns.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at email@example.com, or follow on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.