By KYLE HOPKINS
A disproportionate number of women working in the Anchorage sex trade are Alaska Native and pimps and sex traffickers are pursuing Native girls at events like AFN, police warned tribes and villagers today.
“There have been traffickers and pimps who specifically target Native girls because they feel that they’re versatile and they can post them (online) as Hawaiian, as Native, as Asian, as you name it,” said Jolene Goeden, a special agent for the FBI in Anchorage.
Far from home and surrounded by strangers, girls from remote villages are particularly vulnerable to sex-trade recruiters said Goeden and Sgt. Kathy Lacey, supervisor for the Anchorage police vice unit. The investigators delivered a kind of “Prostitution 101” to people from villages across the state at an annual Bureau of Indian Affairs conference, telling community leaders and health workers to be on the lookout for pimps preying on Alaska Native women and girls.
The pair gave a a similar, shorter talk in October in Bethel. For some, the stories were personal.
“We don’t think that this is happening in our in small villages. It happens. It happened to my baby sister,” said a woman from a rural hub city, who said her sister was 14 years old when she disappeared while visiting the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage about four years ago.
Her family tracked the girl down at a downtown shelter for homeless teens, her body surging with drugs, said the woman, who I’m not identifying because it would also identify her sister.
“That really ruined her life,” the woman said sharply. “I can’t get my sister back the way she …”
Her voiced trailed off before a shell-shocked crowd of about 200 at the Egan Civic and Convention Center.
Sex traffickers use a combination of mind games and beatings, promises and drugs to control girls, authorities said.
Alaska Native girls are commonly lured from their hometowns by friends or relatives who are already working as prostitutes. They invite the girl to come hang out and go shopping rent-free. Others are recruited while visiting the city.
About one-third of the women arrested this year for prostitution in Anchorage are Alaska Native, according to Lacey's figures. It’s unclear how many under-age Native girls are the victims of pimps or sex traffickers.
Four Anchorage residents charged last year with running a sex-trafficking ring got at least some of their “stable” of prostitutes from Alaska Native villages, prowling the AFN convention and streets surrounding the Covenant House shelter.
(Read an account of phone calls overheard on a jail phone, including one of the men talking about trying to "catch a Native" during AFN.)
It was an Alaska Native girl who moved to Anchorage to stay with family at the age of 12 who helped point investigators toward another prostitution kingpin: Don Webster, also known as Jerry Starr, Goeden said.
Webster, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008, had tried to recruit the girl, Goeden said.
The FBI agent got to know the teen during visits to a youth jail. The pair talked about how the girl ended up selling her body at age 14 in Anchorage.
“Her response to me was, ‘I could be back home in the village where I could be having sex with my grandpa for free, or I could be here getting paid for me,’” Goeden said.
“I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea how to respond to this little girl.”
Regardless of where they’re from, many prostitutes are former sexual abuse victims, Lacey told the crowd. Many are addicted to drugs, Lacey said.
“It used to be every prostitute we patted down had a crack pipe on them. Not any more, the drug of choice is heroin,” she said after today’s meeting.
Many are runaways. Under-age kids can’t rent cars or rent hotel rooms, after all, and they have to get money somehow.
“(That) especially holds true when you get young girls from the villages that come in here and they come in to visit an auntie or whoever they’re going to visit and they decide that they’re gong to run away,” Lacey said. Very quickly they’re propositioned by someone trying to lead them on a path toward prostitution, she said.
Authorities in Alaska prefer to prosecute pimps under federal sex trafficking laws. Under those rules, anyone who uses force, coercion or fraud to sell commercial sex acts can be prosecuted for trafficking. The law also applies to anyone who pimps girls under the age of 18.
In comparison, the state law only allows for prosecution of trafficking if the victim is transferred across state lines, Lacey said. She is working with Goeden and the Children’s Justice Act task force to strengthen state laws and mirror federal penalties.
People always ask why the girls don’t leave pimps or sex traffickers on their own, the investigators told the crowd.
Some feel so bad about themselves they don’t believe they deserve anything better, they said. Others don’t know who to ask for help or are afraid of violent reprisals.
Some, particularly those from small communities, don’t want their friends or family to know what’s happening to them.
“These girls typically, almost always, do not see themselves as a victim,” Goeden said
Have tips or questions for the investigators? You can reach Goeden at Jolene.firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 276-4441 and Lacey at 786-8500 or email@example.com.
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