Homeland Security agents and Minneapolis police were looking for a young woman who had disappeared into the sex trade when they converged on a Motel 6 in Roseville one night two years ago.

Instead, they discovered a different victim in Room 114 — her services advertised with racy photos in online escort ads — and all the makings of a human trafficking operation, down to a playbook entitled “Pimpology 101.”

By the end of the new investigation, prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Dontre D’Sean McHenry with selling at least three teenage girls for sex. McHenry, 26, of St. Paul, was sentenced last week to 293 months in federal prison and a lifetime of supervised release.

McHenry’s sentencing, along with a string of guilty pleas last week in other cases, underscore a heightened emphasis on human trafficking by the U.S. Department of Justice and its chief local prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. Minneapolis was chosen late last year as one of six cities launching teams to streamline federal trafficking cases, while a Minnesota law has influenced federal legislation that aims to treat young women as victims of the sex trade instead of criminals.

The approach has paid off with an increased willingness by victims to testify, prosecutors say, while also revealing the sheer volume of local prostitution cases.

“I think it speaks to the frequency and volume [of sex trafficking] out there,” Homeland Security special agent Tonya Price said of finding McHenry and his victim while investigating a different case.

In December, Luger took the uncommon step of personally trying the case of a suspect whose victims included a sixth-grade girl he raped and prostituted. “It was the perfect opportunity to be in court to take on something that matters to me on a personal level,” Luger said.

Coordinated approach

Luger’s interest in human trafficking can be traced to a weekend in the late 1980s when he was a prosecutor in New York. A suspected cocaine stash house instead turned out to conceal more than a dozen Colombian teens and young women, clad in little clothing in a room with only beds and condoms.

Luger scrambled to find how he could charge the suspected pimp — there was no human trafficking statute at the time — while battling immigration officials who wanted to deport the girls. He eventually found a statute governing peonage, or forced labor, and met individually with each girl to find out where they wanted to go and whether they would testify.

“The minute I got told I would be U.S. attorney [in Minnesota] this went to the top of the list as one of my priorities,” Luger said.

Upon taking office, Luger tapped Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino to coordinate human trafficking prosecutions. She and fellow Assistant U.S. Attorneys Karen Schommer, head of the major crimes section, and Melinda Williams tackle the bulk of the cases.

Last year, the office also brought in state prosecutors to help with cases involving their jurisdictions. These included the trial of Rahmad Lashad Geddes, 36, of Blaine, who was accused of sex trafficking an 18-year-old Wisconsin woman who was driven to Duluth, where she remained for nine days.

The case began when the victim, who lived in Eau Claire, Wis, talked to her pastor, who contacted local police. Other agencies, including the FBI, soon became involved.

“You really can’t do a case like this in isolation,” Provinzino said.

Taking the stand

One benefit of the new strategy is that victims are much more likely to testify, something that was once unthinkable. In the case that Luger took on personally last year, the team won a conviction against Lee Andrew Paul, 32, of Bloomington — aided in no small part by the willingness of his victims to tell their stories in court.

Williams, who prosecuted the case with Luger and an assistant Olmsted County attorney, said one witness turned and pleaded with jurors for understanding: “Nobody gets into this because they want to do this.”

On the day of Geddes’ sentencing last fall, his victim sat in federal court to tell her story, pulling the microphone closer so everyone could hear her. “I can’t live a normal life because there is always going to be something that triggers everything to come back,” she said.

She said she wanted to prove to herself that she was going to be OK, and prove to “any other people going through this that it is OK to stand up and get the help you need; that there is a better life.”

‘A new world here’

Luger’s office will lead the new Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team, or ACTeam, in Minneapolis, working with agents from the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Labor.

After Justice, Labor and Homeland Security created the ACTeams in 2011, labor and sex trafficking convictions climbed 86 percent in the six districts involved. Federal prosecutions of sex and labor trafficking have continued to rise, climbing more than 30 percent nationwide from 2013 to 2014.

Timothy Wittman, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Minneapolis office, said he hopes the new team will also improve collaboration on labor trafficking cases.

Minnesota law, meanwhile, has provided the framework for a new philosophy toward human trafficking.

The state’s 2011 Safe Harbor law ensured that minors entangled in sex trafficking would be treated as victims instead of criminals. Now, victims are steered to nonprofits and other services, and their willingness to testify has bolstered cases.

“There’s a big difference between where we are today versus where we were five years ago, when traffickers weren’t sentenced appropriately because girls wouldn’t take the stand,” Price said.

The state law preceded a successful push last year by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., for the national Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which like Minnesota’s model, encourages states to treat those sold for sex as victims.

Klobuchar said Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently gave her a personal commitment that human trafficking will remain a priority.

“We’re in a whole new world here,” she said.

 

Twitter: @smontemayor