Online solicitations of girls and women for sex reached nearly 16,000 in the metro area in the first quarter of 2016, Washington County’s major crimes prosecutor said Tuesday.
All the ads collected came from a single website — Backpage.com — which means the total number of metro-area solicitations would be even higher if other websites were included, Imran Ali told Washington County commissioners during a board workshop.
He said he found the sheer number staggering, especially in light of publicity over law enforcement crackdowns on human trafficking.
“This is something that’s emerging, that’s growing. It’s a huge problem,” he said, describing a “demand for juvenile sex” where especially vulnerable girls are being targeted.
Ali said that many of the solicitations almost certainly were made for underage girls, an aggressive trend that has alarmed law enforcement agencies. He added that it’s impossible to know how many because of concealed identities and ages.
The 15,742 solicitations were detected and compiled by criminal analyst Amy Schroeder, who works with Ali on a special initiative launched by County Attorney Pete Orput to attack a problem that’s exploded on the Internet.
Orput started the initiative with a two-year grant. He said Washington County is now working with other metro-area counties to help start similar investigations.
“A year ago I didn’t realize how pervasive a problem this is,” Orput said.
Minneapolis is recognized as one of the FBI’s top cities for sex trafficking metrowide, Ali said. Trafficking extends south and east from Minneapolis into Wisconsin, according to Polaris, a project that measures appeals for help to hot lines and text-lines.
Rather than the old days when men would cruise certain streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul to find women and girls, hookups with paying customers now can be arranged in minutes through electronic devices and social media, Orput and Ali said.
Many of the victims are forced into sex with men through threats, beating and submissive influences such as “branding” with tattoos, they said.
“The bottom line here is, you can order a human being as easily as you can order a pizza for dinner,” Orput told commissioners.
Prosecutors and law enforcement officers have fought back with multiagency “stings,” sharing of information and resources to determine identities of pimps and johns, and social services help for sex-trafficking victims.
From January through March, three juvenile victims were identified and found in the metro area but 13 more disappeared. Police are investigating their whereabouts.
In the same period, 32 people suspected of soliciting were arrested in Washington County and 18 charged. One of them was Corwin Thomas Moose, a Maple Grove man convicted of paying a 16-year-old girl for sex after answering her online ad.
In another instance, a Washington state man was convicted two weeks ago of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for instructing a 13-year-old Lake Elmo girl, via chats and video conferencing, to abuse herself sexually.
That man, Cheyenne Cody Vedaa Foster, agreed to a 29-year prison sentence.
“We’re going to use all the resources we can to send them to prison for as long as possible,” Ali said Tuesday.