Dancers and nightclub operators from around the Twin Cities gathered in a Minneapolis hotel conference hall Monday for an industry talk a little outside the norm: a two-hour lecture with federal authorities on how to spot signs of human trafficking.

“Unlike many of the conversations we have, we’re not going to be talking about serving drinks, dancing or food,” said Michael Ocello, whose VCG Holding Corp. operates a dozen clubs across the country. “We’re talking about saving a human life. We’re talking about slavery.”

Ocello said that while he didn’t think the nightclub business was a gateway to sex trafficking, the industry is at risk for exploitation by traffickers who seek to recruit dancers or those who dispatch underage girls with fake IDs to go earn money for them. So he created Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking (COAST) in 2010 and has since worked with law enforcement officials in a national awareness campaign, which last visited the metro about four years ago.

Tonya Price, a Homeland Security agent who has focused on investigating human trafficking in Minnesota for five years, outlined state and federal trafficking statutes, warning the audience that “having reason to know” trafficking was occurring could make them criminally responsible. The industry, she told them, “leaves the door open” to identify possible crimes.

“You’re seeing things the general public does not see,” Price said.

Since the last COAST training in the Twin Cities, Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law changed the way juveniles sold for sex are treated. The state now considers them victims, not criminals, and federal prosecutors have won convictions of 19 sex traffickers responsible for dozens of victims, many of them children.

Part of Monday’s discussion sought to clarify just who those victims most often are.

“They’re Minnesota girls,” Price said. “They are our runaway girls.”

Artika Roller, program director of Women’s Advocates Inc., in St. Paul, said that at some points, up to two-thirds of the women at her shelter had experience with sexual trafficking and exploitation.

Later, a woman named Erin steadied herself at a lectern and shared her own story of being prostituted at 14 and slapped with a criminal record for it.

“The idea women can be bought like a favorite flavor of ice cream and … tossed away, has been going on forever,” she said.

Monday’s crowd considered all the marks of a possible victim: current or potential dancers always being escorted by someone to the club, underage-looking girls with fake IDs looking for work, and dancers who aren’t allowed control over their earnings. They may also be bruised, and some victims have even been marked with branding tattoos like bar codes, Ocello said.

“We’re trying to educate an army of people: You may now be a person with an opportunity to save a life,” Ocello said.

Brittany Turk, who works at Rick’s Cabaret in Minneapolis, said Monday that awareness of the issue has broadened over her 10 years in the industry. Posters with hot line numbers and warning signs circulate around the workplace, bartenders and bouncers also share information. “It’s like a family,” she said. “Everybody looks after each other.”

A final piece of advice from another agent: Don’t confront a suspected trafficker. Call one of those hot lines, the police or an advocacy group.

“I don’t care who you call, to be honest,” Homeland Security Group Supervisor Chris Oelkers said. “Just make the call.”


Twitter: @smontemayor