The young prostitutes worked for food and the clothes on their backs.

Their pimp set up their base of operations in Fridley, handling client inquiries, dispatching girls to places across the Twin Cities and the Midwest, and collecting the cash. With the help of another man, he is suspected of trafficking as many as 40 girls and young women for sex from the comfort of a suburban apartment.

“His victims received nothing but subsistence as he reaped the profits from their acts,” a federal prosecutor said in court documents. “He controlled every aspect of his victims’ lives.”

While it’s easy to think of human trafficking as a problem isolated to big cities and developing nations, it’s not. Internet transactions have changed things, and many pimps and johns view the suburbs as a place to conduct business beyond the reach of major police vice units. The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office is addressing the problem head-on, having created a multiagency task force last year, and will host a public forum to discuss the issue Thursday evening at Coon ­Rapids High School.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of girls being marketed every day in the Twin Cities,” said Sheriff James Stuart. “It’s startling how the criminals have kept this a dirty little secret no one is willing to talk about. It’s the second-most-lucrative criminal industry in the world, only behind narcotics, and its’ rapidly closing in. … It’s modern-day slavery.”

Stuart said even he didn’t realize the extent of the problem until a detective pressed him on the issue a few years back. The detective actually sat down at Stuart’s laptop and in less than a minute showed the sheriff several underage girls for sale in Anoka County.

“He got my attention real quick. He helped me understand it’s alive and well in every community in the Twin Cities,” Stuart said.

Confronting denial

For the forum, the sheriff is partnering with the Anoka-Hennepin School District, local police departments and nonprofits that help women escape prostitution. It may seem like explicit subject matter for teens, but junior high and high school girls are the demographic recruited by pimps.

“Community denial has been the pimps’ most effective cover,” Stuart said.

A few year ago, Anoka County detectives trained with the Las Vegas Police vice squad, who called Minnesota “the factory” for Vegas pimps looking for new girls, Stuart said.

The forum is also part of a national shift in law enforcement that recognizes prostitutes are often victims, too, coaxed into the activity as children and teens sometimes held against their will and moved from city to city.

“We want the community to know No. 1, it’s happening and what they can look for, how to deal with it if they should see something,” Stuart said.

Pimps patrol local malls and hangouts looking for lonely kids. They often “bring the party,” inviting teens to hang out, supplying alcohol and drugs. The pimps eventually coerce the girls into prostitution.

“One in three teen runaways are going to be lured to teen prostitution within 48 hours,” Stuart said.

The Fridley case

That’s how detectives uncovered the Fridley prostitution ring. Two teenage girls told police a man had sex with them and tried to lure them into prostitution.

Anoka County Sheriff’s Detectives Tom Strusinski and Mike Schantzen spent months building a sex trafficking case that involved subpoenaing and dissecting hundreds of pages of electronic and financial records as well as old-fashioned surveillance. The pimp used an adult-oriented website, Backpages, to advertise. The detectives traveled to cities across the Midwest, including Denver, to investigate.

“I knew it was a worthwhile case. The detectives were passionate about it,” said Sheriff’s Commander Brian Podany. “They were willing to sacrifice their personal lives,” describing the long hours the case required.

Napoleon Long was indicted in April 2013 on federal charges of transporting a woman across state lines to engage in prostitution. He pleaded guilty last July and will be sentenced next month. Prosecutors are seeking nearly 20 years in prison.

“The offenses the defendant committed were predatory, exploitive, sadistic, demeaning and physically dangerous to the victims,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Steinkamp wrote. “The defendant literally bought and sold human beings for his own personal gain.”

A second man, Kevin Wadell Moffitt, pleaded guilty to felony criminal sexual conduct in Anoka County District Court and was sentenced to nine years and seven months in prison.

Podany said the pursuit of sex traffickers continues but that with technology and smartphones giving pimps and johns more cover, it’s critical that the public also acts as eyes and ears for the police.

“The privacy aspect has made it easier for people to facilitate,” Podany said. “They can be on their smartphones in their car It’s gotten much more mobile and easily accessible, so raising awareness is a good thing.”