Last week, I wrote about my experience going undercover with Greg Reese, president of Clear Image Investigations, a local private detective firm.
The 20-year veteran of the Huntington Beach Police Department started his business last May and, since then, has dedicated large chunks of his time to trying to save young women who have become entangled in the many human trafficking networks throughout Orange County.
Shocking as it may seem, thousands of young people have fallen prey to traffickers right in our own backyard, and the OC provides lots of fertile ground — starting with many business travelers who order up prostitutes as easily as they order room service.
As I described last week, Reese brings out volunteers from his church on weekend missions. He scours sites like backpage.com looking for what he thinks might be trafficking victims and books a date with a girl. Then, once in the room, he or another associate lets the girl know the real reason for their visit: to provide a safe haven. A phone number is secretly given to her so she can then decide her own fate.
It's a dicey, risky business, as Reese never knows if the pimp/trafficker may actually be hiding in the hotel or motel room, or more likely, in another room keeping an eye from a distance. On the nights I tagged along, a group of six or so volunteers were employed as lookouts.
On night one, after Reese had finally been able to convince a young woman on the phone to meet with him, we pulled into a hotel parking lot located equidistant between Disneyland and Angel Stadium. As fireworks erupted overhead from both parks, we got ready as an associate of Reese's headed toward room 104, where "Maya" waited.
It would be his job tonight to offer her a lifeline. A moment before he headed in, though, a family with three young children, presumably on vacation, parked and entered the room next to hers, oblivious to what was happening right next door. That's what is so insidious about all of this: the fact that it is happening all around us, essentially all the time.
We waited for the family, who looked like they were returning from the beach, to get inside their room. Then "Peter" went in. We were able to monitor his discussion via our cell phones, all dialed into the same conference number. Should things go awry, every volunteer has a responsibility. For one, it might be to call 911. For another, to get the hotel manager.
The tension was sickening as we waited for Peter to enter the room. He finally entered, and we heard him make small talk with her. It was dramatic. Maya asked him what he wanted her to perform, and Peter made the big reveal, that he was there for a different reason: to help. She got very agitated, even as he told her there was a way out. She ordered him to leave at once. But he left a phone number for her to call should she change her mind.
You never know what you will encounter in the room. You get a sense someone is always watching. And while this rescue attempt was not an immediate success, it's hard to know if Maya ever decided to call the hotline, because it is all so anonymous. You hope that each visit makes a difference, but the girls usually are so edgy and paranoid, it's hard to get a sense of what they might do. They fear the police but, according to Reese, they fear their traffickers most of all.
Through the course of a couple of nights, we cruised hotel and motel parking lots around the county as Reese and his partner attempted to make "dates" with younger-looking girls on backpage.com. I was well familiar with every place we stopped, as they were all located by popular restaurants and other public venues most of you probably know, too. The trafficking and prostitution underbelly in Orange County is just that broad and deep. In short, it is everywhere, invisible unless you are trying to become involved in it.
Not far from South Coast Plaza, "Angel" agreed to meet Peter after a series of about six cat-and-mouse phone calls. She was being extremely cautious. We arrived at the hotel and scoped out the parking lot. We saw a girl leave a black sedan and head for a room. It was Angel.
She did not look like a sex slave. Pretty, with coffee-colored skin, looking perhaps 17 years old, she could have been a cheerleader, or a volleyball player, or a dancer — anything but an underage prostitute.
But before Peter could reach her room, she called back and said she had changed her mind. Coincidentally, she walked right past me on a second-floor landing. She was close enough to touch. But she stared straight ahead and headed down to the Jacuzzi, took her shoes off and soaked her feet in the water. She looked very sad. Three young kids frolicked just inches from her. They were on vacation. She was not. She just stared into space.
Soon, she headed back to her trafficker's car, parked right near us. We thought we saw a child in the vehicle, so Reese notified local police, who soon arrived and questioned the man driving and Angel. There was no child, as it turned out. The man said he and his "girlfriend" were just relaxing in the lot. After questioning, they left, and we lost Angel.
I was going to write here about how frustrating it can be for Reese and his team. I was going to write about how it's not just the traffickers, but the people who hire the girls that constitute the biggest parts of this rampant problem
Then I got a note from Reese. Just the night before, at a Santa Ana motel, he had entered a room and made contact with a young girl with whom he had arranged a date. She demanded $100 up front. He tried to build a quick rapport. He said he saw relief in her eyes when he told her why he was really there, and then she opened up. She wanted out.
She had been here in California for just two days, lured by someone online who told her he could get her a job as a stripper. Her mom needed money back home, and the girl was desperate. The man who brought her here with a bus ticket raped her the day she arrived. She was not a minor but she was close, 19 years old. She was petrified, but 20 minutes later, she called Reese with a number he gave her. And he rescued her. She wanted to go home.
The Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force got immediately involved, and she is now safe. She will soon be back home and will receive counseling and some support, all thanks to Reese's program.
It's a potentially happy ending in a swamp where there are few victories, and I could hear true relief in Reese's voice.
I drive past so many places now locally and think, it's happening there, and there, and there. And after my experiences in the field with Reese, I can't help but think I am going to get more involved. You see these girls, tortured phantoms in the night, and it just haunts you.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County" from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.