It was not the first time “Wendy” had run away and not come home. The quiet 15-year-old from Prince William County, Virginia, chafed under the strict control of her single mom. She had lived previously in Maryland and had friends in Washington, D.C., who would help her get by for short periods.
Melvin Douglas approached her as a friend, too—a potential boyfriend even. She’d met him twice before, briefly, a few weeks earlier on the streets of D.C. The third time that the 31-year-old Douglas spotted her, they talked more. He offered to buy her a meal and a place to stay. He paid to get her nails and hair done, made her feel special, and told her that he cared about her.
Ten months later, in early 2012, Wendy’s photograph popped up on Cpl. Chris Heid’s computer. She was still missing. Heid had just begun working with the Maryland State Police’s Child Recovery Unit. “She looked like any schoolgirl,” he says of the image of Wendy distributed by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. He asked the Prince William Police Department if they minded if he looked into the case.
Digging through the girl’s old social media accounts, Heid came across a phone number on Facebook. It had been out-of-service for months, but running that number through Google he saw that it was associated with an outdated ad under “escorts” on Backpage.com—the Craigslist-like website of choice in the sex trade. Reaching out to administrators at Backpage (a notorious operation that has collaborated with police, at least in part, to protect itself from allegations of abetting prostitution and trafficking), Heid learned that the purchaser of that seven-month-old ad—who wasn’t Wendy—was linked to another, more recent Backpage ad, which was advertising a girl-for-hire in College Park.
Heid dialed the number and a young female voice answered. He asked if she had any time available. He asked how much a “short stay” cost. He asked where she was. At a hotel?
“She said, ‘Yes, College Park, near the school,’” Heid recalls. Presuming the young voice belonged to Wendy, Heid alerted the FBI task force and drove down there.
Heid called again when he got to College Park. The girl told him she was at the Quality Inn, as he’d guessed, and gave him her room number. With FBI agents hidden in position at the hotel, Heid, wearing a hoodie and jeans and sitting in an unmarked car, watched a man and another woman leave her room.
“I knocked and identified myself when I entered,” Heid recalls. “I told her I knew who she was and how old she was. She denied everything, including her real name. She’s like, ‘No, I’m not her. I’m not that girl.’
“But when I tell her the FBI has already grabbed the other girl and the guy, her entire demeanor shifted. She wasn’t scared anymore. She became polite. She became a kid again. She said she needed help; that she didn’t know how to get out.”
The grooming process had lasted about three months, Heid continues. “It’s always different, but it always lasts just until the exact moment the girl feels comfortable. Then it’s: ‘You gotta pay me back for all this. You owe me.’
“At first, she had thought she was his girlfriend. She had one tattoo—Melvin, the name of her pimp. He took all the money she earned. Later, he told her the only way she was getting out was in a body bag.”
That Heid was able to locate and recover a 15-year-old runaway and trafficking survivor so quickly is unusual. More unusual is that law enforcement officials elicited a guilty plea in federal court from Douglas. What is common in Maryland, however, is the sex trafficking of women and minors. In 2014, 396 survivors of human trafficking came in contact with the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force. Of those, 381 were victims of sex trafficking, including 364 girls and women.
“We are talking about 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds who are being sexually assaulted, raped, up to 20 times a day.”
In fact, the number of survivors identified by the state trafficking task force nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014, which doesn’t so much as indicate a skyrocketing number of victims as it does the degree to which the ongoing crisis has been hidden in plain sight. “The number of survivors coming in contact, in one way or another, with the victims’ services committee of the state human trafficking task force most likely is a fraction of the actual trafficking victims,” says Amelia Rubenstein, a researcher with the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work.
The data also reveal that those being sexually trafficked in Maryland are not who we might imagine.
The overwhelmingly majority of these survivors are not undocumented immigrants, for example. Nor are the majority chronic substance abusers. All but eight of the sex trafficking survivors in 2014 who came in contact with the state trafficking task force were U.S. citizens. Of those who reported their age, 56 percent were 17 or younger.
“Maryland is a hot spot of trafficking. It’s that simple,” says Maryland State Police Sgt. Deborah Flory, who oversees the agency’s two-person Child Recovery Unit. “That’s because of I-95, I-70, and BWI Airport, and the mix of wealth and poverty, which is one of the things that makes young women vulnerable.” Traffickers, aka pimps, are familiar with the laws in each state and know there are weaker penalties in Maryland than elsewhere, including the possibility of a misdemeanor charge for trafficking someone age 18 or older, Flory says. “We talk to them. They’re not dumb and they’re not worried. Some of them will wait until a girl turns 18,” Heid adds. “They can make more money than dealing drugs—$200,000 a year off of one girl—and it’s easier because they don’t have to re-up with cocaine or heroin. They sell the same ‘product’ over and over again.”
Maryland ranked fourth among the top states per capita in trafficking cases last year, trailing Nevada, California, and Ohio, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Cpl. Chris Heid, an undercover officer with the Maryland State Police, leads a sting operation in Baltimore County looking for minors and women, such as this 20-something mother of two, who are being exploited by sex traffickers. Working with Sgt. Deborah Flory in the state police’s two-person Child Recovery Unit, Heid seeks to recover missing and underage victims and direct adult women to local resources, such as TurnAround, a local sexual assault/domestic violence with a trafficking survivors program. He and Flory also gather information related to traffickers, in hopes of making arresting and charging pimps.