It’s believed that hundreds of people are sold for sex in Nebraska each year. Where sex trafficking happens in the state may surprise you.
“For most of our trafficking victims this is kind of where we're going to start,” Jamie Manzer said, while giving a tour of the SASA (Spouse Abuse Sexual Assault) Crisis Center where she works. It’s a place that helps victims of domestic and sexual violence. That includes women being trafficked; sold against their will for sex. Like a lot of social service agencies, this office used to be something else, but they’ve made the best out of oddly shaped space and rooms. Like the gifts room, which is stacked full of basic needs. Things like soap and toothpaste, and new sweatpants and t-shirts.
NET News Sex Trafficking Reporting
"Sex Trafficking Haunts Nebraska Events" (June 2014)
“Most of our trafficking victims feel dirty, and that's more symbolic than realistic,” Manzer explained, holding up a large plastic bag of items. “We will give them some version of this care pack and it's full of donated hygiene products, feminine products.”
SASA is a first-point-of-contact, a place to get help 24/7 for people escaping trafficking. Manzer said last year they worked with 14 sex trafficking victims. If that doesn’t get your attention, try this. SASA isn’t located in Omaha or Lincoln. It’s in Hastings, serving more rural counties.
“I think that people are really surprised to know that this happens in Hastings, this happens in Adams, Clay, Nuckolls, Webster, Thayer, all our surrounding counties,” Manzer said. “What we're typically seeing are acquaintances, partners, prostituting out their intimate partner, most typically a male pimping out a female, though that's not always the case. What we're seeing is, it's for drugs, it's for alcohol, it's for access to shelter.”
Manzer said they once helped women being trafficked in a town of just 500 people. She added some of the trafficking is tied to nearby events, like the Adams County Fair, Kearney Bike Night and the State Fair in Grand Island.
“For the State Fair, we did have three ladies brought on motorcycle from Daytona Beach, Florida, into the community, locked in hotels for multiple days,” she said. “Then the gentlemen who had brought them there, who they thought they knew and thought were acquaintances of theirs, brought multiple men in, blindfolded them, forced them to have sex. They couldn't even tell me who they'd had sex with (or) how many times, they just knew it was over the course of several days that they were not permitted to have food. They could have water.”
“It happens virtually anywhere,” said Stephen O’Meara, who is finishing year one as the first human trafficking coordinator in the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. “Even if you just followed the major interstate system all the way from Omaha out through Scottsbluff, there is measurable sex trafficking that occurs virtually all the time. Particularly during major events, but all the time, across all of Nebraska.”
Former FBI agent Anna Brewer investigated trafficking cases for more than 20 years, including work out of the Omaha-area office. She said the Interstate drives trafficking in Nebraska. “Because they can just stop at a rest stop, knowing that they don't have to move, that the business is going to come to them,” Brewer explained. “Again, with cellphones or smartphones, all the buyer has to do is look on his phone for particular cities, state, rest stop, exit, and see if there's a person for sale.”
Backpage is one of the online places Nebraska buyers are looking, and traffickers are selling. It’s a classified ads site with sections for Omaha and Lincoln, but also Grand Island, North Platte and Scottsbluff. Any day here it’s easy to find listings in the “dating” or “escorts” categories, accompanied by pictures and video that leave little to the imagination. Under the headline “Visiting Soon North Platte,” one listing promises “unrushed top quality service.” Another from Scottsbluff is “visiting southwest Nebraska” and knows “what men want.”
This spring, Marcuiece Johnson and Katie Brandt of Lincoln appeared in Hall County Court on charges of trafficking. Investigators allege they recruited a woman in Arkansas, brought her to central Nebraska, advertised her on Backpage and sold her for sex at a motel near a Grand Island truck stop.
“If there is any kind of a viable prostitution market there is almost certainly sex trafficking in that location,” O’Meara said, “and the reality is there is a viable prostitution market adjusted for population virtually everywhere.”
Fighting sex trafficking and especially getting help for those being trafficked is a challenge throughout Nebraska. A recent report described the services landscape for trafficking victims as “bleak.” But there are special challenges in more rural areas, including front line agencies with limited resources and training. The state’s year-old Human Trafficking Task Force is hoping to improve this with statewide training and response teams, and hiring regional coordinators; two of the three will be based in Grand Island and North Platte.
Jamie Manzer of SASA said it’s a challenge for trafficking victims to privately get help in everyone-knows-everyone smaller communities, and where isolation of victims in rural areas is a common tool used by traffickers. Her big message? Sex trafficking is happening in Hastings and smaller Nebraska towns, and those being sold don’t want to be.
“I think that once we can understand that piece of it, that every time you're looking at a prostitute, you're probably looking at a victim of human trafficking, my hope is that that subtle demand will be affected and that by consequence, supply will dwindle,” Manzer said.