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In the Pipeline: The shadowy face of human trafficking

ProstitutionAuthorsCell PhonesBookPersonal ServiceJohn WayneLos Angeles Times

She does not look like a sex slave. Pretty, with coffee-colored skin, looking perhaps 17 years old, she could be a cheerleader, or volleyball player, or a dancer — anything but what is seems she is.

But we found her photo online, someone in our group spoke to her on the phone numerous times to try to make an appointment with her, and so here we are. She dips her feet in the hotel Jacuzzi, which is adjacent to the outdoor swimming pool. Three young kids frolic in the water just inches from her. They are on vacation. She is not.

She just stares off into space, clutching her cell phone, waiting for our next call. I'm watching her from a second-floor landing. She doesn't know it because I'm crouched around a corner. The mood is tense, taut and frankly, depressing. I have a 16-year-old daughter safe and snug at home as I huddle in the night watching this girl. How did she get here?

This was one of my introductions to an apparent case of human trafficking in Orange County.

For Greg Reese, it's just another Saturday night. Reese is president of Clear Image Investigations, a private detective firm located in Newport Beach. But the former Huntington Beach police officer does more than just private investigations. He dedicates, along with a team of volunteers, a substantial part of his life trying to help those that have been caught up in the insidious, death-spiral tunnel of human trafficking here in Orange County.

Last May, the Los Angeles Times reported on inspections of 20 massage parlors in Huntington Beach alone. The sweep was part of an investigation regarding allegations of prostitution and human trafficking. As Police Chief Ken Small said then, "Everybody knows that trafficking is taking place."

Small added that it's hard to get victims to play ball with police out of fear of retaliation from those that have taken over their lives.

Reese, whom I got to know this past summer, retired last year after 20 years working for the HBPD. As he explained to me, his faith led him to devote the time he does helping those who find themselves trapped in the seedy web of human trafficking.

"I was intending on taking a federal investigator position after my retirement, but God kept opening the doors in the private investigation field," he said. "My firm is a member of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, which is where I met the people I work with to help solve this incredible problem."

As to what motivates him, Reese shared, "The reason I have a passion for this is because there is so much of it right here in our own backyard. Having three children myself, it makes me very sad to see and think about young juveniles being forced into prostitution. There are so many victims in Orange County, the United States and the world, that law enforcement can't possibly battle this by themselves. If we don't step up to build awareness and rescue these victims, then the battle is already lost."

I know Orange County seems unlikely as a hotbed of human trafficking activity, but based on what I witnessed after just a couple of nights undercover in the field, my view of where we live has been unalterably changed. As I'll describe in this and next week's columns, it's obvious that the issue of human trafficking has quietly and steadily seeped into places that touch every city in the county — a sleazy nightmare oozing almost unchecked.

What Reese has done is to create a program that allows citizen volunteers to become a part of the solution, going out on rescues each week after completing his training course. Along with a pastor, a man we'll call "Tom," Reese teaches the volunteers all that goes into a rescue: how to make contact with potential victims, arranging the meeting, making contact with the victim in person and then offering help.

The first night I met with Reese, he, Tom and his group of six chosen volunteers were in a quiet parking lot in Santa Ana, just under the final flight path of planes landing at John Wayne Airport, adjacent to an anonymous-looking corporate complex.

There, Tom pulled out a laptop and went to a website called http://www.backpage.com where the classifieds of many women-for-hire can be found. Scanning the endless, lurid pages of young prospects, Tom and Greg looked for signs that might indicate a girl is underage and thus illegally trapped in a trafficking situation. Certain photos offer clues — how a picture is taken, etc. — but more than anything it's about instinct.

A photo of "Maya" looks suspicious, as does the information she posts. So Tom makes a call to arrange a meeting with her. What ensues is a series of terse conversations between the two. She won't offer where she is just yet, not until he can prove he's not a cop. Finally, after nearly an hour of wrangling, she sets a price and lets him know, generally, where her hotel is. When we get close, he'll have to call again for more information.

There is a prayer circle in the parking lot, asking for hope and resolution, and then we all set off for the location. Dialing an 800 number on our cell phones, we are all connected via a makeshift walkie-talkie system so we can all monitor and be in touch as we get into the situation.

Near the 55 Freeway and Chapman Avenue, we pull over. Tom makes the next call. She will not answer. Another half hour elapses. At about 9 p.m., Maya calls back and directs Tom to a nearby, mid-scale hotel. We pull in, and the volunteers are all assigned positions to wait, watch and report. Tom will be entering Maya's room, No. 104, soon. But her telephonic game of cat-and-mouse has picked up. She's not sure she wants to meet. She ignores several calls. But then she calls back again. She is finally ready to meet Tom. Local police have been alerted as to our presence and mission.

On a nearby balcony, two shadowy figures emerge. Their cigarettes glow orange in the night. Reese says they are most likely Maya's "handlers," watching to make sure Tom doesn't try anything suspicious.

Tom will enter the room, then tell Maya why he is really there. To help. He'll give her a phone number she can call once he has left. He will tell her she has a way out. He will pray for her.

To my left, fireworks at Disneyland erupt. Overhead to my right, fireworks from Angel Stadium. The sky is filed with color and thunder, a classic summer evening in Orange County. But not for Maya.

Continued next week.

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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ProstitutionAuthorsCell PhonesBookPersonal ServiceJohn WayneLos Angeles Times
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