Greenfield police are investigating a possible case of human trafficking after a woman called her father last Friday claiming she'd been sold while he was out of town, Chief Adele Frese said Thursday.
But police are being cautious following the alleged — and possibly orchestrated — kidnapping of a Vallejo woman last month.
"None of this has been verified, but naturally [her father] is still very alarmed," Frese said.
|Greenfield is a city of fewer than 20,000 located in Monterey County's Salinas Valley.|
The phone number his daughter called from traced back to Fresno, Frese said.
Now, Greenfield police have looped Fresno police and federal investigators in on the case, Frese said. But, since the initial report, the case has become markedly stranger.
When he returned home, the Greenfield man said a whole new group of people had moved into his house, Frese said.
"The circumstances are very unusual," Frese said. "The people he had been living with weren't there, and there were all new people living there."
Could this happen anywhere other than California? Dennis Wilson of the Beachboys had something similar happen when the Manson family moved into his home.
Frese wasn't immediately sure whether the man and his daughter were living in an apartment or a house. The report emanated from an address on El Camino Real in Greenfield.
Thus far, police haven't been able to locate the possible victim. Frese declined to provide the woman's name, citing the ongoing and still early investigation.
"Our priority is on helping the victim," she said. "We are coordinating with other agencies on trying to identify the victim and the person to whom this woman was supposedly sold."
If she was sold, "it's a wonder she got ahold of him," Frese said. But, "it could turn out to be exactly what we fear, or it could spiral in a million different directions."
|Trafficked girl rescued in Guatemala City|
Human trafficking reports are unusual for Greenfield, but not unheard of, Frese said. In 2009, Greenfield made international headlines when a 36-year-old Triqui man allegedly "sold" his 14-year-old daughter in marriage to an 18-year-old neighbor.
In exchange for the child bride's hand, the would-be groom was to pay $16,000 in cash and hand over hundreds of cases of beer and beef. Greenfield police became aware of the case when the father reported the younger man hadn't paid up.
Authorities later backed off the "human trafficking" allegations upon learning marriages between older men and teenage girls in the Triqui culture isn't uncommon.
Triqui people are indigenous to the Mexican state of Oaxaca. There are only about 25,000 of them today.
But Lauren DaSilva says the "cultural practice" argument is still very much in debate. DaSilva, deputy director of the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, works closely with the Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.
"That cultural practice argument has only emerged over the last 50 to 75 years in which there has been a need for women," she said. "It's so much easier for anyone involved ... to say that's a cultural custom and be able to leave that alone when, regardless, it's a human rights violation."
The 2009 case wrapped with no contest pleas from both men. The father pleaded to felony child endangerment. The would-be groom — the teenage pair never married — pleaded to statutory rape. Both received probation sentences.
Human trafficking is still a complex, complicated and murky arena, DaSilva said. Victims don't always know they've been made victims and suspects aren't always prosecutable.
Over the last year, Monterey County has seen resolutions in two high-profile cases of human trafficking.
Last May, a Fairfield couple was arrested on suspicion of pimping out an unwilling Sacramento woman as a prostitute. The 21-year-old victim escaped from Motel 6 on Fremont Street and claimed she'd been forced into prostitution.
Also last May, Levester "Toob" Pierson, 35, of San Leandro, was sentenced to nine years in prison for human trafficking, pandering and criminal threats. He and co-defendant Lisa Banner (a.k.a. Aaliyah Person) pimped out a Livermore juvenile who ran away from home in 2012.
Pierson looped the girl into prostitution and she was "supervised" locally in Monterey County by Banner.
Banner was sentenced to 10 years and eight months in prison for human trafficking, pandering and kidnapping.
Not always 'under lock and key'
DaSilva wonders how many other victims exist.
"It could be vast, there could be a lot of people in Monterey County, or it could be there's not a lot of people," she said. "We don't really know."
Right now, the Coalition to End Human Trafficking in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties is trying to gather statistics on how common the practice is locally. Once complete, even those numbers still won't paint the whole picture, DaSilva said.
"It's for sure a hidden problem," she said. "It's not as if someone would present (themselves) to us as, 'Hi, I'm a human trafficking survivor,'" she explained. More often that not, victims identify as survivors of rape.
There's a certain brainwashing component to human trafficking, DaSilva said. Grooming starts young — targets often include runaway juveniles at bus stops and airports — and focuses on convincing a potential victim that prostitution is their best bet in life. It's called 'grooming'!
So, a victim might not know she or he is a victim, DaSilva said. Law enforcement might not recognize the signs, either.
"Prostitution is such a stigmatized issue," she said. "No one asks, 'Well, how did you enter this?' It's, 'You are a criminal, you've done criminal acts and now you get charged.'"
In Monterey County, victims are most often trafficked for labor and sex purposes. Traffickers often smuggle their victims in under the pretense of working major events.
Many victims aren't kept "under lock and key," DaSilva said. Threats and food deprivation are common, she said.
"It's not always the survivor is held in a basement somewhere or locked up in a hotel," she said. "Pimps and traffickers use all sorts of methods to keep someone locked up in a mental state."
Billions of dollars annually
For Frese, the newest potential case stands out as particularly disturbing.
"Here we are in 2015 and the whole idea of not valuing women is still around," she said. "It's so destructive. ... It's slavery. You cannot sell people."
But, it happens, DaSilva said. In fact, recent research shows gang crime might be shifting from selling drugs to selling people, she said.
"People are still doing it because it's very lucrative," she said. "You can sell drugs one time, but you can sell someone for their entire lives, even if it's very short."
Globally, slavery generates about $150 billion per year, according to Free the Slaves, an anti-human trafficking organization operating primarily in the Americas, Africa and Asia.
It's a misconception that all bound victims are from abroad, DaSilva said. Domestically, half of all slaves are U.S.-born citizens, she said.
Over eight years, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center has received reports of more than 18,000 cases of human trafficking, according to The Polaris Project.
The Colorado-based nonprofit works with law enforcement to connect the dots between roving suspects and victims, DaSilva said. Monterey County's Rape Crisis Center reports all possible local human trafficking cases to The Polaris Project.
Despite the numbers, there is hope, DaSilva said.
Both the YWCA for Monterey County and Shelter Outreach Plus offer shelter to victims of violence, DaSilva said. However, she noted the organizations do, rightfully, have a required intake process.
And in September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill by Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) that would erase the criminal histories of human trafficking victims after they've completed the terms of probation. Doing so makes finding employment in the aftermath much less of a struggle.
DaSilva's advice to victims is to report to law enforcement. The Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, and other local agencies, will be on hand after with counseling, therapy, accompaniment and referrals. The center also partners with California Rural Legal Assistance in some cases.
"It's something we're super-passionate about," she said. "But there's still a lot of work to be done. Right now, we're looking into various grants that could help."