When Guy Baker was assigned to the FBI's Montana Region Violent Crime Task Force in 2014, his team traveled to Denver to crack down on sex offenders and gang activity. At the same time, two runaway girls had entered a McDonald's restaurant looking for money.

Hungry and broke, the girls met a man and a woman who bought them each a Happy Meal before inviting them to their car to smoke pot. Without money or a place to go, the girls accepted the couple's invitation to return to their hotel room, where the promise of a swimming pool and television proved irresistible.

“By midnight, the adult male not only had sex with with the 13-year-old and 14-year-old girl, he also videoed them having sex with his female crime partner,” Baker recalled. “By 12:26 a.m., he'd posted the first ad on Backpage. By the time we saw the ad the next morning, at around 11 a.m., the 14-year-old had already been with three (johns). We would have been her fourth in less than 11 hours.”

Baker, a veteran detective with the Missoula Police Department who has served as the lead investigator in more than 800 state and federal criminal cases, recounted several such stories during the “Stop Human Trafficking in Montana Conference” at the University of Montana campus this week.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox

Experts, including Baker and Attorney General Tim Fox, described Backpage and Craigslist as the gateway into the illicit sex trade, where women and girls are sold into prostitution. Human trafficking isn't something that happens in distant countries, they urged, but is on the rise in rural states like Montana, especially where it pertains to prostitution.

“Over the past three years, I've encountered some who have a hard time believing that human trafficking is happening here,” said Fox. “The fact of the matter is, no place in Montana is immune from people who do evil things to children, even their own children.”

Fox recalled a recent case in Missoula where two men were sentenced for running a local teenage prostitution ring on Craigslist. The adult males posted ads on the site and nearly a dozen men in and around Missoula responded, eager to exchange money and drugs for sex with the girls.

The girls were between the ages 16 and 19, Fox said.

“If it can happen in the middle of a vibrant populated community like Missoula, we must accept that it can happen anywhere,” said Fox. “We cannot afford to pretend that human trafficking is a distant or non-existent problem.”

While Montana received a near-failing grade on the issue just a few short years ago, it has since emerged as a national leader in its efforts to combat human trafficking and sexual slavery. Fox and state Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, said recent legislative efforts have improved the state's ability to recognize and combat trafficking crimes.

Several bills on the subject were introduced in the 2015 Legislature, including H.B. 99, which saw the state's human trafficking laws strengthened in cooperation with the Attorney General's Office.

“It provided greater protections for victims, made sure children had more protection than they've ever had before, and it made sure perpetrators were held accountable,” said Dudik. “They're now required to register as sex offenders, because they're perpetrating sexual crimes.”

Under his watch, Fox said the Montana Department of Justice has also become more aggressive in detecting and prosecuting such cases. The Montana Law Enforcement Academy now teaches human trafficking awareness as part of basic training.

Fox said the state's Children's Justice Bureau is also working with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services to help young victims recover from trafficking crimes.

“Our agency is an active participant on the Montana Human Trafficking Task Force,” said Fox. “Our Division of Criminal Investigation works covert, undercover cases around the state to apprehend offenders and bring them to justice. Our agents aren't just targeting the pimps, but also, they're targeting the johns who are the customers.”

According to national statistics, human trafficking has emerged as one of the nation's most lucrative crimes, surpassing the sale of illegal firearms and rapidly closing in on the illegal sale of narcotics. While drugs are gone once used, experts say, victims of trafficking represent a commodity that can be used over and over again.

Trafficking now represents a $32 billion-a-year industry, with an estimated 300,000 underage girls being sold for sex in America. One-third of all teenage runaways will be lured toward prostitution at an average age of just 12 to 14-years-old.

Once coerced into the trade, minor victims are sold an average of 10 to 15 times a day.

Sen. John Tester, D-Montana, said as many as 60 cases of human trafficking have been reported in Montana since 2007, with the victims often representing the state's most vulnerable citizens, including Native American women and children, and youth in low-income families.

The issue reached startling proportions at the height of the Bakken oil and gas boom in eastern Montana, where the lure of money and quick riches gave rise to man camps and crime. Responding to the concern of alarmed officials, Tester called a field hearing for the Homeland Security Committee in Sydney to address the problem.

It included the participation of Fox and U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter.

“As a result of this hearing, we were able to secure a U.S. Department of Justice grant that funded legal assistance to the survivors of human trafficking and sexual assaults in 12 eastern Montana counties,” Tester said. “These resources helped law enforcement identify the region's most pressing needs and increased awareness of the human trafficking happening in that region.”

U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) speaks during an interview with Reuters in Billings, Montana August 16, 2012. Tester, a farmer and high school music teacher who won the election in 2006 in an upset over Republican incumbent Conrad Burns, faces U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT) in the November election. Picture taken August 16, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
U.S. Senator Jon Tester. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Tester also has met with state and tribal law enforcement to discuss the vulnerabilities in Indian Country. Based upon key indicators, he said, Native American women and girls stand at higher risk of being trafficked. Yet the data is spotty and needs improvement, he added.

“As vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, I have formally requested the Government Accountability Office to conduct a comprehensive study on human trafficking in Indian County, and investigate the effectiveness of the federal response to this growing tragedy that's effecting so many tribal communities,” Tester said. “That will help inform my work in the Senate.”

Tester said Congress passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act last year – an effort to increase resources available for trafficking survivors. While the act provided $5 million initially, Tester has pledged to secure a permanent stream of revenue to ensure victims receive needed support.

But while the legislative efforts are moving in a positive direction, Tester expressed frustration with Backpage, an Internet site that has gained the reputation of serving as the nation's leading webpage for prostitution advertising.

Law enforcement experts said women and children are being sold on the website on a daily basis. Baker agreed, citing his own experiences as part of the FBI task force that uses the site to track down on pimps and locate at-risk teens.

“Recently, because Backpage wouldn't respond to congressional inquires about what they do, the Senate unanimously subpoenaed Backpage seeking more information about their business practices,” Tester said. “They have not been cooperative and transparent, which is why the Senate acted unanimously.”

Tester said the effort is currently in court, where Backpage is arguing First Amendment rights. Tester said the right to free speech doesn't cover human trafficking and selling young girls into sexually slavery.

“We'll continue to use the investigative power of the Senate to shed light on this offensive practice,” Tester said. “It's amazing in this day we're still talking about this. Slavery went away a long time ago, but that's exactly what human trafficking is – it's slavery.”