Detective: Sex trafficking more prevalent than most Missoula citizens realize

Detective Guy Baker outlines sex traffic indicators that the general public can learn, plus sobering statistics of the sex slavery, human trafficking and prostitution rings that exist in Missoula and Montana. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

The general public in Missoula is vastly unaware of the depth to which human trafficking and sex trafficking exist locally, says longtime Missoula Police Detective Guy Baker.

The average age of a young girl trapped in sex slavery, human trafficking and prostitution is 14, said Baker, who has handled 60 such cases in Missoula since 2012.

“People don’t realize there’s that amount of activity in Missoula,” he said. “I work about 10 cases a year on average in Missoula.”

Calling it “modern-day slavery,” the cases he has worked include sex trafficking, promotion of prostitution and prostitution under the state definition. There is no Missoula law, but state and federal laws exist. 

“I testified at the Legislature three times and I could not believe the pushback when we were saying that hand jobs, vaginal sex, anal sex and oral sex are all part of commercial sex – hand jobs being the beginning,” Baker told about 70 attendees at the monthly Missoula City Club on Monday. 

“There were people who didn’t think we should add that. It’s on the books now, but there are so many people who say, ‘They’re just prostitutes and they’re just doing what they want to be doing, so why should we hammer these customers? People say, ‘She’s getting paid, so she’s doing what she wants.’ ”

But that’s simply not the truth, Baker said.

After much testifying to enlighten legislators, Baker and the Missoula Human Trafficking Task Force convinced them to make some changes on behalf of victims.

“We just got the ‘hand job’ thing changed in October,” he said about state law pertaining to adults. “Until Oct. 1, you could get a massage with hand job up to ejaculation and that wasn’t even against the law in Montana. So we changed that. The reason is that the prostitution definition in Montana required penetration.” 

Federal law applies to sex trafficking of a minor, which involve many of Baker’s cases.

Another problem the everyday citizen may not be aware of is the proliferation of online sex trafficking sites that mimic the now-defunct BackPage website, which the U.S. Department of Justice closed down in 2018. 

Among the look-alike online sites that deal in mostly underage girls who live in poverty, may be homeless, and who are especially vulnerable to an older man who buys them lunch to earn their trust include:

  • Missoula Escorts – proliferation of ads that pop up in every big Montana city in a Google search
  • eBackPage.com
  • BedPage.com
  • PackPage(ly).com
  • OneBackPage.com
  • SkipTheGames.com
  • EroticMonkey.com
  • EscortFish.com

Many of the replacement websites mimic the style and font of the previous BackPage, too, to attract men of all types, said Baker. 

Regularly driving the supply and demand of the sex trade are unattached or transient males in a community or area, including oil industry workers, military personnel, truck drivers, conventioneers, sporting event fans, migrant laborers and sexual tourists.

Baker, who also serves on the FBI Montana Regional Violence Crime Task Force, said elements of human trafficking can include force, fraud and coercion. 

Human trafficking is defined as “compelling or coercing another person’s labor or services. Coercion can be either physical or psychological; subtle or overt. Movement or smuggling need not be included.”

Pimps typically earn the trust of young girls in plain sight – especially middle-school kids who are at their most vulnerable. Add poverty, a lack of adult guidance or home structure and children are easily caught up in a manipulative older man’s attention.

Typical sex trafficking indicators include places of business in open sight: massage parlors, strip clubs, modeling agencies, bars and truck stops. Baker has worked on cases involving coerced young girls and prostitutes forced to solicit in plain sight at local truck stops.

One in three minors living on the streets will be approached by a pimp or lured into prostitution, according to nationwide statistics. Eventually, 3 in 4 adult prostitutes were introduced into the sex trades when they were minors, Baker said.  

Overall, the human trafficking industry generates over $33 billion annually in illegal revenues – and $9.5 billion in the United States. Pimps can earn as much as $100,000 a year, depending on the number of prostitutes they employ.

There are more victims of slavery today than at any time in history. 

However, the good news is that prosecutors are working together to change the law for the better, said Baker, whose Human Trafficking Task Force next meets on Dec. 3 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the Missoula Salvation Army.

Katharina Werner, a licensed social worker and director of field education at the University of Montana School of Social Work, works with Guy Baker and others on the Human Trafficking Task Force. (Renata Birkenbuel/Missoula Current)

Anyone interested in learning more can attend, said his task force colleague, Katharina Werner, a licensed clinical social worker and director of field education at the University of Montana School of Social Work.

One of the founding members of the Human Trafficking Task Force, Werner said the group has grown to include over 50 community organizations.

“Thinking about human trafficking, especially commercial sexual exploitation being a form of gender-based violence – just like domestic violence and child abuse,” said Werner, task force chairwoman.

Other than Baker’s frequent talks in the community to raise awareness, Werner and colleagues speak to other audiences.

Werner previously worked for seven years at the Missoula YWCA as a victim service provider and Domestic and Sexual Violence program manager.

“It’s a community issue, so different areas of the community (have) different needs,” she said. “I really come from a trauma-based lens and think about prevention work and underlying social issues that play into this issue. Obviously, Guy brings some of the intervention, law enforcement, prevention work, prosecution end of things.”

A few years ago, the task force began talks with Missoula County Public Schools to possibly create a curriculum to raise awareness for students starting in middle school. 

“We know that change takes a long time,” said Werner. “Such radical curriculum potential changes – I think there’s some hesitation around that. We suggested through several meetings and avenues to really think how we can get a prevention-based curriculum into the schools early. 

Annually, a nationwide Youth Risk Survey hits the schools that includes questions about Montana’s high rate of suicide and mental health issues. 

However, Werner said the survey does not include much-needed questions about sexual exploitation. 

“One thing we don’t talk about is recruitment and exploitation,” Werner added. “We don’t have any data points; we don’t ask you in our schools if this is an issue. Collecting information about it would be a starting point.”

Raising awareness among a broad spectrum of adults in power is a natural place to start.

“I always talk about in my presentations that our eyes only see what we are trained to see,” she added. “So if there are legislators, educators and people in power who don’t think that this is a problem because they’re just not seeing it, how are we going to make change about it?” 

PolarisProject.org, which works to fight human trafficking, mapped 8,759 cases in 2017. 

The better educated the general public, the better chance of recognizing a sex slave trade situation.

“If you see something that you suspect, how do you follow up?” an audience member asked after Baker spent a lot of time detailing the sex trafficking indicators. 

“You as a citizen, if you see something suspicious, I would encourage you to call 911,” said Baker, because the police cannot be everywhere at once. That is why these trainings bring awareness to this and going over the indicators is so important.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.