What Happened in Vegas

Battling Nevada's Underage Sex Trade

Andrea Swanson was raised in a Catholic military family in Virginia and married a military man. Her husband, Rod, served as an officer in the U.S. Army, became an FBI agent, then rose to supervision of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Las Vegas. That’s where the couple raised their four children, two girls and two boys. Andrea worked as a school nurse. Her husband was sent to Iraq and other foreign countries. Two of their four children would end up entering the armed services—one as a Marine lieutenant and the other as a sergeant in the Eighty-Second Airborne Division. Both deployed abroad.

And then there was Hannah, their youngest child. Hannah Swanson was attending one of Las Vegas’s better public high schools when she met a man named Kobe. He was considerably older, said he loved her, made all the right moves, and had plenty of cash. In fact, Kobe was a pimp. He soon had Hannah, still a juvenile, performing acts of prostitution. When she was busted by the vice section of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Hannah called Kobe, not her mother. But he refused to bail her out. Andrea Swanson discovered what had happened to her daughter only when she was notified by Vice Detective Chris Baughman. After posting Hannah’s bail, Andrea got a crash course in how the Las Vegas sex industry works. She discovered that the calluses on her daughter’s feet were from walking the streets of Boulder Highway, the Strip, and Tropicana off the Strip. The bruises were from encounters with johns or her pimp.

When stories of minors being lured into the sex industry began surfacing in churches and schools around the Las Vegas Valley in 2010, Nevadans for the Common Good (NCG)—a partnership between religious institutions and organizers with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)—decided to investigate. NCG discovered that minors had become an increasingly important but mostly hidden part of Nevada’s thriving sex industry. Religious leaders could not ignore the situation once they understood it; they had to do something, but what? They weren’t sure at first, but they knew that any serious effort to take on the problem would involve risks. There was a lot of money at stake in the pimping of underage girls, and those who profited most from it were not above using violence to protect their turf. And, of course, there would be no guarantee of success. The sex industry had a lot of friends in high places.

NCG finally settled on a clear public-policy goal: change state law to strengthen the hand of law enforcement and treat minors caught up in the sex industry as victims rather than criminals. Law-enforcement professionals, academics, judges, service agencies, and a state assemblyman were ready with specific proposals. But there wasn’t nearly enough public pressure to drive legislation through both state chambers and to the governor’s desk. This political problem became the focus of NCG as the organization grew in strength, numbers, and recognition.

 

THE BUYING AND SELLING of minors for the sexual gratification of adults has deep roots in Las Vegas, which has become the capital of prostitution in North America. From the nineteenth century on, the mining towns dotting the Nevada landscape were tolerant of prostitution, which was considered unavoidable, if not necessary, in communities populated mainly by fortune-seeking bachelors. As a result, Nevada’s leaders grew to promote a kind of labor market—buying, selling, intimidating, brutalizing women—that would have disgusted polite society on both of the nation’s coasts and most places in between.

During most of the state’s early history, Las Vegas was little more than a dusty outpost, but today the metropolitan area has about 2 million residents, thanks mainly to the success of the gaming industry. Violence, sexual abuse, and drug addiction are the dark underside of the city’s casino glitz. As the city’s own ad campaign puts it: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. That promise appeals to many different kinds of people, including some willing to pay more for a teenage prostitute than for an adult. Lieutenant Karen Hughes, who heads the vice section of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, reports that, between 1994 and 2013, her agency identified 2,377 victims of sex trafficking under the age of eighteen. The vice section identified 107 such victims in 2012 and 148 in 2013—a 38 percent increase in one year. Of the victims identified in these two years, 91 percent were between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, but the youngest was just thirteen. Five were boys. A majority of the victims were African American (67 percent), though African Americans make up just 11.1 percent of the city’s population. Most victims are recruited locally by pimps and traffickers who meet their victims at schools, malls, service agencies, and local neighborhoods. The rest are brought in from outside the city.

Even seasoned professionals like Hughes are repulsed by what they have found among underage victims of sex trafficking. Hughes told me about one victim whose face was smashed with an aluminum baseball bat. Another was slashed with a straight razor. Some just disappear. Once minors get tangled up in the industry, they find it very difficult to get out: most go on to become adult prostitutes. Habit, fear, and stigma block the way out of the sex trade.

The politics and financing of Nevada’s sex industry are obscure. No one is quite sure how much the industry’s powerful moguls know about the highly lucrative trafficking of minors that goes on in the shadows of the legal sex trade. Dr. Melissa Farley, the author of Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada (2007), claims that organized crime is heavily involved in the trafficking of minors in Las Vegas, which takes place covertly in the back rooms of the larger casino resorts and more openly in the smaller strip clubs. What’s clear is that the power players in Las Vegas have not done much to put an end to the commercial exploitation of minors. Underage prostitution would not have continued for so long and on such a scale unless some powerful people had been willing to look the other way.

Others, though, began to pay close attention, including the city’s religious communities. Nevadans for the Common Good began a careful study of the cash flows and power relationships that sustain the trafficking of minors. At the same time, the organization began to build a large, nonpartisan political movement that could train a spotlight on the sex industry’s illegal practices and galvanize public opinion against it. But NCG quickly ran into denial in some unlikely places, including the Clark County school police force. When NCG leaders complained about pimp networks recruiting in and around public schools, district law-enforcement officials replied that nothing like that was happening on their watch. And yet, NCG’s worst fears were confirmed by cabbies, concierges, strip-club operators, bartenders, street vendors, and hotel check-in clerks, who were offered kickbacks for delivering paying customers to the city’s purveyors of both underage and adult prostitutes.

In 2010, as they continued to do their research and began to organize, NCG leaders met Republican Assemblyman John Hambrick, a former Secret Service agent. Four years earlier, Hambrick had begun speaking out about the trafficking of minors. But even the fairly modest initiatives he sponsored went nowhere in the state’s legislature. Hambrick was persuaded to join forces with NCG: while he continued the push for a new law, NCG mobilized a grassroots constituency to put pressure on lawmakers. The organization’s leaders put together several hundred small-group meetings where people affected by the problem could express their concerns and ask questions. The first fruit of this combined effort was another modest bill, sponsored by Hambrick, that vacated convictions for sex-trafficking victims who had been prosecuted for prostitution-related offenses. The bill was passed and signed into law in 2011. But three tougher bills—one that would have linked the penalties for those who buy sex from minors to the age of their victims (the younger the victim, the harsher the penalty), another that would have ramped up criminal and civil penalties for pimping, and a third that would have clarified precisely which crimes were related to the trafficking of minors—all died in committee.

 

THE FAILURE OF these three bills led to a closer examination of the links between the sex industry and Nevada’s elected officials. Who, exactly, were they afraid of offending? Meanwhile, NCG brought more and more people into its project. It organized training sessions, which led to neighborhood presentations, sermons, and position papers. The intensive organizing work came together on May 22, 2012. NCG convened over fifteen hundred leaders from sixty community-based institutions in the first Las Vegas Valley Community Convention. Assemblyman Hambrick was present, along with Lt. Hughes. Four bishops, three imams, and several rabbis also attended the convention, along with other local ministers and clergy. Significantly, the chief of staff for Nevada’s Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto also showed up. Andrea Swanson was invited to tell her daughter’s story to the assembled community leaders, who listened in stunned silence.

This event marked a turning point. The huge turnout, which included people from various backgrounds and both political parties, indicated that a serious effort to combat child sex trafficking was not only the right thing to do; it might also be politically feasible. Attorney General Masto assigned her top aide, Michon Martin, to scour other states for model legislation, then pulled together a task force that drafted a groundbreaking omnibus bill—Assembly Bill 67, which defined sex trafficking in Nevada as a crime, sharply ramped up penalties for pimps, gave law enforcement new resources for tracking and prosecuting offenders, and redefined children working in the sex trade as victims rather than as criminals.

Still, despite their organizing campaign’s growing momentum, NCG worried that the new legislation would fall prey to the same political pressures that had defeated their less ambitious proposals three years before. The sex industry brings in hundreds of millions of dollars, and uses some of this money to influence state lawmakers in ways that are often difficult to track. There was of course no public opposition to an effort to prevent child sex trafficking, but powerful private interests would do everything they could to block it. Against these interests, NCG had to gather as large a coalition as possible, one that included academic experts, various religious leaders, lobbyists, community organizers, and those, like Andrea Swanson, whose families had been directly affected by the market in underage prostitutes.

NCG leaders took their case to anyone who would listen. They met with their legislators, key committee heads, prominent gaming-industry executives, local public officials, and key social-service agencies like the Salvation Army. They spoke to reporters, sent thousands of emails and postcards, and worked the phones. Finally, they dispatched busloads of committed activists to the state capital, Carson City, to press for passage of AB 67. On the last day of the legislative session, the bill passed unanimously. For once, the voices of ordinary Nevada citizens had prevailed.

NCG leaders were encouraged by their legislative victory, but they know that there is still much work to be done: a single law, even one as tough as AB 67, won’t solve such a complicated problem by itself. Now established as a nonpartisan political force, NCG is working with a growing cadre of neighborhood leaders, religious communities, schools, unions, businesses, and law-enforcement to protect young people in Las Vegas from an industry that will satisfy every kind of sexual appetite for a price. And the organization has expanded the scope of its efforts. Two years after its first assembly, NCG convened a larger gathering in May 2014 to put together a broad agenda of community improvement, one that addresses issues such as school funding, elder care, and immigrant rights. NCG members have come to understand that what was true of child sex trafficking is also true of many of the other major social issues facing Nevada: they will be successfully addressed by government only when active citizens—and the institutions they support—decide together that the time has come to do something about them.

Published in the September 25, 2015 issue: 

Frank Pierson, now retired, worked as a professional organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) from 1971 to 2013. He completed a six-year term on the Pastoral Council of the Diocese of Tucson in May 2015. He lives in Oracle, Arizona.

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