Ashley Bloemhof- Co-Editor/Staff Writer
Brown eyes blink slowly behind thick, dark lashes. He smiles. His words drip with a sticky sweetness. Ramon is a charmer, he’s the object of a teenage girl’s dream and he’s talking to your daughter.
Youthful exchanges often appear as nothing more than a harmless game of teenage bliss, with the only loss being a temporary broken heart. But what may begin as complimenting and sharing phone numbers could lead to a much larger loss. As Ramon knows, all it takes is a single night of winning a girl’s heart to produce multiple nights of selling her soul.
Former FBI agent Anna Brewer told Ramon’s story to a crowd of roughly 100 victim service providers and community members attending last month’s Human Trafficking Basics training at The Ridge in Sioux Center. Brewer, who spent years working human trafficking cases in Iowa, understands the business of selling souls just as well as those committing the crime.
“It puts a fire under me,” Brewer said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
Chris Spangrud, a human trafficking specialist with the Salvation Army’s Fight to End Trafficking Program (SAFE-T), joined Brewer at the day-long event hosted by the Family Crisis Center. The two expert speakers shared victims’ stories, explained the jargon used in the trafficking business and offered multiple awareness tips.
Before attending the event, Dr. Shawn R. Scholten, an Iowa Licensed Mental Health Counselor, said much of what she learned was “alarming, saddening, and scary.”
“A thought that has often come to me about the conference material was the level of depravity in our society.”
In instances of sex trafficking, the homeless and run-away populations make for easy targets. Yet Brewer and Spangrud asserted that a pimp – the person selling a man or woman, girl or boy, to perform a sexual act – is more likely to ‘groom’ potential victims as opposed to abducting them off the streets.
Grooming takes many forms. A pimp may buy a young boy an expensive toy, or pay for a woman to get a manicure. The most common grooming tactic comes in the form of compliments and promises of love.
And it works.
Brewer showed attendees a video Ramon agreed to participate in a few months after authorities arrested the young man for sex trafficking. The video, according to Brewer, trains individuals and communities about the traffickings. The authorities asked the 18-year-old pimp
what he looked for in a potential victim. Ramon slouched in a metal chair as he mumbled that he always looked for someone who seemed vulnerable – not someone from a high-class family who acted “stuck-up,” but a girl who appeared to lack confidence.
Ramon began working as a pimp after his aunt and uncle persuaded him to move in with them after high school, Brewer said. After pampering him with alcohol and drugs, Meredith “Mary” and Nate told their nephew that he needed to start paying rent. The easiest way to do that, they said, involved earning his share by participating in their trafficking ploy. Accepting the role, Ramon became the recruiter for the group and put those long lashes to work.
But their scheme could only last so long.
One afternoon, Ramon flirted with two teenage girls, ages 13 and 15, and invited them to Mary and Nate’s house for the evening. Mary and Nate entertained the girls, offering them drugs and alcohol. When early morning came, Mary told them “that pot ain’t free.”
To cover the cost of that evening’s high, Mary brought these young women to an apartment that she forced them to rent, a maneuver that would keep her name from being listed on the rental paperwork. She locked them in the apartment and arranged for clients to visit and have sex with the 15-year-old girl. During breaks within clients, the girls could find little solace in their surroundings. A mattress – the sole piece of furniture – lay on the floor, and a blue blanket hung in the window.
Freedom beckoned on the third day.
On that chilly Nebraska morning, the girls looked out the window and saw a man start his car to warm up the vehicle. This, they believed, would be their opportunity to escape. After the man shut the door to his apartment, the girls bolted for his car. “They ran out of the apartment so fast,” said Brewer, “that the 13-year-old did not even have any shoes on.”
The girls put distance between themselves and the apartment until they lost control of the vehicle and got in an accident. Authorities arrived on the scene, and an FBI investigation later busted the traffickers. Mary and Nate soon joined Ramon in prison.
In the back of the room at the Sioux Center training stood a table littered with crayons, paper and coloring books. Brewer and Spangrud encouraged attendees overwhelmed by the weighty information to mentally detox at the table.
“As I went home that day, my heart was heavy,” said attendee Julie Vander Wel, Director of Homicide Services at Family Crisis Center. “It scares me to think that even though my son is a grown young man, his children someday are also going to have to be taught what can happen.” Vander Wel believes education and endurance play leading roles in addressing trafficking at its core. To her, open dialogue makes for better awareness within communities.
“We need to keep learning as we go,” Vander Wel said, “and keep fighting for these young girls and boys.”