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Inside the Teen-Hooker Factory

The small towns and suburbs of Minnesota have become an “assembly line” for underage prostitutes, exporting girls to the rest of the nation

Young woman, sign, 'I'm Not For Sale'

Young woman holding sign 'I'm Not For Sale'.

Todor Tsvetkov/Getty

On the last night of her life as a normal small-town teenager, Sara Slattery bounced through the front doors of the Cheap Skate roller rink, passed the gift stand that sold colored laces and glow sticks, and settled down with her friends by the arcade mall. When you’re a sixth-grader hanging out in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, there’s not much else doing on a winter night in late February. Poke your nose out the front doors of the joint, and there’s nothing but ice, an ashen expanse of gray earth, dirty snow and boredom. Sara laced up her pink-and-white skates, ate a pretzel and hit the oval as the DJ cranked the music up a notch. After a few hours at the rink, everyone headed across town for an older friend’s birthday party. That’s where the blue-eyed, thirteen-year-old Sara met her pimp-to-be.

Theresa Krueger introduced herself as Nikki. She was pretty and cool. She got high. She was twenty and had money to burn. She listened when Sara talked about her dad’s drinking and her nervousness at school. Come on a road trip, Nikki suggested. “It kind of sounded like fun,” Sara says. “It was so cold.” The next day, Sara and her two friends were in Krueger’s Cadillac, Texas-bound. Three or four days later – she’s not sure anymore – Sara became a prostitute.

It’s difficult to understand how such a thing happens. The way Sara and other former prostitutes tell it, one day a pimp is your best friend, the next your master. One day you’re shopping and having fun, the next you’re in a situation you can’t get out of. Krueger told the girls there was no money to get home. They knew no one in Piano, Texas, and had nowhere to go. You need to help pay your way, she said. Don’t worry – it’s easy.

Sara went first. She followed an older prostitute everyone knew as Twerk to a hotel room. Twerk told her what to do. Her first trick, Sara remembers, looked just like her dad. “I was kind of scared, I didn’t look at him,” she says. “He paid a G to have sex with me.” Dozens, then hundreds followed. So did a cocaine habit and regular beatings at the hands of her pimp. Once, after spending too much time in a trick’s room, Sara and another girl were stripped, soaked with cold water and whipped with black leather belts from Wal-Mart. In between Johns, the girls would nap in their room, where they shared a single futon. “We never had time to sleep ’cause we were up 24/7 with calls,” Sara says. “I kept doing drugs so I didn’t have to face myself. After a while I knew what to do, so it was like a cakewalk. It really didn’t bother me.”

The way she tells it now, eighteen months later, it’s like she’s talking about someone else. Sitting in the living room of her parents’ home in a quiet suburb of Minneapolis, Sara talks in a steady monotone, her voice barely registering above a whisper. Her story seems more like a journey through a deranged kid’s imagination than anything that actually happened. You’d be tempted to shrug it all off, one gruesome anecdote at a time, were it not for the cop sitting next to her, confirming every last word. Her mother, Donna, spent so many days looking for her daughter that she lost her job at a local hospital. “We didn’t know if she was dead or alive,” Donna says.

Exact numbers of juvenile prostitutes are impossible to come by, but in the past two years, authorities say, the number of Minnesota girls like Sara getting pulled into “the life” has been steadily growing. “There’s just so many of them,” says Special Agent Ann Quinn-Robinson, a juvenile-prostitution detective with the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. “It’s a lot more than ten times the number of girls out there as there used to be a few years ago.” In 2000, according to the FBI, more kids were arrested for prostitution in Minnesota than in Massachusetts, Maryland and Michigan combined. Pimps in Las Vegas call Minnesota “the factory.” Of every ten hookers the cops pick up in Sin City, at least one is from Minnesota. “They think of us as an assembly line down there,” says a Minneapolis judge.

State officials realized they had a problem five years ago, when cops stumbled across a prostitution ring so deeply embedded in the foundations of daily life, it was likened to a colony of termites. The Evans clan, a three-generation family of pimps – grandfather, father, sons, nephews – recruited stables of girls from across Minnesota and shipped them to pimp houses in two dozen states. It was the largest juvenile-prostitution ring ever prosecuted by the feds. More than fifty juvenile victims testified, and seventeen family members were convicted. It is hardly hyperbole to say that the case sent shock waves of outrage through a state groomed on its Garrison Keillor-made image. One pregnant fifteen-year-old was beaten so badly she miscarried; another girl committed suicide to escape the clan. Evans family members, meanwhile, drove around town in Cadillacs with tailpipes dipped in gold.

The case came as no surprise to those in “the game,” as they call it. Since the publication in the late 1970s of Minnesota Connection – a seminal book detailing the state’s trafficking of prostitutes – Minnesota has been the nation’s busiest exporter of young girls. “We’ve been a source city for a long time, and we have a real problem here,” says Andrew Schmidt, a Minneapolis police sergeant who worked on the Evans case. “Pimps come here to find girls because, well, where else can you find young, attractive blondes who are naive and into the idea of traveling?” Yet, police say, since the Evans case broke, the problem has grown worse. The advent of the Internet and cheap cell phones has given birth to fly-by-night escort services that advertise young girls online and use technology to stay one step ahead of the police. “We’re part of the trafficking connection, and we have a huge sex industry,” says Daniel Reidenberg, who runs a recovery clinic for prostitutes in Minneapolis. “It’s just so much worse here than in other places.”

It’s a weekday morning, and Matt Wente is driving down Lake Street through a working-class section of Minneapolis known for having the most hookers. “Prostitution is like homicide,” he says with a shrug. “The difference is that homicide victims don’t have to live with the results. At least when you’re dead, you’re dead.”

Wente is about as pleasant a guy as you could hope to meet. Firm handshake, good strong features, an easy smile. “Minnesota nice,” as the saying goes. Despite a gray head of hair, he is only forty-one. Working vice for the Minneapolis PD will do that. Leaning back in the seat of his unmarked squad car, he cruises the blocks where prostitutes solicit clients for as little as twenty dollars. Most of that cash, Wente says, goes to a pimp or crack dealer. Lake Street, a four-lane road that crosses the lower half of the city before spilling into St. Paul, seems miles from the gleaming downtown spires portrayed in postcards. It’s a hodgepodge of liquor stores, bodegas, fast-food chains and ethnic hair salons. On every street corner there is action. Cops used to chasing down low-level drug dealers and petty thieves are seeing more and more juveniles out here.

This is where Wente spent nearly two years trying to talk sense into a kid named Andrea Benjamin. Armed-with a fake ID, she worked Lake Street off and on. He sat the child from the tiny town of Mille Lacs down time and again to explain, in the gruesome detail that only cops and streetwalkers can truly understand, the dangers of the road she was on. He told her of one girl in Vegas who told her pimp she was “proud of her washboard stomach.” The next day, the pimp took a red-hot clothes iron to it.

For the cops and social workers who try to rescue these girls, the only thing more disheartening than stories like these is how common they have become. According to a study by Richard Estes, a professor of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, as many as 325,000 kids are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation in America. That means more juvenile crime, more sexually transmitted diseases, more costs to taxpayers for prosecution and treatment. Yet, says Estes, “the feds don’t want to deal with this. It’s difficult, dangerous, expensive and time-consuming.” It wasn’t until August that the FBI finally introduced an initiative focused solely on the trafficking of young girls like Andrea Benjamin.

Andrea turned her first trick when she was fourteen. Even three years later, sitting in a small cement room at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, she looks barely older than a high school freshman. Her forehead still bears the red pinpricks of a teenager’s acne.

Last Christmas Eve, at nine in the morning, Andrea got a call from one of her regular customers, a seventy-seven-year-old named Roy. When she arrived, Andrea says, Roy told her he had only ten dollars. The way she tells it, they fought and she pulled a knife. She swears that she didn’t mean to stab him. Andrea and an accomplice hogtied the old man with a telephone cord, stole $1,500 and fled. In February, a judge sentenced Andrea to nearly four years for aggravated robbery.

Andrea giggles a lot, and her laughter is sweet and infectious. It is strange to see this child – 100 pounds soaking wet – giggling moments after she describes her first trick, her first beating, her first rape. “I’ve seen it all out there,” she says. “I’ve been strangled, been in fights. I’ve had Johns ask me to find them twelve-year-olds.” One of Andrea’s older sisters is in college and applying to medical schools. Andrea is working in the prison kitchen, learning the ins and outs of lockdown, ever vigilant for aggressive inmates looking to provoke the new girl.

In some ways, Andrea is lucky. Many teens who get into hooking end up dead. About three years ago, one of Andrea’s wife-in-laws – a girl working for the same pimp – was found raped and strangled in the brown waters of the Mississippi. At the recovery clinic he runs on Lake Street, Daniel Reidenberg has a long sheet of white paper covered with the names of girls his program has lost in the last decade: twenty-eight and counting. “And these are just the ones that we know of,” he says.

Cause and effect, you could say, has made its way to Minnesota. The state has four centers devoted to preventing prostitution and helping girls recover – as many as Illinois and New York combined. “Most states don’t have a formalized program for prostitution,” Reidenberg says. “We get calls from people all over the country who want to know how to set one up.”

At Breaking Free, a recovery center in St. Paul, about 600 hookers show up each year, looking for a place to stay and advice from women such as Beth Jacobs. Twenty-four years ago, when she was sixteen, Jacobs was traded for a crisp twenty-dollar bill. Now she’s Breaking Free’s project coordinator, but in her time she was raped and beaten and probably turned more tricks than some of her residents. Still, what she’s seeing these days surprises even her. “Pimps like the young girls because they are more malleable,” Jacobs says. “And the johns love them. That’s always been the case. But we’re seeing so many of them now, it’s amazing.”

The stories at Breaking Free are disturbing: little girls jacking off grown men in their cars while the guys drink their own urine; old men shooting cocaine into their veins while fourteen-year-olds touch them. The average trick is white and middle-aged. Most want blow jobs, which run from $20 to $250. Sex with a fourteen-year-old in the missionary position costs $1,000. If a trick wants to do it doggy-style or otherwise, the price goes up. Girls charge extra based on what they see in a trick’s wallet. “If they have another hundred, then you say it will cost them an extra hundred,” says Sara Slattery, who came to Breaking Free after escaping from her pimp in Texas. Not that the girls keep the money. The entire take usually goes to the pimp.

Star Davis, a seventeen-year-old from Minneapolis, sits at a small table in the center’s third-floor library, her posture as rigid as a military cadet’s. Tall and slender, she is a striking girl, with expressive eyes, smooth skin and a disarming smile. When she smiles. Like most teenage girls recovering from life on the streets, she is awkward in the company of strangers. “I still feel uncomfortable about men,” she says. “Every man looks like a trick to me.”

Star dropped out of school when she was thirteen, after running away from home. She met her pimp at a party. He was a friend of a friend, eleven years her senior. “He was really, really nice,” she says, warming for a moment. “I looked at him as a father figure. He was very giving.” She moved in with him shortly after they met. One night her new boyfriend said he was short on the rent. “I want you to do me a favor,” he told her. “Go out on a date with this guy.” At the end of the date, Star was raped.

Star told her boyfriend what had happened. “He looked at me with these evil eyes,” she says. “He told me that basically the only thing I was put on this earth for was to give good head and good pussy.” Star became his prisoner, subject, as most teenage prostitutes are, to the same kind of brainwashing used by cults. For three years, she was not allowed to talk to anyone other than her clients or to use a phone unsupervised. She escaped only when her pimp was arrested.

Not every girl is able to break free. Most live in a blurry state of terror – strung out, broke, homeless, dependent on their pimp. Angel, a shy seventeen-year-old, got pulled in when an older “boyfriend” pointed the way to some easy money. At twelve she started turning tricks in a bathroom outside her sixth-grade classroom. At fourteen she was pregnant. Now she makes $500 a night from rich clients she finds on chat lines. “It’s not the job I would choose for myself,” she says. “But I’m the only one who supports my baby.”

Special Agent Quinn-Robinson and detective Wendy Lehner, a narc from the local sheriff’s office, have been sitting in the drab confines of a dive motel on Highway 494 outside Minneapolis for nearly seven hours, staring at a TV monitor showing a live feed of the adjacent room. Tonight they are the arrest team. The sting room, flickering incessantly on the grainy black-and-white monitor, is empty except for an undercover officer sitting on the bed, watching TV. Outside, in an unmarked Chevy, two state cops work surveillance. Everyone is bored and fidgety. Quinn-Robinson and Lehner are working down their third pot of coffee, made by reusing a pre-packed filter that came with the room.

The team is after a woman named Yolanda, who they believe has been pimping out juveniles, including her own sixteen-year-old daughter. Detective Wayne Johnson, who has the unenviable job of posing as the trick, has just placed a call to Nicole, the girl pictured in an escort-service ad on the Twin Cities Uncovered Web site.

Quinn-Robinson builds her case against teen-hooker rings one girl at a time. “These are very labor-intensive operations,” she says with a sigh. A cup by the window is full of cigarette butts soaking in brown water. Suddenly, Nicole shows. Officer Johnson – posing as a truck driver – strips naked to prove he’s not a cop. “No ma’am, I ain’t the po-lice,” he says with a drawl. After $200 changes hands, Nicole strips and starts dancing. She reaches down and touches Johnson. Thirty seconds later she is cuffed and crying, and Johnson is back in his civvies. Pimps rarely send their juveniles over on calls to first-time customers, for fear of just this sort of sting, so the cops nab older prostitutes like Nicole, who is twenty-one. Now she has to make a choice: tell the cops everything she knows about the teen prostitutes she works with or go to jail.

Even when the police manage to bust a pimp for dealing in juveniles, the sentences are usually light. Unless they become part of a federal prosecution like the Evans clan did, most pimps are in and out of the system quickly. William Daley was busted two years ago in a sting similar to the one that snared Nicole. Convicted of promoting prostitution – a felony – he is already out on probation. Daley ran a call-girl service out of several hotels in Minneapolis, connecting local businessmen with girls as young as fifteen. The younger they looked, the better they did. His most popular ad promised schoolgirls. “The Catholic-schoolgirl look, you know, with the skirt and the stockings,” he says, fumbling for a cigarette in his basement apartment. “They loved that. They was all about that.” He employed as many as twenty girls at a time, taking more than half their profits and clearing an average of $1,500 a day.

As the cops have cracked down on old-fashioned saunas and massage parlors, the most popular pimping technique, by far, has become the escort service. For pimps such as Daley, drumming up business is easy – all they have to do is advertise in newspapers and on Web sites. The ads are cheap and legal. Pimps move girls from hotel to hotel, town to town, state to state, changing their names and cell-phone numbers to stay a step ahead of the police. “I was gangbanging, kicking rocks and moving around,” Daley laughs. “It’s hard to get caught pimping.”

Sara Slattery’s pimp, Theresa Krueger, was eventually arrested. Sara and her friend had spent nearly five months in Texas when, one night, Krueger went to a rave. “We turned five tricks that night so we could get money, so we could get out,” Sara says. “Then we waited till the woman watching us fell asleep and we called a cab.” The girls paid the cabby to drive all night while they slept in the back. The next morning, they boarded a Greyhound for Coon Rapids, Minnesota.

Sara, now fifteen, should be a freshman in high school. But in August, after months of trying to get her life back on track, she disappeared again. She lasted longer than her friend, who returned to the game shortly after they returned home. “We don’t have many success stories getting them out,” says Wente, the Minneapolis vice officer. “I do this because if my daughters were in it, I’d want somebody like me going after the guy who did it. I might not be able to help her, but I’m not going to quit.”

But such dedication, while admirable, is unlikely to stem the tide of teen prostitutes. Police and caseworkers committed to rescuing girls from the streets express a sense of helplessness. “We just aren’t given the resources to fight this like we need to,” says Quinn-Robinson, the only cop in the state assigned to juvenile prostitution. Out here, she says, there are simply too many pimps. And even more girls. 

In This Article: Coverwall, prostitution

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