On the day she met Marcus Thompson, the girl later told the FBI, she had been ready to leap from a bridge to end her life.
She was only 15, pregnant and alone on the streets.
And in this wounded child, Thompson saw a means to make money. He promised that if she left her small Illinois town with him, he would make her a model. Grasping for hope, she climbed into his truck.
But the promise was a lie.
Instead, in the summer of 2015, Thompson and his wife, Robin, forced the girl on a nightmarish six-week trek across the southern United States. Photographed in suggestive poses and marketed online, she was sold out of hotel rooms and truck stops to any man with the money and the desire to buy sex.
The justice system eventually would work well in this case in several respects. The victim was rescued and provided with treatment. The traffickers who exploited her were caught, pleaded guilty and were sent to prison.
But what of the men who paid to rape this child? What consequences did they suffer?
Not a single one was ever charged.
That same breach of justice is the norm in thousands of trafficking cases. About 10,000 children a year suffer the horrors of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States. Each victim on average is forced to have sex more than five times a day.
Yet the buyers who fuel the child sex trade are seldom held accountable. Most just blend back into their families, jobs and neighborhoods. Until the next time.
In the Thompson case, the victim, too young for a driver’s license, told the FBI she was beaten once for attempting to escape and was threatened with being “thrown to the alligators” if she tried to run again. Marcus Thompson, according to federal authorities, raped the girl five times.
Still, the child retained enough independence to say no when a buyer demanded anal sex. But her refusal came at a brutal price. The man who bought her complained to the man who sold her. And she was beaten again.
At a hospital in St. Louis, the abuse finally ended when the girl was identified as a sex-trafficking victim. The Thompsons, based on her descriptions, were arrested.
Marcus Thompson is now serving a life sentence. Robin Thompson, who helped place the online ads and book the hotel rooms, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
At Robin Thompson’s sentencing, Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan described the couple’s crimes as among the worst he had seen in 16 years on the federal bench.
In her victim impact letter, read by Reagan at the sentencing, the girl wrote, “It’s hard to wake up every day and remember the people I had sex with.”
In the past 16 months, I’ve witnessed the worst of human behavior while reporting for this project, one that’s taken me across eight countries on five continents. I’ve talked to 6-year-old trafficking victims, visited a shelter where the oldest survivors were only 11, met a 5-year-old boy living with his parents in a squalid brothel in India and interviewed survivors who were raped by hundreds of men.
Yet the ordeal of that one child from Illinois — beaten for saying no — has haunted me in particular.
It’s stuck in my mind because it exposes a harsh truth: In the sex trade, buyers and sellers view the children they torment as property.
And property cannot say no.
“Despite 20 years of efforts, the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism has expanded across the globe and outpaced every attempt to respond at the international and national level… As a result, the risks of child sexual exploitation are increasing.”
— The Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism, 2016.
This project began with a question: Who buys a 15-year-old child for sex?
The answer: Many otherwise ordinary men. They could be your co-worker, doctor, pastor or spouse.
“They’re in all walks of life,” a 17-year-old survivor from the Midwest, trafficked when she was 15, said about the more than 150 men who purchased her in a month. “Some could be upstanding people in the community. It was mostly people in their 40s, living in the suburbs, who were coming to get the stuff they were missing.”
The scale of the trade indicates that it’s not a small number of men who pay to have sex with kids. A 2016 study by the Center for Court Innovation found that between 8,900 and 10,500 children, ages 13 to 17, are commercially exploited each year in this country. Several hundred children 12 and younger, a group not included in the study, also suffer commercial sexual abuse.
The researchers found that the average age of victims is 15 and that each child is purchased on average 5.4 times a day. I’ve interviewed victims who were forced to have sex with more than 30 men in a week; more than 100 in a month.
To determine a conservative estimate of the demand, I multiplied the lower number of victims (8,900) identified in the Center for Court Innovation study by the rate of daily exploitation per child (5.4), and then by an average of only one “work” day per week (52). The result: Adults purchase children for sex at least 2.5 million times a year in the United States.
The number of identified victims in the U.S. is on the rise. The National Human Trafficking Hotline recorded a 35 percent increase in reports in 2016. Most of the cases involved sex trafficking and many of the victims were children.
Brad Myles, CEO of the Polaris Project, which operates the hotline, said the increase largely can be attributed to better identification of trafficking victims and heightened public awareness that the hotline exists. Yet, Myles said, “The vast majority of victims are still not being found.”
International numbers are even more staggering. Sex trafficking, according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization, is a $99 billion-a-year global industry. The exploitation of more than 1 million children accounts for more than 20 percent of those profits.
And there’s evidence that the child sex trade is growing. ECPAT International, a research and advocacy organization, concluded in 2016 in a first of its kind global study that more children than ever are at risk of abuse.
Mark Capaldi, ECPAT’s lead researcher, said in an interview at the organization’s Bangkok headquarters that rising global incomes, cheaper air travel and better internet access have fueled the increase in demand. In short, it’s cheaper and easier than ever for adults to exploit children.
Another reason for the growing exploitation: Buyers face little risk. “You’re unlucky if you get caught,” Bjorn Sellstrom, the head of INTERPOL’s Crimes Against Children unit, said in Lyon, France. “It’s fairly free of risk to travel to another country and abuse children.”
It’s a low-risk crime for domestic abusers as well. In 2015, Congress strengthened federal anti-trafficking laws to provide prosecutors with more tools to go after sex buyers. Prosecutions have only modestly increased as a result.
A U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman, in a written response to questions, said the primary objective is to focus “our limited resources on apprehending the traffickers, who pose the most imminent threat to the victims.”
She provided examples of about 30 buyers, including former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, convicted on federal charges in 2015 and 2016. But she said state and local prosecutors are in a better position than the federal government to hold accountable those who pay to exploit children.
Like the federal government, state and local jurisdictions tend to use sting operations in which undercover officers pose as exploited children to stop buyers. Although such operations net thousands of would-be sex buyers each year, most of the men arrested plead down to lesser crimes.
And it’s rare for police and prosecutors to pursue buyers after they’ve paid to abuse children. That’s true even in the most nauseating of crimes.
In 2016, police rescued a 12-year-old Texas girl who was held captive in a hotel room in a wealthy suburb of Nashville, Tenn. Authorities said the child, found with bruises and scratches on her face, had been advertised on Backpage.com and sold to sex buyers for a month in the Knoxville, Memphis and Nashville areas.
A 36-year-old Nashville man, Tavarie Williams, was charged with multiple counts of trafficking, kidnapping and rape. He is awaiting trial. But, as in the case of the 15-year-old from Illinois, none of the men who paid to sexually abuse a middle school-age child were ever charged. (A spokeswoman for the Davidson County (Tenn.) District Attorney’s Office said authorities were unable to identify any of the buyers, who could have faced felony charges).
“That child will have to fight the stigma of what happened to her for the rest of her life,” said Alex Trouteaud, director of policy and research with Demand Abolition, a Massachusetts-based organization that works to reduce demand for commercial sex. “Meanwhile, the buyers will never be held accountable. It’s what we call the culture of impunity.”
Prosecutors note that they face several obstacles in pursuing charges, including the need to show that a buyer knew or should have known that the person he paid to exploit was underage. Victims — traumatized, frightened, frequently dependent on drugs and alcohol — often don’t make strong witnesses. Prosecutors also must weigh whether putting a child on the stand, where defense cross examinations can be rough, will further wound the victim.
It’s tempting to put buyers who exploit children in a box — to say that all of them are pedophiles, a small percentage of the population driven by a deep sickness. But researchers and survivors say that’s not the case.
ECPAT International researchers found that the great majority of men who pay to exploit children are opportunists. They don’t set out specifically to buy sex with a child, but neither do they walk away when faced with the temptation.
Survivors I interviewed reported similar experiences. One of them, exploited when she was 15, said only two men turned and left the motel room when they saw how young she was. Even those two didn’t notify police about the ongoing abuse of a child.
More than 100 other men who paid to have sex with her stayed. “They just didn’t care” about her age, she said.
In a room full of sex buyers, enrolled in a court-ordered program in Seattle, I asked: “Do you ever think about the life stories of the girls and women you purchased?”
The men appeared uncertain about how to answer. Then a former once-a-week buyer, arrested for attempting to purchase sex from a police officer posing as a 15-year-old girl, said, “I don’t want to know how the sausage is made.”
A piece of meat. A commodity to be consumed.
Not a child. Not a life.
Later in this series, we’ll further explore the factors that drive men to buy sex with children. But let’s take time now for a dose of inspiration.
We’ll find it in a sewing room in Mumbai, India, where a group of remarkable women are waiting to greet us.
Priya, her body ravaged by HIV, was barely alive the day Seena Simon, director of Care and Development for the Cincinnati-based Aruna Project, found her on the street in Mumbai’s Grant Road red light district.
Trafficked at age 13, Priya had worked in the brothels for 15 years before she was kicked out because of her illness.
“She shared with me that in one night 15 to 20 men used her. That was her life,” Simon, who’s worked with trafficking victims in Mumbai for the past 15 years, said. “She didn’t have the strength or energy to do that work. So she was not earning any money for the brothel keeper and they didn’t want her.”
Told by doctors that Priya wouldn’t survive, Simon found the still-young woman a bed in a hospice, where she went to die.
Except Priya didn’t die.
Her white blood count began to improve. She began to eat, to regain weight and energy. After three months, Priya left the hospice for an after-care home.
At around that time, Simon had been talking to Ryan Berg, an American from Cincinnati who worked for an NGO with operations in India, about the need to provide jobs in a sheltered work environment for trafficking survivors.
“Employment was the gap,” Simon said. “Once they were trained in some kind of skill, we sent them for work, but they couldn’t cope with the pressure. Finish the deadline, finish the targets — they couldn’t do it. There was an internal conflict and many of them failed. And some I know went back to the red light district.”
From that need, and from Berg and Simon’s shared passion to help trafficking victims, a business plan was born. In the U.S., Berg founded The Aruna Project, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit that stages 5K runs in multiple states. Registration fees and other proceeds from the races are used to pay salaries for trafficking survivors in Mumbai.
In Mumbai, Simon manages production and counsels survivors, who are employed to make athletic bags and headbands distributed to participants in Aruna Project races in the U.S. More upscale bags also are sold online.
In 2015, Aruna hired its first survivor, Priya. Simon said the company pays better than market rate salaries and benefits. It also provides group homes for those survivors who are not yet ready to live on their own.
The fight against human trafficking inspires incredible passion among many people, but that passion is sometimes misdirected. More than a few nonprofits working to combat trafficking are less than effective. And when I first heard about The Aruna Project’s approach, I was skeptical. Can 5K runs in America really make a difference for women living in India?
But then I stepped onto the production floor in Mumbai, and I saw the women’s smiles. It’s always humbling for me as a man to meet a survivor. In the sewing room, IndyStar visuals editor Mykal McEldowney and I were surrounded by 22 survivors, women like Priya who had suffered unspeakable horror.
The women answered our questions through a translator and asked their own questions of us. They laughed and giggled and showed off, with clear pride, the bags and other products they had made. They also told us about their dreams for the future — one wants to become a fashion designer, another a tailor.
And a young woman named Ruby, no more than five feet tall, hopes to become a singer. When we asked if she would sing for us, she smiled and chose a worship song, a hymn of thanksgiving.
As her clear, strong voice filled the room, she sang not about the pain of the past but of hope for the future.