Sex traffickers targeting Alaska Native girls

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) December 2010

Police are warning tribes and villagers that Alaska Native girls are being targeted by sex traffickers and pimps in Anchorage.

"There have been traffickers and pimps who specifically target Native girls because they feel that they're versatile and they can post them (online) as Hawaiian, as Native, as Asian, as you name it," said Jolene Goeden, a special agent for the FBI in Anchorage.

Far from home and surrounded by strangers, girls from remote villages are particularly vulnerable to sex-trade recruiters, said Goeden and Sgt. Kathy Lacey, supervisor for the Anchorage police vice unit.

The investigators delivered a "Prostitution 101" last week to community leaders and health workers at an annual Bureau of Indian Affairs conference, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

One woman at the meeting said her sister was 14 years old when she was recruited while visiting the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage about four years ago.

Her family finally tracked her down at a downtown shelter for homeless teens.

"That really ruined her life," the woman said. "I can't get my sister back the way she ..." Her voiced trailed off.

Sex traffickers use a combination of mind games and beatings, promises and drugs to control girls, authorities said.

Alaska Native girls are commonly lured from their hometowns by friends or relatives who are already working as prostitutes. They invite the girl to come hang out and go shopping rent-free.

About one-third of the women arrested this year for prostitution in Anchorage are Alaska Native, according to Lacey's figures.

It was an Alaska Native girl who moved to Anchorage to stay with family at the age of 12 who helped point investigators toward another prostitution kingpin: Don Webster, also known as Jerry Starr, Goeden said.

Webster, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008, had tried to recruit the girl, Goeden said.

The FBI agent got to know the teen during visits to a youth jail. The pair talked about how the girl ended up selling her body at age 14 in Anchorage.

"Her response to me was, 'I could be back home in the village where I could be having sex with my grandpa for free, or I could be here getting paid for me,"' Goeden said.

"I didn't know what to say. I had no idea how to respond to this little girl."

Regardless of where they're from, many prostitutes are former sexual abuse victims. Many are addicted to drugs, Lacey said.

"It used to be every prostitute we patted down had a crack pipe on them. Not any more, the drug of choice is heroin," she said.

Many are runaways. Underage kids can't rent cars or rent hotel rooms, after all, and they have to get money somehow.

"(That) especially holds true when you get young girls from the villages that come in here and they come in to visit an auntie or whoever they're going to visit and they decide that they're gong to run away," Lacey said. Very quickly they're propositioned by someone trying to lead them on a path toward prostitution, she said.

People always ask why the girls don't leave pimps or sex traffickers on their own, the investigators told the crowd.

Some feel so bad about themselves they don't believe they deserve anything better, they said. Others don't know who to ask for help or are afraid of violent reprisals.

Some, particularly those from small communities, don't want their friends or family to know what's happening to them.

"These girls typically, almost always, do not see themselves as a victim," Goeden said.