Forum on human trafficking being held May 29

James Stuart said not long after he was elected Anoka County Sheriff in 2010, Det. Thomas Strusinski approached him to make him aware of the serious problem of human trafficking.

“Even being in law enforcement for 20 years I didn’t realize how bad it is,” Stuart said.

To make the community aware of these crimes, the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and Anoka-Hennepin School District are hosting a forum 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 29 at Coon Rapids High School.

Residents will hear from a panel of professionals who are combatting this problem head-on and hear stories from other speakers in order to better understand how serious of an issue this is.

Strusinski has interviewed thousands of kids who have been forced to have sex with adults and thousands of adults who have had sex with children since he started investigating sex crimes in 2000 for the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office. Strusinski clarified that not all these were human trafficking cases, but adults having sex with children is “an ugly part of society that people need to address.”

“I think one of the things people really need to do is pay attention to the problem,” Strusinski said.

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics 2010 report stated that as many as 300,000 children a year are at risk of sexual exploitation each year in the United States. Strusinski said studies vary, but those victimized are typically girls between the ages of 11 and 14.

People are also sold for labor, but Strusinski said federal authorities typically handle labor trafficking cases.

Stuart said in Minnesota alone, it is estimated that between 8,000 and 12,000 kids are trafficked every day with some minors being sold for sex 10 to 15 times a day. Strusinski has heard the Las Vegas vice unit refer to Minnesota as “the factory” because so many kids being trafficked in Las Vegas as prostitutes are from here.

Stuart said these girls are not being kidnapped, but rather enticed “smooth talkers” in public places or Internet chatrooms with offers of gifts. Some homeless teens are approached with offers of a place to sleep.

Strusinski said this enticement period is known in the sex trafficking world as the “grooming phase.”

After this comes the “control phase.” Strusinski has listened to recordings between pimps and their prostitutes. These girls are not making any money. They are only given enough money to survive.

“These girls are so brainwashed that they’re asking for permission to do anything,” Strusinski said. “They’re begging permission to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes.”

The sheriff’s office and city police departments in Anoka County recently formed the Human Trafficking Task Force to pool intelligence and manpower resources.

They tell school resource officers to pay closer attention to runaways and girls who may be vulnerable from manipulation. Warning signs could be when these girls who start showing up to school in expensive clothing or if they hear stories of them partying with older men, Strusinski said.

Building trust with kids who may be susceptible to becoming a victim is just as important of a tool as chasing paper trails, undercover work and surveillance, according to Strusinski.

“One of the first approaches local officers have with these victims is to develop a rapport and to listen to these girls talk,” Strusinski said.

It is equally important for parents to know who their children are talking to in the Internet chatrooms and for those working in the schools to watch out for those they know ran away from home, according to Stuart and Strusinski.

Strusinski has 20 years of law enforcement experience. He investigated narcotics crimes prior to beginning to investigate sex crimes. Strusinski said a national problem is there are fewer people working these cases full-time compared to those fighting drug traffickers.

“From what I see as being both a prior narcotics officer and a human trafficking officer, it’s just as prevalent as narcotics,” Strusinski said. “There’s a lot of funding going into drug enforcement and very little funding into (enforcing) human trafficking.”

Strusinski himself does not investigate sex trafficking cases full-time. He is in charge of investigating other sex crimes where no money exchanged hands. He got some more help investigating these crimes after Michael Schantzen was promoted from a deputy to a detective after his handling of a domestic incident in Anoka led to a man being charged for prostituting a 16-year-old girl.

Together, Strusinski and Schantzen actively pursued another case for eight months that started after a school principal in Fridley reported in October 2012 that a student believed that her two friends, one who was in ninth grade and the other in 10th grade, were involved in prostitution.

Strusinski and Schantzen determined that these girls had ultimately not become prostitutes, but the two adult men who were eventually charged tried to entice them with alcohol and marijuana.

After combing through more than 10,000 pages of business records, cell phone records, financial records and Internet information and traveling throughout the Midwest partly on their own time, they uncovered a human trafficking ring amongst multiple states in the Midwest and western United States.

Strusinski said “the main pimp” in this case was a 28-year-old Fridley man named Napoleon Long, who was federally indicted in April 2013 and is scheduled to be sentenced next month, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Minnesota.

Strusinski said investigators discovered that Long had 30-40 girls working for him over a 10-year period.

“When an investigation takes two guys eight months to do, it’s not something that you walk into work one day, make a couple of arrests and call it a day. It’s an in-depth investigation and the resources and the finances behind it to do such in-depth investigations is time-consuming and costly,” Strusinski said.

“But that approach has to be done to go after the true criminals, after the people who are doing this,” Strusinski added.

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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