In plain sight

Human trafficking goes on—unrecognized, unreported—right here

Janja Lalich, retired professor of sociology at Chico State, sees commonalities in control tactics used by cult leaders and human traffickers.

Janja Lalich, retired professor of sociology at Chico State, sees commonalities in control tactics used by cult leaders and human traffickers.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

If you see something:
Law enforcement agencies seek tips, even anonymous, of possible human trafficking.
Chico Police: 897-5820 or 897-4900
National Human Trafficking Hotline: (888) 373-7888 or
• For a situation with immediate danger, call 911.

Crystal shivered. Like many of Janja Lalich’s students, she felt her emotions stir as her professor described, so vividly in front of her, a phenomenon that seems so distant.

Human trafficking has long been a topic that Lalich, a noted expert in cults and mind control, has discussed in sociology classes at Chico State. She explains that a victim need not necessarily get smuggled from one place to another—trafficking, by definition, involves one person conscripting another by coercion, fraud or threat for commercial gain. This activity spans international slave trading to local pimping.

Crystal processed what she heard. After class, she approached Lalich. The presentation made her aware, just then, that she knew more about trafficking than she realized.

She’d been trafficked.

In Chico.

“The really scary part is how close it is to home,” she told the CN&R.

Crystal (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) was a sophomore when her saga started. Barely 19, from a small town, the first member of her low-income family to attend college, she answered an employment ad posted by a small-business owner seeking secretarial help.

Her boss was in his 30s. He began lavishing attention; she responded. Crystal had battled a variety of personal challenges over the years: weight, a broken home, mental illness. She found him charming.

“He showed me kindness and interest and excitement,” she said. “Those things were really appealing to me at that time in my life.

“It just kind of spiraled from there.”

A few weeks into their work/personal relationship, the man (whom she wouldn’t identify) started talking about a way to get out of her financial tight spot. His gentle suggestions—“It would be a great idea”—grew more forceful. Soon, he’d set her up in a local motel room to have sex with strangers, including the motel manager.

He had other young women there as well. Crystal was the lone college student; others were just as damaged. They did drugs and sold sex. Her boss, now her pimp, would come from his house down the street to collect cash.

“I felt like I was living two separate lives,” she said. “Monday-Wednesday-Friday, I was in school 8 to 4; other times, I was doing things it’s not normal to do as a college student.”

Crystal remained at Chico State for two semesters, though her grades slipped. She dropped out and became absorbed by the vicious cycle of drugs and prostitution. She left several times, just to be lured back by her boss. Only when she became pregnant did she break away from him for good.

She calls her son her “lifesaver.”

Re-enrolled in college, focused on studying psychology, she gravitated toward Lalich’s classes. She never thought of herself as a victim … until the lecture-time epiphany: Oh, my god, that happened to me.

As Crystal knows and her story shows, slavery happens around us. Chicoans—all Butte County residents, really—see people involved with human trafficking but don’t notice, or have awareness to notice.

“It happens in a lot of different venues, a lot of different ways,” Crystal said.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey divides trafficking into two categories: sex and labor. Within those, he and other experts consulted by the CN&R delineate specific work that trafficking victims perform. Some of these activities have been confirmed via criminal investigations and arrests; others, the experts suspect happen here because they happen in comparable California communities.

Forced prostitution happens locally, not only with adults such as Crystal but also with minors. Ramsey is prosecuting a Chico woman who allegedly drugged a 15-year-old family friend, brought her to a motel and set up paid sexual encounters with men responding to an online ad with photos of the girl in lingerie. Chico police arrested Alexis Franklin, 22, in March; charged with felony pimping and human trafficking, she pleaded no contest to pimping last Wednesday (July 26) in Butte County Superior Court. When sentenced Aug. 23, Franklin faces up to 16 years in prison, an enhanced sentence because of a prior felony.

Ramsey also confirmed that trafficked workers tend marijuana grows in parts of Butte County. Mostly recruited from day-labor pools, he said, these people unwittingly become involved in an organized crime operation from which they cannot—or are too afraid to—escape.

Lalich, who teaches half-time as a retired professor, and Kate Transchel, a history professor who also has expertise in trafficking (an offshoot of her research in Eastern Europe), have reports of victims in erotic massage parlors. Through the last academic year, Lalich and Transchel served as faculty advisers for the Chico State organization S.T.O.P.—Stop Trafficking of Persons. S.T.O.P. members have gone into some of these establishments and interviewed women working there.

“No one comes from China to Chico to have sex in massage parlors,” Transchel said. “That’s not a choice people make.”

Suspicions extend to nail salons, where the professors have seen groups of workers arrive and leave en masse, transported by van; crews of panhandlers, who beg together and lodge together; “gangs” of homeless people trading homeless women for favors; college students narcotized and filmed for online pornography; and agricultural workers brought to farms by unscrupulous third-party vendors.

For those activities locally, law enforcement lacks proof—or at least reports credible enough to make arrests and levy prosecutions.

“We just do not receive complaints of this type in this community,” Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien said. “That’s not a good thing; we want to know about these different issues.”

Information does not always make it to his department.

First, trafficking defies boundaries, so the crimes do not fall neatly into jurisdictions such as Chico Police or Butte County Sheriff’s Office or FBI. Intel gaps occur. For instance, S.T.O.P. advisers thought they’d shared reports with an FBI agent communicating with Chico detectives; turns out he’s an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and neither Chico-based FBI agents nor Chico police had gotten briefed.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien has hired a detective with expertise in human trafficking, both locally and overseas.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Some people, even if they know whom to contact, won’t talk. Victims such as Crystal may not know they’re victims; psychological manipulation by the trafficker may lead them to believe their relationship is consensual. In other instances, victims—as well as accomplices and witnesses—may fear reprisals based on threats made on them (such as Crystal faced) or toward family and friends (such as immigrants commonly face).

Finally, many people wouldn’t, or couldn’t, recognize telltale signs indicating a place where trafficking might occur or a person who might be trafficked.

“We need to do a better job of educating the community in things to look for,” O’Brien said.

In that expanding effort, a newly hired Chico detective represents a lynchpin. O’Brien drew Vic Lacey out of retirement to join the force on a part-time basis because of his extensive experience with trafficking investigations, both statewide and overseas.

Lacey, whose father was a Chico police officer, worked for the California Highway Patrol and California Department of Justice for a total of 22 years before spending nearly a decade with the International Justice Mission, a nonprofit that fights violence and human trafficking. Back in Chico, he accepted O’Brien’s offer last October.

“I think there’s a lot that people see but they overlook, or it clicks a thought that something’s not right, [yet] they don’t think about it anymore,” Lacey said. “We want the public to report things, even though it might amount to nothing. If you see something suspicious, whether it actually is or not, we want to be called so we can check it out, so the FBI can check it out.”

Conspicuous traffic can raise a red flag. Do cars enter a driveway at odd hours? Visitors enter and leave next door frequently? That might indicate trafficking, though Transchel noted how neighbors noticed nothing amiss at a Shoshone Avenue residence until Chico police made a sex trafficking arrest in January 2013.

As for victims themselves, Lacey said business owners can spot them in shops and eateries, and anyone can detect them in public, by observing physical cues. Look for a mismatched pair—someone older accompanying someone younger who does not appear to be related—with the elder in firm control and the junior cowed. Often a trafficking victim will look down and avoid speaking.

“It might be nothing,” Lacey said, “but then again, the person might be in fear and afraid to talk.”

Another sign Ramsey mentioned: injuries, evidence of violence.

“Fear and control and manipulation is a key component to human trafficking,” Lacey continued. “It’s not always physical control—sometimes it’s psychological, mental and emotional fear.”

Lalich understands this aspect of human trafficking, through her study of religious cults and coercion techniques.

“I certainly see parallels to how the women are indoctrinated by their keepers,” she said, “and also their struggles in recovery after they are able to escape or get rescued.”

Such has been the case with Crystal. Even before her perceptions became clouded in a haze of drugs—marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine—she found herself subordinate to the older man who’d enveloped her.

The man, whom Lalich labeled a “Romeo pimp” because he’d romance recruits, never hit Crystal. He threatened violence, however, intimating harm that would come via his family members if something ever happened to him.

His hold was strong in other ways, too. He was married, and his wife was complicit, enlisting women whom he’d take to the Bay Area for sex work.

Crystal can see how she went from a teen whose “naiveté was taken advantage of” to a woman in an abusive relationship. Even so, with a degree in psychology and human trafficking advocacy with S.T.O.P., she finds her experience “unexplainable.” She looks in the mirror and can’t believe the person looking back at her fell for his con.

“He would go after anyone who was willing to do anything,” Crystal said. “He was very convincing, really smooth about the whole thing.

“I can’t believe how much stuff I did and went through in that year-and-a-half period, where I didn’t die,” she said. “I don’t know how people survive this kind of life in any kind of long-term way, because it’s really crazy….

“You lose yourself. It takes a really long time to find yourself again.”

“Vulnerable.” That’s a word Lacey used repeatedly when discussing the victims of human trafficking. Regardless of the crime, some form of vulnerability links them.

Drug addicts who need money and/or narcotics— vulnerable.

Undocumented immigrants—vulnerable.

Homeless people—vulnerable.

College students—vulnerable.

Runaway kids—especially vulnerable.

Lacey, O’Brien and Transchel all cited statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that 1 in 5 runaways will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of hitting the streets, totaling an estimated 300,000 annually in the U.S. Even preteens get targeted.

Last year in Chico, 300 juveniles ran away from home. O’Brien stressed that national statistics do not always translate locally “specific number to specific number” but that local figure is significant because “every one of those runaways probably to some degree or another [is] vulnerable to this type of criminal activity.”

Regarding trafficking overall, he said, “I want to assure everyone that we take this very, very seriously—and always have.”

History professor Kate Transchel has become a recognized expert on trafficking from her research and co-sponsorship of Chico State’s anti-trafficking group.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Chico police efforts may not be conspicuous, O’Brien explained, because of the low number of reports. (Most of the information his department receives comes from Children’s Services officials; few citizens call.) Detectives do investigate every case, he continued, and that’s long been standard practice.

Proactivity is on the rise, though, with the addition of Lacey. O’Brien said “a little bird” told him the investigator was interested in joining the Chico police force, and the chief jumped at the chance.

“Certainly having someone of the quality of Vic Lacey on our team, I think, is hugely impactful—and is hugely impactful for the county,” he said.

O’Brien hired Lacey at a serendipitous time: right when Butte County’s CSEC group convened. CSEC (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children) comprises a variety of local agencies that interface with human trafficking victims. Law enforcement participates; so do social services departments and nonprofit organizations that assist the “vulnerable.”

The CSEC program stems from 2014 state legislation, Senate Bill 855, allocating funds to counties that opt-in to provide intervention services to child victims and prevention for children at risk of being exploited. Groups began forming in 2015 and 16.

Local CSEC chair Karen Ely—assistant director of the county Employment and Social Services department, which includes Children’s Services—says while the group officially works to meet needs of trafficked youths up to age 21, per her division’s legal mandate, partner agencies will collaborate to aid victims who are older.

“We don’t turn a blind eye,” she said. “We have a different process because adults have different expectations and different rights than youths.”

By forming a “united front,” Ely continued, investigators and care professionals can work in coordination, often simultaneously, rather than independently. CSEC has assisted a handful of youths over the past year, and while she said that may not seem like a lot, “it takes a while to change people’s thinking” and get the new program fully developed.

The biggest shift is getting people to understand that trafficking actually happens here. Transchel in particular, via S.T.O.P. conferences and public appearances, has waged that battle for years.

She describes herself as a “reluctant human trafficking activist.” Following the 1997-98 academic year, Transchel traveled to Moscow and the Ukraine to research a book on Soviet hippies in the 1970s and 80s. (The working title is Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Brezhnev’s Russia; she hasn’t yet written it.)

“I spent the summer basically hanging out with drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes,” she recalled.

One of the young women she interviewed described escaping from the slave trade. The account seemed outlandish, but the girl struck Transchel as honest, and what she said stuck with the professor throughout the rest of the trip and upon returning home. Transchel began looking into the subject via the Internet, media articles and academic journals.

After going back to Russia in 2008, for grant-funded research specifically on trafficking, Transchel spoke about the subject on campus. That’s how she met Lalich, who later steered her to S.T.O.P., coincidentally established that same year.

Transchel, like most Chicoans, still believed human trafficking took place far off—“then I met my first trafficking victim from Chico High.” That was in 2011, when S.T.O.P, began holding Human Trafficking Awareness Week events. This young woman, about 20 and the guest of a presenter, had a story similar to Crystal’s. It opened Transchel’s eyes to what she’d heard and discussed elsewhere.

“I went, Of course it happens here,” Transchel recalled. “It happens everywhere else, why not here? We don’t like to think that it does, but it does.”

As S.T.O.P.’s conferences became annual events—though perhaps not in the coming year (see sidebar)—speakers in the field of human trafficking would join faculty such as Transchel, who also started talking to community groups such as Soroptimists and Rotary.

“Every time I spoke, someone would come up to me and say, ‘Yeah, that’s bullshit, it doesn’t happen here,’” she said. “No, it does. I have now, in the past six years, personally met and heard the stories of at least 20 people who have been trafficked in Chico.”

Ramsey knows it happens here, too. He described trafficking victims as “hiding in plain sight,” which happens to match the title of the talk Transchel delivers around town.

“It’s one of those things we’re constantly watching [in law enforcement],” Ramsey said. “We’re hoping we’re not deluding ourselves that we don’t have as big a problem as the big cities, but we’re always ready to be unfortunately surprised.”

Even several years removed from her ordeal, Crystal still deals with effects.

Memory triggers abound. She predominantly was trafficked in Chico—a city small enough that she’ll come face-to-face with men from the motel rooms. She even encounters her trafficker. Certain cars, certain songs on the radio …

“It’s really hard trying to be an upstanding member of the community [when] constantly being reminded of this kind of shit,” Crystal said. “Some days are a lot easier than others. My life is relatively good, except for that, and that can pop up any time.”

She completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at Chico State, remaining active with S.T.O.P., but only Lalich (and later Transchel) knew her story. Crystal sublimated her emotions and personal connection while working on the group’s outreach efforts. To this day, not even her relatives or friends know.

“A big problem in this is people aren’t willing to speak up,” she said. “I mean, here I am years later and not really talking about it. It’s difficult.”

Crystal did tell her partner, with whom she has a child—her second. She felt it was important to disclose her full history so he “could make an informed decision of what this looks like in my daily life and how it still affects me.” Between bracing him and speaking with the CN&R, the only others she apprised were health professionals at a conference out of the area, whom she knew she’d never see again.

“I don’t want to have to explain how it all went down without sounding like a complete idiot: why it went on for so long and why didn’t I leave,” she explained. “Just like any other abusive relationship.”

What hits her especially hard—“really hurts my soul”—is the guilt she feels regarding fellow victims. Crystal says she “was asked to keep an eye on or train” other women under her trafficker’s control. She never physically abused anyone, just as she was not physically abused, but that does not lessen her regret or remorse.

Breaking down into tears, she said: “I just feel I was part of this awful thing, hurt people, not on purpose—basically being required to do all these things if I was going to be in his good graces. Taking responsibility for your own actions is one thing, but when you perpetrate negative shit on other people, it’s really hard to get over.”

She’s working on that. Crystal has undergone therapy, though the specific modalities for human trafficking victims are hard to find outside urban areas. (CSEC’s next step is identifying such resources.) She works in the mental health field and advocates to combat trafficking.

Her big message: prevention. She encourages parents, in particular, to educate children and teens about predatory dangers. Also, to support the young and the vulnerable.

“Though I was never held at gunpoint or had anything like that happen, I’m still traumatized from it, and it follows you for a long time,” Crystal said. “Teach your kids that they’re worth more than whatever someone’s offering them, whether it’s a relationship or a new car. Teach kids self worth, respect and how to stand up for themselves.

“So many kids go out into the world unprepared for what it’s really like,” she added. “That’s where you lose em.”