Girls forced into prostitution face a harsh reality on Reno streets
By the age of 14, Leah Albright-Byrd said she had spent most of her life with an abusive and violent father, and a mother who went from relationship to relationship. The last straw for her was a screaming match with her father in the car. She claims he stopped the car, pulled her out, and choked her until she almost blacked out.
“That was it, I wasn’t going to stay around for any more of that,” Albright-Byrd said.
So she called her best friend, who was also 14 and living in a tough family situation, and the two of them ran away. They spent the next several weeks living with different friends and sleeping on floors in strangers’ homes.
“The guys are watching for girls who are vulnerable, and when you don’t have any money, a home or anyone watching out for you, you like the attention they start giving you,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Albright-Byrd was put into the Game—as illegal prostitution is known among its practitioners. For the next four years, she worked the streets, living with the same pimp for most of that time. She believed her pimp when he told her that “once a ho, always a ho,” and she became embroiled in a life of sex, drugs and physical abuse.
“Pimps use a lot of psychology to keep you with them,” Albright-Byrd said. “At first they tell you they love you and that they will take care of you. Then they will beat you, and they won’t give you any of the money you earned, but you look for those moments when they are nice to you, and you do everything you can to please them, so they will be good to you.”
During those four years, Albright-Byrd worked in Sacramento and Reno, as well as other cities in California. She cruised the casinos and walked the streets, looking to make eye contact with interested men.
“Downtown Reno was pretty disgusting,” she said. “There were a lot of drugs being sold on the streets and plenty of johns willing to pick you up.”
At 18, Albright-Byrd finally had enough. She started taking classes at a community college in Sacramento. Her pimp followed her and started taking classes as well, which was hard on her. One day, a classmate found her crying and asked what was wrong. Albright-Byrd decided to trust her and eventually told her story. The friend invited her to church, and she began a journey that she described as “an encounter with a divine power higher than herself.”
Albright-Byrd eventually received a dual degree in theology and psychiatry. She spent time as a drug and alcohol counselor and is now the executive director of a non-profit that reaches out to young prostitutes to help get them off the streets and educates the community about the crime and its victims. But some of her own psychological scars will never heal. When Albright-Byrd was 15, she and her cousin brought 14-year-old Bridget Gray into the Game.
“Bridget had lived in about 10 foster homes, and she wanted to belong to something, so it was easy to talk her into joining the life,” Albright-Byrd said.
Several years after getting out, Albright-Byrd was still in touch with Gray, who had also gotten out of the game. The last time she spoke with Gray was January 2006, when Gray was in Las Vegas.
“I don’t know how she ended up in Las Vegas, but when I talked with her, she said she was making some money and that she would be home soon,” Albright-Byrd said. “I told her to call me when she got back, but she never did.”
On March 3, 2006, Gray’s naked body was found dumped in the hallway of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. James David Flansburg had strangled her during a sex act. Flansburg is serving time in the Nevada State Prison on charges of second degree murder, doing 10 years to life with the possibility of parole. He is currently not up for parole. Albright-Byrd thought a lot about her friend because she had sold her the dream of a better life through prostitution, and in 2011, Albright-Byrd started her nonprofit, Bridget’s Dream. Reno’s mean streets
It may be that legal prostitution in Nevada has skewed Nevadans’ ideas of what illegal prostitution is, what it looks like, and especially where it happens. Right this minute, it’s happening downtown, and while there are many traditional streetwalkers, the face of prostitution also includes girls as young as 12. According to FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in the United States in 2011, there were 763 children under the age of 18 arrested for prostitution and commercialized vice.
Sgt. Ron Chalmers, supervisor of the Street Enforcement Team (SET) for the Reno Police Department, said that the business of prostitution has dramatically changed with the use of the internet and cell phones. Chalmers and his team are charged with stopping prostitution—among the crimes that used to be known as “vice”—as well as handling all street-level issues with drugs, underage drinking and helping other jurisdictions when drugs come through our area. It’s a job that keeps Chalmers and his associates busy.
Across the country, gangs have found that selling sex is much more lucrative than selling drugs. After all, a gram of meth or an ounce of marijuana can only be sold once, while a girl can be sold for sex over and over again. Usually, a pimp will drive a few girls in from another state or city, ads will be run on adult internet sites like My Red Book or Backpage, the john will call for a date, and then he’ll meet the prostitute in a local hotel room.
“We constantly search these sites to see who’s advertising in Reno, and if we think the girl is underage, we’ll call her and set up a sting,” Chalmers said.
Reno is on the map for many large events, like Hot August Nights, the balloon and air races, and others. Special events bring in lots of tourists, as well as lots of prostitutes, and the SET team prioritizes finding prostitutes before and during these events.
“We want visitors to have a good experience when they come to Reno,” Chalmers said. “We don’t want them to see underage prostitutes or drug deals on every street corner, so we do a lot of work before these big events.”
While it’s impossible to know the exact number of girls working in Reno, there are underage girls working every single night. In its first year of existence, Awaken Reno—a non-profit group that works with girls trying to get out of the Game—had contact with 40 girls under the age of 18. Although some of the girls are locals, Chalmers said that most of the underage girls are brought in from other places. Thus, there’s no exact method to determine how long the girls stay in the area, or if they come and go on a regular basis. It is clear, however, that many aspects of the Reno business and tourism economy benefit from the illegal activity.
Prostitutes—particularly underage ones—are treated as victims and not as criminals. Law enforcement didn’t always handle it that way.
“Chances are that these girls left abusive home lives, only to be abused by their pimp,” Chalmers said. “The pimps keep them close, keeping all of their identification and not giving them any money. The pimp does tell his girls that he loves them, he tells them that only he cares about them, and he tells them they have nothing else they can do because once they become a whore, they will always be a whore. So when we get to them, we want them to know they have been abused, they are a victim of this pimp and not a criminal, and that we really want to help them.”
When a girl and her pimp are arrested, Chalmers said it is imperative to separate the girl from her pimp, to try to reach out to the girl and to provide services that will help her get out of the Game. Chalmers said that this isn’t an easy accomplishment.
“It’s like Stockholm Syndrome in that the girl believes her pimp loves her, and she wants to get back to him as quickly as possible because he needs her,” he said. “So we keep the girl in jail for several days in order to break the pattern she’s been living.”
In jail, the girls are provided with clothes and personal hygiene products, and they meet with people from the community who understand their plight and offer a way out of prostitution. They also get regular meals and sleep, which they likely have not been getting on the streets. Once they’ve been away from their pimps for a while, they are more open to seeing that they are indeed victims.A twisted world of
supply and demand
It’s been said time and time again that prostitution is the oldest profession. As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply. In Nevada’s small county brothels, the legal “supply” is considered safe for both the girls and the johns. Laws require the use of condoms, girls receive regular medical testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and rooms have panic buttons that can be pushed if the john becomes violent. The women are old enough to work legally in brothels, and society sees it as their choice.
On the streets, there are variables. Pimps run the girls—STD checks are few and far between, both johns and prostitutes get beaten up or robbed—and the girls are sometimes under the age of 18, not legally competent to make a choice to go into prostitution. If a john is picked up for solicitation, he receives a misdemeanor citation, which means he could go to jail and pay a fine up to $1,000. Usually, he just pays a fine and goes on his way. Pimps take a bigger risk. Just recently, an alleged pimp from Reno was indicted by the federal grand jury on a sex trafficking charge for transporting a 15-year-old girl from Bakersfield, Calif., to Reno.
Vernon McCullum, III, a.k.a “Fifth,” 20, of Reno, was indicted on one count of illegal transportation of a minor for prostitution or other illegal sexual activity. McCullum faces a minimum of 10 years to life in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. He pled not guilty.
“The community needs to really look at this situation,” said Carla Higginbotham, assistant United States attorney for the state of Nevada. “These are men who are paying for sex with a teenage girl. If they were doing that in their home with a neighborhood child, they would be prosecuted and rightly shunned as pedophiles and sex offenders.”
Higginbotham works in the division that deals with all forms of human trafficking and is part of the community team working to stop underage prostitution. She said that the community’s sensitivity and awareness to sex trafficking have to be intensified.
Other agencies support Higginbotham’s assertions.
Melissa Holland is the executive director for Awaken Reno. She explained that surveys, which included men from the University of Nevada, Reno, show that most men look at prostitution as a good thing, something that actually deter men from raping women.
“That just proves we have a long way to go in educating people about sex crimes, especially that rape and prostitution are entirely different crimes,” Holland said.
Chalmers said that tough laws must be written to break the “demand” part of the equation, and there must be harsh punishments to deter pimps and johns from the crime. He said that opportunity will arise when Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto presents A.B. 67 to the Nevada State Legislature this month. That law makes big changes in how sex traffickers will be prosecuted by increasing penalties and widening the definition of human and sex trafficking.
“A criminal knows that if he uses a gun when he commits a crime, the penalties will be harsher—we need for the same thing to happen in sex crimes, in that if a john has sex with a minor, he’s going to pay a heavy price,” Chalmers said.
Michon Martin, assistant attorney general for Nevada, said the changes broaden and modernize existing laws and brings them into alignment with other states. The attorney general’s office has been working with a variety of players from law enforcement, public defenders, prosecutors and advocacy groups to target specific changes that will make it more difficult to traffic young girls in Nevada.
“The other side of this is that we have to educate the public that this is happening to our children,” Martin said. “This is our problem.”Places to turn
Holland has worked to educate the residents of Washoe County about what is happening right under their noses. She and FBI agent Tiffany Short collaborate with local law enforcement and are usually called in as soon as a girl is arrested. Together they help provide some basic necessities, and they work with local agencies to get the girl home or to a safe location.
“We provide whatever they need, like bus tickets and housing, so they can get away from their pimp and hopefully back into a supportive environment,” said Holland.
Awaken Reno has a network of professionals who donate services to the girls, such as medical care, counseling and dental services. Even local tattoo artists have donated their services to cover brands and tattoos that the pimp may have forced a girl to get.
“Just like slavery, some of these pimps brand their girls so that others will know who the girl belongs to,” said Holland. “Having that brand gone makes a big difference in helping the girls feel free from that life.”
Advocates say that education also needs to happen in the schools, just like drug and alcohol programs and sex education programs. Children need to understand how they can be lured into being trafficked for sex. Short has spoken with school counselors, and has been asked to speak at some local high schools. Short and Holland hope that junior high schools will call on them for information. Police sergeant Chalmers said that school education is necessary, but the father of two also has some concerns about what is age-appropriate.
“I try to teach my kids about bad things and how to avoid them, and while I know this is happening all the time because I see it happen, I really don’t know what is a good age to try to explain this to them,” Chalmers said.
A summit has been planned in Carson City on Feb. 11, which has been proclaimed Nevada Advocacy Day by Gov. Brian Sandoval. Several people and agencies expect to develop ways to inform Nevadans about sex trafficking.
Albright-Byrd spends her days speaking to service organizations, churches and law enforcement about her life in the Game, how she got out and how she became a survivor. Twice a month, she and a team of volunteers hit the streets of Sacramento armed with cookies, brownies and information, in hopes of taking even one girl off the streets. She knows about 80 percent of the girls who leave go back to the Game.
“I know from when I was a drug and alcohol counselor that there is a big difference in being sober and being in recovery—you can be sober and not be in recovery,” Albright-Byrd said. “So many of these girls might leave for a while, but they find the pain and struggle of the real world to be too much, so they go back to their pimps, and they lose touch with reality.”
Through Bridget’s Dream, she hopes to build a transition house where girls can get away from their pimps while learning how to go from being a victim to being a survivor.
Though most victims come from broken homes and bad living situations. Albright-Byrd has also seen girls from caring homes get trafficked. She wants to educate parents about what signs to look for, as well as educate girls about not becoming victims.
“When I have my own kids, I’ll be watching everything they do and making sure they do what’s right,” Albright-Byrd said. “My mother knew where I was and what I was doing because I told her, and even though she would come visit me, she did nothing to help get me out. I won’t let that happen to my kids.”