Truckers train to help rescue sex slaves on the road

Truckers are looking out for sex trafficking

Kansas is working with the advocacy group Truckers Against Trafficking to make drivers alert to the exploitation of sex slaves.
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Kansas is working with the advocacy group Truckers Against Trafficking to make drivers alert to the exploitation of sex slaves.

Just for a second the black drape covering a window of a parked recreational vehicle flew back, revealing the face of a gaunt young woman inside.

She was jerked away and the curtain closed. Witnessing this from his rig at a truckers’ rest area in Virginia, long-hauler Kevin Kimmel thought a while and punched 911 on his cell.

“There’s something strange going on,” he said.

Kimmel’s watchful eyes and simple phone call rescued a 20-year-old Iowa woman from the clutches of modern-day slave owners who tortured her into having sex with strangers.

A group called Truckers Against Trafficking — that’s human sex trafficking — honored Kimmel of Tavares, Fla., with its 2015 Harriet Tubman Award.

And Kansas authorities have taken notice: With 28,000 commercial truckers living in the state and maybe a million more regularly crisscrossing through, why not rely on their eyes, ears and instincts to just make a call?

If they knew the telltale signs of sex trafficking, maybe they could help break up a ring, even save a life.

Last month, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced that law enforcement and the Kansas Motor Carriers Association were partnering with the nonprofit Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), similar to a relationship Missouri officials struck with TAT a few years back.

The goal is to train commercial drivers to be alert to a national problem that most other motorists aren’t even thinking about.

“America in general doesn’t want to admit this (sexual slavery) is happening,” Kimmel told The Kansas City Star last week as he hauled a load of rubber products through southern Missouri.

“It’s everywhere,” he said.

In large cities and small. Around crowded sporting events, according to anti-trafficking groups such as the Polaris Project, which operates a 24/7 hotline.

Near bus stops and railroad stations. Outside business conventions.

But where commercial drivers can help the most is at the truck stop.

That’s where sex traffickers fuel up. It’s where some will camp out, amid rows of resting tractor-trailers, while their slaves seek business.

214,000Truckers, law enforcement and truck-stop workers trained by TAT to spot suspicious activity

1,370Calls by truckers to national hotline since 2011

425Likely trafficking rings identified by truckers

744Trafficking victims rescued

249Minors removed from sex trafficking rings

In the middle of the country, Kansas City always has been a transportation hub, a crossroads. It’s also a logical place for haulers to spend the night — typically in their rigs at truck stops. All of that heightens the potential for sex trafficking, an industry constantly on the move to dodge suspicion.

Truckers need to help cops stop it, Schmidt said.

“Human trafficking is one of those crimes where awareness really does make a difference,” he said. “It’s a crime done in the shadows, even if those shadows are right under our noses.

“It’s not a difficult concept: There are more truckers out on the roads, streets and highways than any other group of people, including law enforcement.”

They just need to watch for suspicious activity — a lone SUV squeezed into a line of big rigs, for example.

Or a crude tattoo on a young person’s neck, a kind of cattle brand administered by the trafficker. Or that lost, where-am-I look on a teen girl who enters a diner with men.

Victim rescue

Twenty-two U.S. states, including Missouri, already have adopted at least portions of what TAT calls the “Iowa model.”

If motorists to Des Moines or Iowa City look around the travel plazas and rest areas, they’re apt to see posters depicting sullen girls and young women, which may puzzle them at first.

Near the road map rack might be a stack of fliers featuring TAT’s steering-wheel logo and urging, “Make the Call, Save Lives. 1-888-373-7888.”

In Iowa, all officers at weigh stations are trained to know signs of sex trafficking. David Lorenzen, chief of motor vehicle enforcement for the Iowa Department of Transportation, travels the state attending trafficking awareness events at truck stops. He has manned an information booth at the Iowa State Fair.

“Very few truckers here are unaware of the program,” Lorenzen said.

One reason for that: The 20-year-old victim saved when trucker Kimmel called police lived just outside Des Moines, where her three-week-long nightmare began.

In late 2014, she accepted a ride from a couple — Aldair Hodza, 36, and Laura Sorensen, 31 — offering to take her to visit relatives on the East Coast. What followed would sicken even the most avid fans of horror films.

According to news accounts of the couple’s conviction last summer, the torture included nailing the victim’s feet to the RV floor, pouring bleach into her wounds, dragging her by a leash down gravel roads and burning heated keys into her skin.

To show what he might do if the woman were to escape, Hodza had her watch him slit the throat of a dog brought into the RV.

The slave’s services were advertised on Craigslist postings as the RV moved from state to state.

She was malnourished and near death when police responded to Kimmel’s call at the Virginia truck stop. They told the trucker, “She wouldn’t have lasted another 48 hours.”

Hodza was sentenced to 42 years in prison. Sorensen, 40 years. And Iowans learned a lesson about what many may have considered unthinkable, at least in their tall-corn part of the heartland.

“Yeah, it resonates now with these people,” enforcer Lorenzen said.

A Truckers Against Trafficking training video tells drivers and truck-stop employees to not intervene if they see suspicious activity. Just make a call.

In the first two years of the group’s existence, calls from commercial drivers to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline numbered only four, total. But after that training video began circulating among carrier companies in 2011 and instructional posters and wallet cards started appearing at truck-stop chains that work with TAT, the number of reports ballooned.

Since 2011, America’s truckers have placed more than 1,370 calls to the human trafficking hotline. TAT estimates those reports led to 425 likely cases of sex trafficking being broken up or disrupted. More than 740 victims, a third of them minors, have been freed from bondage, the group says.

And the hotline’s figures are likely dwarfed by calls to 911, a far better-known reporting option for truckers.

Ohio this summer will become the first U.S. state that will require TAT training before truckers can get their commercial driver’s licenses. Kansas is considering a similar rule.

Trucker lookout

At Topeka, independent trucker Tim Woods passes weekly through the Kansas Turnpike Authority’s I-70 service area with hay bales tied down to his flatbed.

“Trucking is a different world. You see and hear a lot of crazy stuff,” said Woods, of Maysville, Ohio. “I avoid those truck stops with a reputation,” which he said are relatively few, especially in rural regions he travels.

Traffickers prefer crowds.

“I’m a people-watcher. I look out for things like trafficking,” he said.

“Most of these truckers are all about their kids, because so many have to be away from their families more than they’d like. I have a 16-year-old daughter myself, and if someone harmed her that way …?”

He shook his head as if waking from a bad dream. “I’d kill.”

At the next I-70 service area to the east, Bobby Rigdon recalled a time years ago when he had a knock on his rig’s door at a Kansas City-area truck stop. A woman offered what sex slaves coyly call “commercial company.”

She appeared to have two blackened eyes. Rigdon, who usually travels with his wife, said no but wonders now why he didn’t call police.

It’s rare and seemingly getting more rare to see the obvious trafficking operations where young and possibly enslaved persons move from rig to rig, Rigdon said. He has been trucking for more than 30 years. Traffickers might be learning “we’re paying more attention,” he said.

And in recent years drivers have become more inclined to suspect that those making offers are being forced to do it, he said. They may not be willing prostitutes.

“Truckers Against Trafficking has really changed that conversation,” said Mark Reddig, who reports on the trucking industry as host of the daily radio show “Land Line Now.” It broadcasts from the national headquarters of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, located east of Kansas City at I-70 Exit 24.

“We used to have this talk about ‘lot lizards.’ That was trucker parlance for prostitutes working truck stops,” Reddig said. “Now they’re viewed as victims of human trafficking. That’s a massive leap in language in just a few years.”

At a growing number of truck stops the employees have made the leap, too.

Since 2011, the truck stop chain TravelCenters of America, or TA, has been training all existing and new employees to recognize suspicious behavior and report it to authorities.

“We haven’t had dozens and dozens of these scenarios crop up,” said company vice president Tom Liutkus. “But in the handful of situations where we made the call, I think it was the right decision.”

Florida, California and the upper East Coast rank high in the number of trucker reports of suspected human trafficking. The Kansas City area, a crossroads for all forms of transportation, figures prominently as well, according to hotline calls tabulated by Polaris, a global nonprofit combating sexual slavery.

“People look at the number of reports out of Florida and think, that’s terrible. No, Florida is awesome,” said TAT deputy director Kylla Lanier. “It says the truckers there are aware and on the lookout.”

Beth Jacobs wishes that had been the case a few decades back.

A field trainer in Tucson, Ariz., for TAT, Jacobs, 52, said she was abducted at age 16 and held as a sex slave for six years.

At her first forced gig at a truck stop in the Chicago area, the buyer demanded his money back from the trafficker because young Beth yelled and cried throughout the rape.

Truckers in rigs parked nearby watched as the trafficker and buyer argued, she said.

But that was the 1980s: No cellphones, no talk of “human trafficking” and little compassion for teens turning tricks.

“Back then those truck drivers didn’t know what to do,” Jacobs said.

“If they had known what to do, I think they would’ve reported it and saved me. I really believe that.”

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r