She was a 16-year-old California girl looking for trouble on MySpace; he was a 22-year-old self-described pimp who liked the revealing photos she posted to her profile. Three weeks after they met on the social networking site, they were arrested together in real life outside a cheap motel in Sacramento, 50 miles from her home. She was turning tricks. On her arm, a fresh tattoo showed bundles of cash and her new acquaintance’s street moniker in 72-point cursive.
Last week, Marvin Chavelle Epps was held without bail on federal child pornography charges over a video found at his arrest, in which the girl is seen performing a sex act on him while he calls her “bitch” and slaps her in the head with a roll of bills. Though the girl, identified as “S.M.” in court documents, denied to police that he was her manager, by his own account Epps is a new kind of pimp — a web-savvy exploiter who uses sites like myRedBook and Craigslist to broker his women.
“I don’t put girls on the blade,” he wrote an associate in a chat log recovered by police. “It’s Y2K pimpin’.”
“Get some professional, beautiful, elegant, glamor shots, put ’em on these escort websites, and her phone gone slap,” Epps wrote.
Epps’ indictment highlights what experts say is an alarming trend of sexual traffickers using the internet to fill both the supply and demand sides of their business, recruiting troubled teenagers over online chat systems and social networking sites, then renting them out through adult ads on websites.
“We have a bunch of fake MySpace accounts that we go after pimps with,” says Shaun King, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Juvenile Prostitution unit. “Pretty quickly, if they get a vibe that you’re open to such things, they’ll draw you in…. We’ve had pimps buy us bus tickets.”
Police and child protection agencies don’t track recruitment sources, so there are no hard figures on the number of child sex-trafficking cases like these. But there’s broad consensus among law enforcement and child-protection groups that incidents of online recruitment are growing.
“We’re seeing kids who are getting into this stuff that do not match society’s stereotype,” says Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC. “These are not just kids in poor families who have no other options. We’re seeing kids from the full spectrum of society, and a lot of that is due to recruitment over the internet.”
That doesn’t mean, Allen and others say, that online recruitment can turn a happy kid into a prostitute by magic. But the internet is providing pimps with access to a vastly larger pool of troubled minors than they’ve had access to before.
Last June, a 14-year-old Ohio girl ran away with a 30-year-old Florida pimp named Alan Townsend, after meeting him on the social networking site Urbanchat.com. According to court records, Townsend used his senior prostitute, 27-year-old Courtney Shine, to gain the victim’s trust and convince her that a career in modeling awaited if she drove with them to Florida.
Once they were on the road, Townsend let the teenager in on his plans to turn her into a prostitute. When she protested, he slapped her. After a tense drive to Orlando, the girl eventually slipped away and called her mother and the police using a borrowed cell phone. Townsend and Shine pleaded guilty to federal child sex-trafficking charges in December.
“This happens, and it happens a lot more than people realize,” says Parry Aftab, founder and director of WiredSafety, which advises children on internet risks. “We don’t want to terrify parents. But if their kids are at risk, they’re at more risk online.”
Even when children are recruited into a prostitution ring offline, they invariably wind up on the internet, thanks to a crop of websites that run advertisements for erotic services. Specialty adult sites like myRedBook and Eros.com have popped up in some cases, but the most common online outlet for underage prostitution appears to have been Craigslist, which played a prominent role in at least eight federal child sex-trafficking prosecutions filed in the last 12 months.
Responding to pressure from the NCMEC and the attorneys general of 40 states, Craigslist placed new limits on its adult ads last November. Among other reforms, the site now charges $5 for the formerly free postings, allowing it to collect and store the poster’s credit card number and name, making it available to law enforcement subpoenas in any future criminal investigation.
Nevertheless, a month after the measure was adopted, an underage girl missing from New Jersey turned up in a prostitution post on Craigslist. Police spotted her nude photo in an ad offering in-call services in Miami, 1,200 miles away from her home. She was rescued, and her alleged pimp, Ali Hakim, was indicted last month on sex trafficking and related charges.
As pimps get wired, law enforcement is adapting. Police now routinely obtain search warrants for suspects’ computers, digital cameras and cellphones, and search for their presence on social networking websites. Sometimes they get lucky. When federal agents in Detroit located the MySpace profile of suspected Craigslist pimp Dennis “Detroit Slim” Paige, they found his friendslist loaded with links to his alleged prostitutes and his embedded music player cued to a track in which Paige sings about the pleasures of life as a pimp.
Paige’s alleged associate Robert “Motor City Mink” Daniels even had a MySpace page promoting his “escort” service, and a page on the social networking site BlackPlanet.com “looking for girls who want to make money!!!!” Both pages live on, even after a federal jury convicted Daniels in October of running a prostitution ring with 90 women, including nine juveniles. He faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison when he’s sentenced in March.
In December, a task force commissioned by 49 state attorneys general concluded that the danger to kids from online predators is not very high. WiredSafety’s Aftab worked on the report, which was overseen by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She stands by the commission’s findings, and says offline dangers to children are still much greater than online threats.
But Aftab adds that children who are already at risk of recruitment into prostitution face increased danger on the web, which offers a megaphone through which kids unwittingly announce their vulnerability to the world.
“They may post sexual images,” she says. “They may indicate that they’re up for anything. They may indicate that they’re more mature, and know a lot more things than anybody around them appreciates…. And like a weak fish broadcasting to a shark, they broadcast their vulnerability to sexual predators, pimps and sexual traffickers.”
A review of S.M.’s MySpace profile, which lists her age as 19, suggests she fits that description to a tee. When she set up the account last July, the Stockton, California, girl immediately blogged that she was looking for someone to sell her pot and MDMA. A couple of months later, she shared that she’d just been arrested on drug possession charges. “I’m a lot more hood than you think,” she wrote one of her 1,000 MySpace friends.
Her profile picture shows her smiling sweetly in a composite of four studio head shots that look they’re from a junior high yearbook shoot. But inside her public photo gallery, she’s seen in a variety of provocative poses, and it’s as hard to find a smile as it is clothing.
In early October, Epps friended S.M. and began posting flattering comments about her pictures. She moved him to the top of her friends lists and joined him in Sacramento. On October 7, she began appearing on adult escort websites, with photos, measurements and a menu of sexual services. A slew of reviews on the escort site myRedBook are all positive. (The site did not respond to a request for comment.) The Northern California man who had the misfortune to inherit one of her old cellphone numbers says it never stops ringing. “People call for this woman off the hook,” says the man.
Epps’ lawyer says she can not comment on the case.
Like her MySpace profile, S.M.’s ads claim that she’s an adult. When a federal vice task force working a sting spotted her and Epps outside the Super 8 motel on October 22, she definitely wasn’t dressed like a kid. “She was wearing a tight red shirt, very short miniskirt and 4-inch high heel shoes,” wrote Sacramento Police detective Jeff Morris, in a court affidavit. But the police weren’t fooled, “The minor had acne which was consistent with a teenager’s acne.”
The police brought her and Epps in for questioning, then released them while the task force continued to investigate. The girl took a hiatus from the online prostitution sites for a month, then showed up on myRedBook in December with a new cellphone number.
She has since vanished again, and could not be reached for comment.
It’d be quite interesting to be a fly on the wall when she is explaining the tattoo to her grandkids.
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