Selling Girls: sex trafficking in East Texas

"If you're looking for the girl who's kidnapped, thrown into the back of a van or held against her will, you're going to miss it."

Sex trafficking in East Texas

TYLER - Hundreds of girls are being sold for sex in East Texas, according to Tyler police.

CBS19 went out to areas of East Texas where we were told sex trafficking happens. For three hours, we sat, watched and came up with nothing big. While we did see suspicious activity, we can’t say for sure it’s related to sex trafficking.

Experts said that is exactly why it’s a problem that’s hard to fix. You can’t see it.

"You've got the clubs, and you've got the seedy motels, and you've got this intersection,” said Julie Rigsby, the CEO of the non-profit group For the Silent.

Based in Tyler, the group’s mission is to protect kids and teenagers against sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

Rigsby said you may see some unusual activity in areas, but it isn’t common.

"If you're looking for the girl who's kidnapped, thrown into the back of a van or held against her will, you're going to miss it."

That’s because it’s all happening online.

Rigsby monitors a website called Backpage, which is similar to Craigslist, but for dating. Looking at the site daily, she checks for hints like "petite," "fresh” or "new in town".  

Looking at adds online, she said it’s common to see girls without showing their faces, which is one way buyers disguise the girls.

She and her husband Kenny Rigsby run For the Silent.  The two conducted a study testing the demand in East Texas.  

They created a decoy ad on Backpage, posing as an underage girl in Tyler looking for sex.

"It was one add among 50 on Backpage that day,” Julie said. “Within the first 24 hours, it received over 160 replies from local Tyler Johns and buyers."

One hundred and sixty men tried to purchase an underage girl for sex in just 24 hours.

"In our community, we do have a very high level of demand for prostitution,” said Kenny. "Young women and young girls are not lining up at the door, volunteering to be prostitutes."

For the Silent works closely with Tyler police to try and rescue victims and prosecute the sellers.

"We've literally talked to hundreds and hundreds of females in the life in Tyler, Smith County, Texas,” said Detective Jeff Roberts, who works for the Tyler Police Department.

Regardless of the victims he talks to, her story always started at an early age. Sometimes, as young as 9 years old.

He said it’s hard for law enforcement to catch buyers or sellers, primarily because this is what he calls a “victim crime”.

"A victim doesn't always identify as a victim in this process,” Roberts said.

Detective Roberts said the internet is making it harder to catch buyers or sellers, and it’s also increased the demand for sex.

"Instant access with our cell phones has created an opportunity for someone who may have been hesitant to get involved or be a part of the crime, it's now the easy access that allows it to happen so easily in our community,” he said

Roberts said it’s also made the crowd younger than it’s ever been. He is now seeing high school students buying sex.

He said he goes out into the community looking for trafficking, and really becomes one with the community, building relationships with local organizations and hotel owners.

"Take a second look at this,” Julie said. “Realize that even though it looks like these girls are just working, and they're willing, you're oftentimes not seeing what's really beneath the surface."

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