LAS VEGAS — Before he stopped his car, the man wanted a better look at the young women on the sidewalk.
It was just before 11 on a sweltering summer night, when he knew he could find what he was looking for a few blocks from the Las Vegas Strip. He slowed in front of a Motel 6 and peered at the three thin, barely covered bodies. Teenagers. He was sure of it.
The man rolled down his passenger-side window, as he had so many times before.
“No hablo Inglés,” he said, as a girl in a tight, pink dress stepped forward.
She was petite and Black, with brown eyes magnified by extra-long fake eyelashes. She didn’t seem as young as the Hispanic-looking girl behind her, but the man wasn’t going to be picky.
He motioned for what he wanted and promised he wasn’t a cop. The girl opened his car door, telling him it would be $80.
“Ochenta? Si,” he agreed. He pulled away from the curb. In Spanish, he told her how pretty she was. He didn’t say where he was taking her.
She tried to use an app on her phone to translate, but a minute later the man steered into the lot of another motel.
He parked. The girl turned toward him. Then, she whipped her head around. Someone was outside the open car window, waving something in her face.
“Police,” the stranger announced, showing her a badge.
“Oh my God,” the girl gasped. The driver had lied. He wasn’t a buyer, but an undercover detective. The girl was ordered to scoot forward and put her arms behind her back. The handcuffs closed around her wrists.
She was the third person that evening to be arrested by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s vice operation, which tries to stop prostitution in a place where tourists often mistakenly believe it is legal. Seven nights a week, undercover officers fan out to cover casinos, strip clubs and street corners, using beards, tattoos and fake accents to evade detection, then arrest women when they agree to a price.
Stings like these are becoming rarer as police departments turn away from criminalizing people who may be pushed into the sex trade by desperation — or by a human trafficker.
Teenagers, especially those in poverty or the foster-care system, are particularly vulnerable. Traffickers pose as trusted adults or befriend them on social media, then manipulate them to be sold for sexual abuse.
Under federal law, these children are victims, not criminals.
Yet every year, kids who have been sex trafficked are detained and charged with crimes.
At least 290 minors were arrested for a prostitution-related offense in 2019, the most recent year national data is available. Forty were 14 or younger.
The state that arrested the most kids — at least 110 — was Nevada. Here, the multibillion-dollar casino industry has long been a magnet for traffickers, like the one who brought the girl in the pink dress to the Motel 6.
Now she was standing in the headlights of a police car, watching detectives dig through her rhinestone-crusted purse. It contained a motel card and condoms, but no ID. The girl told the detectives her name, which begins with a K. The Washington Post, which witnessed her arrest, is identifying her only by her first initial, because she is a minor and the victim of sex crimes.
K told the officers she was 18, but when asked her birth date, she miscalculated, saying she was born in 2001.
“I know you’re not telling the truth,” said Richard Leung, a vice squad sergeant. He reminded her that lying to the police was a crime. “So how old are you?”
K looked down at her fuzzy sandals.
“I’m 16,” she said.
The sergeant wasn’t surprised. He and his colleagues had arrested girls as young as 11. Most were Black. Most had been written off as “runaways.” And here was another: A quick search showed K had been missing for more than a year.
“I cannot be under arrest for prostitution, I’m a minor,” she snapped. She sounded confident, and he knew why. At least 10 states had passed laws that children could not be arrested for solicitation or prostitution. Nevada was not one of them.
“You’re not in California,” Leung explained. “So unfortunately, you are under arrest.”
In Las Vegas, more than a decade of attempts to fund a safe, secure refuge for trafficked children had failed. Instead, K was about to be taken to the place where hundreds of victimized kids before her had been sent.
“Can I call my mother?” she asked. Not yet, she was told. Then her guarded expression was gone. She looked afraid. With her wrists still cuffed behind her waist, K was guided back into the car of the undercover detective.
“Do you enjoy doing this? I wouldn’t enjoy doing something like this,” the detective remembered telling her.
“I don’t,” K answered, and then he drove her through the gate to the juvenile jail.
‘What’s going on’
First, the buyers were the railroad workers and ranchers, frequenting saloons that sold more than liquor. Then came the builders of the Hoover Dam, bringing their paychecks and preferences to the town known for “lewd women.” Soon there were mobsters and casino builders, gamblers and tourists, vacationers promised “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” and bachelor parties wanting to live out scenes from “The Hangover.”
For as long as Las Vegas has occupied its unique place in American culture, it has profited from the promise of sex for sale.
Yet in the 1990s, before child sex trafficking emerged as a prominent cause for celebrities and elected officials, Las Vegas also became one of the first places in the country with a police unit designed to go after child traffickers, an effort with a now cringe-inducing name: “Stop Turning Out Child Prostitutes.”
Today, the police department’s child exploitation task force, which works in tandem with the FBI, is made up of four detectives on call for the moment when yet another victimized kid is found. On the night K was arrested, it was Detective Maxwell Moore who cut short a late-night workout in his garage to go meet her.
Policing was Moore’s second career, after working as a wedding photographer at a drive-through chapel, capturing that classic Vegas scene over and over again. Now at 33, he was tasked with stopping something far uglier that happened every day here, too.
By the time Moore arrived at the jail, Leung’s squad had used the Motel 6 card in K’s purse to discover who paid for the room she was staying in: a 29-year-old with a history of violent robberies. California had a warrant out for his arrest. It listed him as “armed and dangerous.”
When this man checked into the motel, he told the front desk attendant he had a 16-year-old “sister” staying with him.
Moore’s phone rang. Leung had something else to share.
“They do check out tomorrow,” the sergeant said.
Moore knew what that meant. The vice squad had a shot at capturing the suspected trafficker and finding the two other young-looking girls K had been with. The more he could get her to talk, the better their chances.
“We’ll see where she is at, and I will call you as soon as I can,” Moore said.
He walked into the juvenile jail, familiar with its fluorescent lighting, beige cinder-block walls and metal benches bolted to the floor.
He’d met kids here who were being sold by their own parents, or were exchanging sex for food or a place to stay. He’d met boys and transgender victims. But most nights, the stories he found here were the same: A teen girl from Nevada or a nearby state, yearning for someone to care about her. And then into her life came a guy who told her that she was beautiful, that they could get rich together, that he would always protect her.
Soon she was speaking the language of “the life” or “the game.” She was calling him “daddy” or “king,” and talking about the “blade” or “track” she worked on, the “dates” she went on, how she was “unknockable” — as loyal as it gets.
These girls weren’t held hostage the way movie producers and online conspiracy theorists liked to imagine. They were carefully groomed into what Moore called “a trance.” Like victims of domestic violence, they became bonded to their own abusers.
To these girls, the detective was just a “square,” someone who wasn’t in the life and would never understand that they were making their own choices.
This is the main reason Vegas police insist on arresting children they acknowledge are victims. They believe if they take the kids home, or to the city’s unlocked child welfare facility, they will simply run back to those exploiting them.
By putting them in jail for a few days, officials argue, they are giving kids a chance to get away from their trafficker, get medical attention, connect with an advocate and come to the realization that they are being used and abused.
“I’m not here to judge your lifestyle,” Moore liked to tell the girls. “I just don’t want someone taking advantage of you.”
He would ask how much money they’d made and then say: “And how much do you have on you now?”
Even if he saw that moment of understanding in a girl’s eyes, he still had to persuade her to let him search her phone for evidence, tell him and others exactly what the trafficker had done to her, and then testify at a trial months away. Moore knew the likelihood of success: Of the 922 child-trafficking victims identified by Las Vegas police between 2011 and 2019, 152 of their cases resulted in a plea agreement or conviction of their trafficker at trial.
Advocates argue children would be more likely to participate if they weren’t also being put in jail.
But all Moore could do was try to convince K that even though his colleagues had just arrested her, he was on her side. He wore a baseball hat and a T-shirt that showed off the tattoos covering his forearms. On one, there was a pinup girl straddling a rocket. The detective believed his ink helped the girls see he was different from other cops.
He settled himself into an interview room, taking the padded desk chair and leaving a hard plastic chair open.
K appeared at the door. She had just been strip-searched. All of her possessions had been taken from her. Her pink dress had been traded for a sweatshirt and sweatpants.
“I’m Max,” the detective said. “I am here to talk to you about what’s going on.”
K sat down.
Seven minutes later, she was escorted away and Moore was on the phone with the sergeant.
“Probably one of the least cooperative ones we have ever dealt with,” he told Leung.
K wouldn’t answer his questions. She would barely look at him. When she started screaming about not wanting to be there, Moore gave up.
It was clear to him how deep she was in. Her 17th birthday was the next day. If she didn’t get out of “the life” now, there was a good chance she would spend her adult years being arrested again and again.
LEFT: Vice Sgt. Ina Rashell Zerbe tells an 18-year-old arrested for solicitation: “For the rest of your life, you are going to amount to nothing. … If you don’t stop now, you will wind up being a ho for the rest of your life.” (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) RIGHT: An 18-year-old caught by an undercover detective is handcuffed with a waist chain inside Caesars Palace. She was charged with solicitation and with being a minor in a gaming establishment. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
And once she turned 18, she could face fines of up to $1,000 or a maximum of six months in jail — even if they knew she was being victimized. Just that weekend, Moore’s colleagues had found a teenager at Caesars Palace who they’d been arresting for solicitation since she was 14. As a minor, her charges were dropped after six months. Because she had turned 18 a few weeks earlier, her charges would now go on her permanent record, showing up every time she was background checked for an apartment or job for the rest of her life.
They had also found a 19-year-old with braces working the casino floor. Her suspected trafficker was there watching her every move with a loaded gun in his underwear. Through tears, she gave detectives all the evidence they needed to arrest him. Then they jailed her, too.
But for K, there was still time. Moore told the sergeant he’d try talking to her again in a few days. Maybe once they were able to catch her trafficker, she wouldn’t be so scared.
While Moore was with K, Leung had been watching the security footage from the Motel 6. He’d seen the 29-year-old and K move into the room earlier in the day with two other girls and bags and bags of clothing. It looked like they were moving from city to city.
At 10:37 that night, the girls had left the room together. At 11:02, the suspected trafficker had come out, wearing an orange shirt. He had driven away in a white Kia.
Because there was a warrant out for his arrest from California, the officers had enough to detain him. All they had to do now was wait for him to come back.
‘A Honda coming in’
Traffickers and their customers know the vice unit is after them. Some nights, detectives pose as teens selling sex in online ads to catch buyers of children. They use female undercover detectives to trick men paying for sex inside casinos, or to gather evidence against traffickers who don’t know the woman they are recruiting into their “stable” is an officer.
But the majority of the arrests they make involve potential trafficking victims.
Police know these women and children may be violently punished by their traffickers for failing to detect that their customer was actually a cop. They know only some victims get connected to advocates, and even if they do, they are often too afraid to talk.
Officers go after them anyway, in the name of discouraging human trafficking and prostitution, and creating more leads to catch pimps.
But by 3 a.m., the man detectives were looking for still hadn’t returned to the Motel 6 parking lot. There were half a dozen police cars waiting to block the white Kia from leaving once it pulled in. The undercover who caught K earlier in the night was parked at the front entrance, scanning every pedestrian for an orange shirt. When a judge granted a search warrant, officers piled into the motel room, looking for evidence of what the 29-year-old had been doing with K and the two other girls.
They dumped the contents of duffel bags, backpacks and plastic bins onto the beds. There were piles of clothes that were little more than strips of fabric, covered in lace and leopard print, rhinestones and dollar signs. Beside the maxi pads and hair ties were six-inch stilettos and boxes of condoms. A pink laptop was adorned with a visitor badge from a juvenile jail and a sticker that read “Keep Going.”
They’d found K’s Instagram accounts, too. Here was the 16-year-old in another motel room, and another, and another. Here she was in those stilettos, her heels clicking on concrete sidewalks.
“About too go get my daddy’s bag,” she wrote beside a bag-of-cash emoji. She described herself as “unknockable.” “Never be friend a square,” she warned.
The detectives didn’t know how long K had been with this trafficker, who bragged on his own Instagram about flying to the money “in a state near u.” “It’s a great day for a P,” he wrote, using the slang for pimp.
His record showed he’d served seven years in prison for threatening convenience store cashiers with a BB gun until they handed over cash and cigarettes. In March, a year after he was released, he was arrested for possessing a gun. His bail was set at $35,000, then dropped to $0. A California judge released him, ordering him to find a job and regularly report to a parole officer.
Within two weeks, he disappeared.
“Hey, sarge,” a detective said over the radio just before 5 a.m. “There’s a Honda coming in.”
A red Accord was rolling into the lot. It stopped 30 yards away from the door to K’s motel room, which was surrounded by police.
“I think I saw an orange shirt,” a detective announced, but then the Honda was whipping out of the parking spot in reverse. The driver gunned it. He swerved around the uniformed officers in their marked SUVs. He passed the undercovers waiting in their sedans. He passed the sergeant and the detective who had arrested K. Within seconds, he was out of the parking lot.
Two officers followed, but there was already a cloud of dust in the Honda’s wake. They were ordered not to pursue.
The likelihood of a crash was too high, Leung said. And without the 16-year-old being willing to talk, they might not have enough evidence to charge sex trafficking.
“We’d been expecting the white Kia,” Leung sighed.
The detectives who had seen inside the Honda were certain: The driver was the man they’d been looking for. If he’d been out searching for K, now he knew she’d been caught. He would have no way of knowing the police found him through a motel card. It looked like K had given him up.
But it wasn’t just him the detectives saw inside the car. Riding in the passenger seat, they said, was another underage girl.
In their words: What sex-trafficked teenagers told researchers at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas about being arrested and jailed by police
“This one cop hurt my feelings so bad. He was like, these young girls wanna come out to Vegas and think that it’s all fun and games, just to be a ho. And I’m like, that’s not — I was a victim.”
— a girl trafficked since the age of 16
“Even if I’m telling you I have a pimp, and I’m scared to go home … you’re not asking me, ‘Do you want to get out? Do you want me to go arrest this man right now? Let me put you in a shelter. Let’s make it happen. We’re gonna get you away.’ You’re arresting me and taking me to jail.”
— a girl trafficked since 15
“They told me that they was watchin’ us for three months. … I was like, well, then, why didn’t you help me three months ago?”
— a girl trafficked since 13
‘Where is my child?’
Eleven hours after K’s arrest and request to call her mom, the 16-year-old’s mother received a text. It had her daughter’s name on it and the time of a court hearing. She called the number, desperate to find out what was going on.
She hadn’t heard from her only child since 2019.
K’s mother, who The Post is not naming to protect K’s identity, said she was told the hearing was already over and someone would call her soon. Thirty minutes later, Detective Moore was on the line, explaining her daughter had been arrested for solicitation.
She would try, in an interview, to describe how it felt to get that news.
“Relief that she is alive, and a prayer for that,” she said. “And then a sigh of relief. And then back to reality. What the heck is going on? And where is my child? All over again.”
She didn’t explain to the detective how their family had gotten to this place. How the daughter she knew wasn’t a criminal, or a victim, either. She was the energetic girl who had grown up dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and saying one day, she was going to marry him. She was the girl who cared about cheerleading so much she couldn’t bear it when her team finished in second place. She had taken singing lessons and etiquette lessons, had listened to her mom go on and on about how to lead instead of follow, how to make your own way, how just because K was slight and short didn’t mean she should get pushed around.
It was just the two of them, mother and daughter. And then it became mother, daughter and whatever seemed to be occupying K on her phone. She was “sucking it up every day like a smoothie from Jamba Juice with an extra energy boost,” her mom said.
She knew kids mimicked what they saw on TV. But this wasn’t Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel anymore. On Instagram, it was Fashion Nova outfits and twerking on loop and an endless feed of all the things she didn’t want her daughter aspiring to.
“They’re bending over, they’re putting their songs on, and some of them are still looking like little kids with nothing to shake,” her mother said. “But you have guys in their DMs that are as old as their parents, talking to them about things that were not even on their minds.”
She didn’t tell the detective about the day she came home and K was gone. Or the first call saying her daughter had been found in San Diego. Or how the social workers there decided to release K to her estranged father instead of her. Days after that, she said, her 15-year-old was gone again.
“She ran away from there, and I’ve been looking for her ever since,” her mother said.
An entire pandemic with no access to your child wasn’t something she could explain in a phone call, even if Moore had asked. All she wanted to know was when she could speak to her daughter.
After months apart, they were allowed to talk for 10 minutes a day. Ten minutes of K sobbing, begging her mom to get her out so she didn’t spend her 17th birthday in jail.
“She has been very traumatized,” her mother said. “Very mentally drained and not able to properly understand what’s going on.”
Her mom couldn’t understand it either. If the detective believed K had been sex trafficked, then why was her daughter in jail?
“They’re making them feel like criminals,” she said, “treating them like little inmates, and that’s not right.”
The man in charge of the juvenile detention center knows it isn’t right.
“They’re victims of a crime,” said Jack Martin, Clark County’s director of juvenile justice. “You get your stereo stolen, I’m not bringing you in. I would absolutely prefer we don’t bring them here.”
The judge who has overseen these cases for 16 years believes the current approach to handling them doesn’t work for two-thirds of the children.
“We are failing,” said Judge William Voy. “Totally failing.”
Yet every week, it happens all over again. A teenager, sometimes two or three, falls for an undercover detective’s offers and ends up locked behind barbed wire. Citing the pandemic, Clark County officials would not allow a reporter inside the facility. They declined multiple requests for photos of the cells where sex-trafficked children are held.
Two years ago, Nevada lawmakers declared that starting in July 2022, minors can no longer be placed in detention facilities for engaging in prostitution or solicitation. But in Las Vegas, there is no solidified plan to stop doing so.
“People have to understand: These children are being sexually assaulted,” said Brigid Duffy, chief of the district attorney’s juvenile division. “If you are going to create a system where you do not have a facility to get them treatment that is also locked, you have to be okay with that. I don’t know how anybody could be okay with that.”
Survivors, advocates and public defenders say jailing the kids is hurting them more. Police and prosecutors say taking them home or putting them in an unlocked shelter is only setting them up to run away.
But all sides have long agreed there is a third option, one they believe could actually help: a specially built safe house, or “receiving center,” where children could be taken at all hours and stay for as long as they need, getting intervention from trained social workers, medical attention from trauma-informed caregivers and the kind of support that might persuade them to leave their traffickers.
Yet after years of anti-trafficking task forces and coalitions, academic studies and advertising campaigns, lawsuits and law changes, Nevada has yet to build anything like a receiving center.
In the office of Judge Voy, there are poster-sized blueprints of the one he and others pushed for in the late 2000s. He couldn’t get the funding to make it a reality.
“When they walk in, they feel like they’re special. That’s how we designed it. This is where we wanted them to be while we figure out what to do for these kids,” Voy said. “And it’s still never been done.”
LEFT: The Embracing Project is a place of refuge for Vegas teenagers who have been sexually exploited. Some of them have children of their own, so the drop-in center is equipped with bouncers, books and toys. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) RIGHT: A note rests on a table at the Embracing Project. Children who live locally are referred there for services after they are released from juvenile detention. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Vegas does have the Embracing Project, a drop-in center run by a nonprofit, where sexually-exploited children who live locally can go to school, get therapy and spend time with advocates who understand them. But police won’t bring kids they arrest directly to a place they can just leave.
The closest the city has come to a long-term answer is a plot of sand and bushes 30 minutes away in Boulder City, Nev. It will one day be the site of a long-term residential center for trafficked children, an oasis of comfortable bedrooms, meditation gardens and walls intended to keep kids in and traffickers out. The nonprofit raising money for it, St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, went to the casinos and the Nevada Resort Association for help. Caesars Entertainment donated $1 million. No other casino has contributed. Construction on the project has yet to begin.
LEFT: This property at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children is expected to become the Healing Center, a long-term residential program specifically for kids who have experienced sex trafficking. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) RIGHT: A mural created by kids at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Boulder City, Nev. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
With the mandate to stop jailing victims by the summer of 2022 looming, the state hired Esther Rodriguez Brown, the Embracing Project’s founder, to come up with a plan. Last fall, she and dozens of others delivered a report to lawmakers laying out the need, once again, for a receiving center.
Clark County officials estimated it would cost $15.5 million a year to run one after it was built. Rodriguez’s report pointed to Georgia, where a 24/7 receiving center provides housing, school, medical care and therapy for up to 20 sexually exploited kids at a time. It costs $2.5 million per year.
In Nevada, $2.5 million is less than half of 1 percent of what the state made in gaming taxes in fiscal year 2020. It’s what casinos in Clark County can make in just two hours.
“There is a lot of money in this city,” Rodriguez Brown said. “I really don’t know why we are still in this situation.”
This spring, lawmakers passed her plan, declaring the state should create receiving centers.
The bill came with no new funding.
Instead, it said police no longer have to change their practices by next summer. They can keep putting victims in jail cells until at least July 2023.
‘Don’t I get a say?’
The camera turned on and K appeared on the screen. A gray mask hung loosely on her face. She’d been locked up for 85 hours. She’d spent her 17th birthday in detention.
Because of covid restrictions, she could meet with her public defender, probation officer and advocate only by phone. Now she was video conferencing into the court hearing that would determine what happened to her next.
“That’s the child ... down there in the corner, right?” asked the judge, Gerald Hardcastle. He was sitting in an empty courtroom, looking at K and all the lawyers and case workers, each in their own square on a screen. K’s mother was online, too, watching from California.
“Good afternoon,” the judge told K. “How are you?
She lifted her hand to wave. No one at the jail unmuted her mic so she could answer him.
She stayed on mute while the adults began to talk about what was best for her, mentioning forms and agreements, precedent and policies. The judge asked K if she knew what was going on.
“No,” she said, and then, her attorney recalled later, K started to cry.
They explained to her that she would be sent back to California and could not return to Nevada without parental supervision. She was ordered to “stay away from places or persons involving prostitution.”
These were the instructions that had been given to hundreds of trafficked children before her. Some returned home and stayed there. They connected with advocates, older sex trafficking survivors or parents who took classes on how to care for their victimized kids. There were girls who graduated high school and college, who went on to raise awareness about this issue or to live a life where they would never have to think about it again.
Other girls disappeared within days.
The adults handling K’s case didn’t know how she would end up. The California social workers assigned to her were still deciding whether it was in K’s best interest to be reunited with her mother. But without a receiving center in Las Vegas, there was no place for K to stay while they figured it out.
Instead, she was likely to end up in foster care, a group home or a temporary shelter back in California – where there are few options for housing trafficked children. Even in Los Angeles County, which receives more than 900 reports of potential child sex trafficking a year, only two group home providers focus exclusively on caring for exploited kids. They can house a total of 18 children.
K begged the judge to let her be with her mom.
“I can’t stand this,” she cried. “Don’t I get to have a say?”
The judge told her he had to follow the law, and after a few minutes, the screen shut off.
K spent six more nights in a cell. She never told Detective Moore or his partner anything about the man who they believe had trafficked her and then evaded arrest at the Motel 6 stakeout.
And Moore never told K, her lawyer, her probation officer or her mother that this “armed and dangerous” man might believe K had ratted him out to police.
Within a week, the detectives would close the case, one of 14 trafficked children the team dealt with that month.
K’s suspected trafficker, meanwhile, was live-streaming on Instagram, saying, “Hurry up and get back. Bring that ass home. … You’re taking too long.”
On her ninth day in jail, K was given new clothes to wear. Her phone was returned to her. Two probation officers drove her to the airport and escorted her inside. The terminals were filled with slot machines, giving tourists one last taste of Las Vegas.
Since she’d arrived, K had been sold to adults who sexually abused her. She had been tricked by police officers who claimed to be helping her. She had been imprisoned by authorities who didn’t believe she belonged in jail. Now Nevada was sending her away, no longer responsible for what happened to her next.
K placed her items on the security belt.
Above her head, multiple TV screens flashed a message listing the phone number for the human trafficking hotline.
“Help,” the signs promised, “is available.”