You could make some money. Strom said he wanted to put her to work as a prostitute. Katie told him she was only 17 and not interested. He tried a different tactic, taking out a stash of cocaine and offering her some.
Then she felt her head slam into the car window. One year earlier, in the fall ofDetective William Woolf was tailing members of the gang MS in an unmarked police car when he noticed something strange. Woolf has a youthful smile. He wears sneakers and T-shirts, and when he cracks a joke, you can see how he might relate to the teenagers he meets on the job. Woolf had been working gangs in Fairfax County for four years. He had spent much of that time tracking MS, a Salvadoran gang that has a big presence around Washington.
Something was different this night. The men had a girl with them—she looked underage—and they appeared to be driving around aimlessly. Woolf watched as the girl got out of the car, entered an apartment building, and emerged about 15 minutes later. The pattern repeated a couple of times before Woolf felt certain about what he was seeing. Detective William Woolf was tailing members of the gang MS when he noticed something strange. The men had a girl with them, and they appeared to be driving around aimlessly. He had no choice but to blow his cover.
He and a federal agent who was with him went in and rescued the girl. She was 16 and being sold for sex. Woolf had heard rumors from his street sources about gangs prostituting girls around Washington but had never seen s of it firsthand. Soon, though, other MS sex-trafficking cases would unfold in rapid succession. One of the traffickers Woolf discovered that first night was Alexander Rivas, who admitted recruiting two underage girls as prostitutes and is now serving ten years.
There was also Jose Juarez-Santamaria, who prostituted a year-old throughout DC, Virginia, and Maryland and let his friends rape her. He was sentenced to life in prison.
And a federal jury gave Rances Amaya, known for carrying a machete, 50 years behind bars for trafficking three teen girls. He waited at Metro stops and trolled shopping malls. He even infiltrated the halls of Fairfax County public schools, some of the best in the country, where he used female students to lure classmates into his sex-trafficking ring.
But sincepolice and federal agents have taken down 28 juvenile sex traffickers in the eastern district of Virginia, most just outside DC, and have identified 41 victims—all of them American citizens, many from middle- or upper-class families.
Only Southern California has had a similar of gang-controlled child sex-trafficking cases.
Gang members tell the girls to wear normal school clothes—sweatshirts, jeans, backpacks—and they typically use the same girls for only a few weeks, to avoid drawing attention from police or parents. Many of the girls have problems at home, and some have a history of sexual abuse.
Others just lack self-esteem or feel ignored—regular teenage problems that leave them vulnerable to a skilled manipulator. When Woolf sees something in the field or gets a report about suspected trafficking that could rise to the level of a federal offense, he calls Johannes to loop in the FBI. The two see each other or talk by phone almost every day.
Johannes specializes in crimes against children, and unlike Woolf, he looks tough—burly and bald, with clear blue eyes and graying stubble. Knowing that MacBride wants to take down sex traffickers as badly as they do motivates Woolf and Johannes.
And MacBride has a powerful tool—the federal statute for sentencing juvenile sex traffickers is severe: It imposes a mandatory minimum punishment of ten years in prison and a maximum of life. Laura would later deny saying any such thing to anyone at school.
Laura comes from money—her father runs a government-contracting firm. Her parents are divorced, and she says one of her sisters has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and the other has been arrested on gun and drug charges. Laura herself has been in and out of rehab for cocaine and other drugs for years. What Parents Can Do. Keep a list of the passwords to their online s and randomly check them.
Encourage them to tell you if anything happens that makes them uncomfortable. Woolf recognized Strom, who was then 26 and had a long affiliation with the Crips. Strom had grown up in Fairfax County and gone to Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield but gotten involved with gangs early on.
His criminal record included 11 juvenile offenses, and after he was stabbed in the stomach at age 18, he had the words thug life tattooed over the scar. Just a week after Woolf met Laura, another year-old, Meg,came forward. Her parents had been tracking her cell phone and saw that she was traveling to neighborhoods where she had no good reason to be. Meg gave Woolf and Johannes new clues into how Strom ran the operation, and she named men who worked as drivers and bodyguards for the girls. Woolf and Johannes found messages between Meg and Laura on Facebook that corroborated her.
In one exchange, Laura told Meg to call Strom for more details about how she could start making money. They got warrants for records from those sites. They also compelled Facebook to turn over records for the fake s Strom used. Those searches revealed the identities of girls Strom had contacted, giving Woolf and Johannes a long list of possible victims to interview.
Woolf and Johannes say predators such as Strom spend entire days trolling Facebook, looking for girls who post about fighting with their parents or feeling left out at school. They can detect when a girl has a void in her life they can offer to fill. Facebook has privacy settings, but plenty of kids leave their thoughts and feelings open for anyone to read. When Woolf and another Fairfax County detective tracked Katie down, she told them how those words had changed her life.
Woolf and Johannes say girls her age often are lured by a desire as trivial as wanting extra spending money for clothes. Katie found herself in a car with four strangers, realizing she had made a dangerous mistake.
Strom and the others explained the plan to prostitute her, and Strom said she had to have sex with him and Ghile first, as a sort of initiation. Then her head hit the window. She remembered how Strom had pulled her out of the car and led her around the corner of a nearby apartment building. How he had pressed a knife to her neck and demanded a blowjob. How she had felt sick and tried to refuse him. How he had sliced her across the forearm with the knife. In one, Laura told Meg to call Justin Strom for more details about how she could start making money.
Hospital records confirmed that a gash above her eye from that night had required stitches. Before Strom finished with her, Katie told the detectives, he ordered her to stand and bend over.
It was the first of 15 rapes she endured that night. Strom then took Katie into the apartment building, where he forced her to have sex with 14 men, one after the other.
Trees and underbrush surround the area. Jessica, 16 at the time, said Strom approached her and told her she was pretty. She agreed to have sex with Strom right there in the woods.
Jessica said she worked as a prostitute throughout the summer of in Virginia and Maryland and that Strom and his associates fed her a steady supply of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, and booze. She would go home and eat dinner with her family, then get high and go to work.
She said Strom was violent and that when she told him she wanted out, he grabbed her around the neck and squeezed hard. He found a loyal clientele in neighborhoods such as Commerce Street in Springfield and Chirilagua in Alexandria. Just minutes from McMansions and tony shopping districts, these areas are home to low-end apartment complexes targeted by child traffickers.
Strom was a pro at finding girls with poor self-esteem and manipulating them into doing—and thinking—whatever he wanted. He was celebrating at home with his family, enjoying some rare time away from the job. Sure enough, one did. Laura called me as I was reporting this story, and we talked about her time on the run with Strom. She said it was her idea to flee. First Woolf had come to her house, she said, and then police showed up at school to question her.
She was worried.
When something goes bad, I run. According to Laura, Strom—who became her boyfriend—never wanted her to sell herself. Gangs often use one girl, whom they call the head bitch in charge, or HBIC, to manage the others, and Woolf and Johannes say Laura filled this role for Strom.
She said they were free to quit at any time and they all helped recruit friends and classmates. Rather, they had been ignored or excluded by their families. She recalled a time when she accidentally burned her face on a cigarette and no one at home would help. Strom invited her over and treated the burn.
She said he was like family to her.
For three weeks, Laura and Strom had jumped from one motel to the next, going as far as Atlantic City and being careful not to stay more than one night at the same place.