COACHELLA VALLEY, Calif. - Human trafficking is the modern form of slavery. It is the world's second largest criminal industry, the fastest growing, and it is happening right in our own backyard.
"I like to tell people when they ask about my story, that my story started way before I was ever trafficked," said survivor-turned-advocate Amy Andrews-Gray.
Check out Katie Widner's report on a tip from two Coachella Valley students that lead to the arrest of a Hemet man and more than 60 sex trafficking-related charges.
The Desert Hot Springs native grew up in the foster care system and told KESQ News Channel 3's and CBS Local 2's Katie Widner that physical, sexual and emotional abuse at home set the stage for what was to come. Making her easily susceptible to manipulation and, therefore, the perfect victim.
"Back in 1988 during spring break, I was picked up by some people from Los Angeles. They took me out there and forced me into prostitution," she said. "A lot of times people think that you know, the guy comes up and gets out with a knife and chains a girl up or puts her in duct tape and puts her in the car. But, often times, that's not how it happens. There's a lot of manipulation and the term 'coercion' is mentioned in written law."
Andrews-Gray said there is usually some type of appeal in the recruiting process, whether it be money, goods or services, or even partying- anything that will get the attention of the victim to lure them in. Then comes the abuse.
"Sleep deprivation, starvation, torture, physical abuse in pain. All different kinds of things," she said.
It is an ugly, almost unfathomable truth. One that only gets worse the closer you look. California ranks No. 1 in the country for the number of reported human trafficking cases, with almost double the amount of the next closest state.
"Southern California is a hot spot for trafficking because it's so easy for traffickers to move about the area and we have so many big cities and so many events that happen," said Kristen Dolan, the anti-human trafficking director for SafeHouse of the Desert in Thousand Palms.
She deals with the reality of it in the Coachella Valley every day. She said the amount of people in the Southland and the number of large events that take place make it a lucrative business for pimps and traffickers.
"You're going to find instances of it in Palm Desert and you're going to find instances of it in Palm Springs. Just as you might find it in Desert Hot Springs or Indio," Dolan said. "Anywhere where there is a hotel or a place that somebody could take a child or an adult to do things, it's probably happening in your neighborhood."
She said one reason it is so prevalent in the area is because of the local freeway. It is a main vein that cuts right through the Valley and is a direct connection to that world of human trafficking.
"Interstate 10 is a really big factor as far as transporting these victims because there's so much access to other cities," she said.
The traffickers can continuously keep their victims moving through the circuit. Dolan said this helps them to maintain control, as the victims are kept isolated and confused. She also said it is not limited to sex trafficking either, labor trafficking is an issue as well.
"I think it's more easy to hide than sex trafficking because people are starting to get more familiar with what that looks like. I think with labor trafficking, we're just starting to get enough information out so that people can notice it starting in their neighborhood," Dolan said.
She is correct. In fact, a recent study by nonprofit Polaris Project found that globally forced labor is believed to be more prevalent than sex trafficking. It can come in many forms like through agricultural workers whose visa's are taken away, in domestic servitude where a housekeeper may work 24 hours, seven days a week, or in traveling sales gimmicks like children selling chocolate in the parking lot.
"We're talking about the kids you see in 106 degrees standing outside the grocery store seemingly alone with nobody around them and asking me to buy candy for a dollar," Dolan said. "We've had it happen here in the Valley where you ask a child, 'oh where are you from? What are you selling this for?,' and it seems scripted and it seems the responses don't make sense."
Dolan said victims often are given a daily quota.
"That kid, who might just be selling the candy bar for a dollar, might have a quota $500 for that day. So that trafficker could set that quota out with multiple children who have to sell these candy bars or consequences happen," she said.
She added that consequences could include beatings, withholding food or in the form of a perceived mounting debt the victim is tricked into believing they owe the trafficker.
According to the Polaris Project, there were more than 7,500 human trafficking cases reported last year. So how can you help?
"We all have that little voice inside that tells us something is wrong. Just listen. It's better to be safe than sorry that's for sure," said Andrews-Gray, who is now a victim advocate and operates the Survivors Consultation Network.
Andrews dedicated her testimony to the memory of Survivor Leader Jennifer Kempton, 1982-2017.
She warned that approaching a perceived victim could put them, and yourself, in danger. Often times the victim does not realize how dire the situation is or that they are being trafficked. Both Andrews-Gray and Dolan said anyone who feels they may have crossed paths with a victim should call their local law enforcement and ask them to do a welfare check. They also urge residents to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. If it is an emergency, call 911.
For more information, you can call SafeHouse of the Desert at 888-343-4660 or visit their website by clicking here.