By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ, DOUG IRVING AND CLAUDIA KOERNER / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER on February 7, 2014—
“With its high incomes and millions of visitors, Orange County has become a major stop on a sex-trafficking circuit that runs through the urban West and appears to have snared a teenage girl killed in Yorba Linda this week.
Criminal street gangs are playing a growing role in the human-trafficking industry, drawn by the promise of easy money without the risks that come with dealing drugs or weapons, according to law enforcement officials. The victims in Orange County alone easily number in the hundreds, many of them teenage girls brought in from nearby counties.
Police believe Aubreyanna Sade Parks, 17, was one such victim. She spent the last weeks of her life terrorized by a convicted felon who had her beaten, threatened her family and forced her onto the streets to sell sex, court records allege.
“She is terrified,” wrote a detective who interviewed her days before she was found stabbed to death on a Yorba Linda street. The man she identified as her pimp “has knowledge of where her family resides and (she) believes that he will retaliate by ‘killing someone’ in her family.”
Her case sheds light on a human-trafficking industry that thrives in the shadows of Orange County. Police and others who work with victims say the county lies on a trafficking circuit that reaches south to San Diego, east to Las Vegas and north to the Bay Area and beyond.
Traffickers spirit their victims from city to city, advertising them as “new in town,” preventing them from getting their bearings. They look for large and diverse population centers with access to major highways, according to a 2012 report on human trafficking in California.
Most of the cases here still involve pimps working alone and controlling small groups of women, police say. But organized gangs are getting into the trafficking business, where they can keep selling the same victim, night after night.
At least half of the suspects charged in Orange County trafficking cases in the past two months have “significant gang ties,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff of the District Attorney’s Office.
A sex trafficker controlling four women, each forced to meet a typical quota of $500 a night, could make more than $600,000 a year, according to an anti-trafficking group called the Polaris Project.
“Wherever there’s headlights, there’s money,” said a former prostitute who gave her name only as Hope, citing concerns about her safety. She said she used to work in Gardena, not far from where Aubreyanna grew up, but didn’t know her.
Pimps often target younger girls, sending them away from their neighborhoods to disconnect them from family and friends, Hope said. That’s why girls from Los Angeles County often turn up in Orange County, northern California, Las Vegas.
Some fall under the spell of sweet-talking “Romeo pimps” and trust them as their boyfriends, said Lita Mercado, a program director at Orange County’s Community Service Programs, which helps victims. Others are battered under the control of so-called “gorilla pimps” and fear for their safety if they try to escape.
“They’re psychologically handcuffed,” said Anaheim police Lt. Steve Davis, who heads the city’s vice unit and is a member of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force. “It’s almost like this cult following where they get in the car and come down here.”
The task force identified 213 victims of human trafficking in Orange County in 2012, a snapshot of an ever-changing problem. Three-quarters of them were being trafficked for sex. Almost all were female, and more than a quarter said they started as minors. Most were U.S. citizens.
“No child grows up hoping that they will one day be sold for sex,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in April 2013 as he announced a special unit to prosecute human traffickers. The unit has since sent 17 traffickers to prison, put 10 others on probation and has 49 open cases.”
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