By Annie Sweeney, Tribune reporter, on April 5, 2014—
“It was a standard hotel conference room scene — slices of fresh fruit and muffins laid out next to coffee urns and bottles of water chilling on ice as the attendees straggled in, industry friends hugging hello and quickly catching up on personal lives.
The west suburban conference, though, was hardly typical, and before it got started a hotel manager, standing near TV cameras there to cover the event, even asked an organizer to leave his hotel chain’s name out of remarks if possible.
The pairing of federal agents with an industry that has drawn a fair share of negative attention for everything from alleged links to organized crime to negative effects on neighborhoods strikes some as surprising.
But those working at the clubs say their jobs put them as close to the problem as anyone. They have seen troubling signs of trafficking — scared women who seem under the control of the men who pick them up — and want to know what to do.
“I would love to learn how to get them to reach out, (to learn) what we can say to get them to come forward,” said Anna Dulin, 30, a dancer who is now a hostess in the VIP room of Scores in Stone Park. “We are on the front lines to save these girls.”
The training Dulin attended is part of a 3-year-old partnership between federal agents and the strip club industry that started after St. Louis-based club operator Michael Ocello found one of his clubs the target of a human trafficking investigation.
Though no charges came of it, Ocello said learning about the issue led him to reach out to federal law enforcement to offer his help. He has since organized a group called COAST — Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking — and has hosted more than 40 training sessions across the country, involving 200 clubs, run by Homeland Security agents and social service providers.
“The topic at hand is slavery,” Ocello told the crowd. “We want to educate our industry.”
At last week’s training, agents highlighted the signs of trafficking, including a dancer who doesn’t carry her own ID or passport or someone constantly short of cash, because her trafficker is keeping most of it. Physical abuse or reluctance to make friends or to be social is another concern. Agents also urged club employees to pay attention to who picks the dancers up after work.
Sex trafficking links to strip clubs have turned up in federal investigations nationally,including a major case tried in Chicago federal court in 1999 in which several Latvian women were forced to work as dancers here. Two years ago in Detroit, federal charges were brought against seven people who forced women to dance at clubs there. Agents said U.S. citizens have been forced into trafficking as well through coercive measures.
For many at the training, these and other stories were eye-opening.
But some experts who have studied the sex trade question the effort.
Gail Dines, a sociology and women’s studies professor at Wheelock College in Boston, was skeptical about law enforcement working with an industry with direct links to the exploitation of women, including prostitution. Dines said she suspected what was really happening was an effort by a long-criticized industry to cozy up to law enforcement.
“It’s trying to legitimize the industry,” she said. “It’s a very smart, clever move.”
Bernadette Barton, a women’s studies professor at Morehead State University who researched the strip club industry for her 2006 book “Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers,” wondered how inclined dancers would be to draw law enforcement’s attention to a club, given other crimes that might be occurring there and the potential for retaliation.
“I feel uneasy about this,” Barton said. “I am not saying the motivation is bad.”
Agents involved in the training said it is not unusual for law enforcement to get close to criminals for the purpose of investigations. They also said they were willing to take leads from anywhere if it will help a victim.
Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer, who now runs Kroll Investigations’ Chicago office, said agents are likely willing to partner with the industry because of how hard it is to investigate and build cases, which often require help from traumatized victims.
“It’s farther below the radar than the drug trade,” he said. “It’s hard to identify victims. It’s harder to identify the perpetrators. You have to go where the victims are forced to work.””
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