By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — A sex trafficking case that evolved from a string of prostitution complaints and a false robbery report in Mankato has drawn attention to something that’s become an important cause for Susan Meyers.
Meyers and other members of Elevate Church spent hours out in the cold earlier this month raising awareness about sexual slavery. They surprised those who would listen with statistics that ranked Minnesota at 13 for the nation’s top child sex trafficking centers and said an average of 45 girls are sold for sex in Minnesota on any weekend night.
So Meyers wasn’t surprised to hear a brother and sister from Milwaukee were arrested Sunday and charged Tuesday with forcing a woman to work as a prostitute in Mankato. Police had more than one run-in with the siblings and the woman at various Mankato hotels before a would-be John called 911 to falsely report an alleged sex deal gone bad as a robbery.
“We know from personal research that it goes on here and comes through this area,” Meyers said. “When this happens it’s a bright light to people. We’re not just telling you it happens, it’s in the news. It’s out there for people to see.”
Meyers is hoping to educate people about sex trafficking in Minnesota because she wants Mankato area residents to know it happens here. One specific group she wants to hear the message is the men who are potential customers.
Those men often don’t realize the females they are dealing with could be under the age of 18, or older and long-term victims of someone who has been abusing them for years, Meyers said. They also aren’t aware of the extent of the abuse or the fact that the women, or girls, they are dealing with have no desire to be a prostitute and aren’t benefiting in any way.
“I don’t know the best way for stopping these desires,” Meyers said. “I do know people don’t usually want to be associated with something like this. I can’t believe anybody wants to be a part of doing something like this in somebody’s life.”
Matt Westermayer, Mankato Department of Public safety deputy director, said prostitution cases are still relatively rare in Mankato, but are happening regularly.
It’s not an easy crime to investigate because transactions don’t often take place in public places.
A common method for selling and buying prostitution is using Internet websites such as backpage.com and craigslist.
An organization called Minnesota Girls are Not for Sale cites a 2010 study that found, through “very conservative measures,” that each month 213 Minnesota girls are sold for sex an average of five times per day through the Internet and escort services.
Craigslist cracked down several years ago on people using that website for prostitution. There is still an entire section of advertising related to “adult” content on backpage.com, including sections for escorts and strippers.
Mankato police did a sting a few years ago in which Twin Cities prostitutes were contacted through Internet sites, lured to bugged hotel rooms in Mankato and arrested after they offered to sell sex for money. In one case in 2010, a woman who was arrested had turned 18 two months before the sting.
In cases where the woman caught up in a prostitution arrest is actually a victim being used by others, local police officers try to find help, Westermayer said. Some avenues for that help are Blue Earth County Human Services programs, CADA and mental health organizations.
“We could certainly reach out to some of those resources to ensure their immediate and long-term safety,” Westermayer said.
During her research, Meyers has also found that addictive drugs also are used to lure females into prostitution and keep them there. When those women are separated from their pimps through an arrest, they sometimes go back because that’s the only place they know of to get illegal drugs, she said.
Meyers also pointed out that prostitution isn’t the only area where girls and women are put to work by force. The stripping industry, massage parlors and nail salons are other businesses she has learned about where human trafficking, or basically slave labor, is used.