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WATERLOO — While her high school friends were enjoying the summer of 1992, Heather Rios was living a nightmare.

She was abducted, kept in a locked room, beaten and forced into prostitution.

Rios eventually escaped, but thousands of others continue to live as modern-day slaves — around the world, across the country and in the Cedar Valley.

Seventy-one percent of girls who have been identified as victims of sex trafficking, or are at risk of becoming victims, are age 18 or younger, according to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

“I think it’s always existed ... but I think now people are starting to talk about it. ... People are just now starting to be aware,” said Tamara Tann, development director at Friends of the Family.

Friends of the Family has been providing services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims in the Cedar Valley since 1992.

In 2016, the organization added programs to fight human trafficking — the trade of human beings for forced labor or sexual exploitation.

Rios, of Waterloo, is all too familiar with such tragedy. She lived it. Now, 26 years later, she’s joined a community coalition to fight human trafficking. She recently told her story at a coalition meeting at UNI-CUE.

Rios was 16 years old and set to enter her senior year at Expo High School in Waterloo.

A troubled home life and a rash decision to run away with friends put her in the path of traffickers.

“I had a stepdad who was really racist and mean and calling me names all the time. And my mom worked all the time, so it was just me and him,” she said.

Rios and friends hopped in a car bound for a party in a hotel room in Cedar Rapids.

“We thought it was fun; I had never been anywhere by myself like that,” she said.

A 21-year-old woman befriended the teens at the party. She coerced them into a trip to Milwaukee. She promised they would just stay the night. She lied.

Tragedy begins

The house was in a neighborhood known for prostitution and crime. Cockroaches climbed the walls. There was no running water. Egg crates and liquor bottle boxes were makeshift furniture. Bars covered the windows. Rios could hear gunshots in the distance.

“All of a sudden the mood got really weird. I remember being stared at a lot,” she said.

Within an hour, Rios was locked in an upstairs room by herself.

Isolation is a common tactic used by traffickers. So are starvation, emotional and physical abuse, confiscation of identification and money, and even renaming and tattooing the victims. It disorients victims, creating dependency and imposing control, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

That night the woman who’d driven her to Milwaukee brought her downstairs. She struck Rios in the back of the head with a tire iron. A man was waiting at the foot of the stairs. He gave her food — Rios hadn’t eaten in two days. He then told her it was time to work.

For the next three months, Rios was sold at night.

Her captors kept a close eye on her.

“If I would have ignored a car, I would have gotten beat,” she said.

The fear of beatings taught her to keep quiet. Constant hunger caused delusions. She dreamed they might let her go when she turned 18. Her captors kept her away from phones. She was never left alone.

“After a while, I gave up that I would ever get out,” she said.

“They always had their bases covered.”

Until they didn’t.

Escape

On an August day three months after her abduction, Rios was taken to a suburban Kmart and ordered to steal a cart full of items. She had five minutes to return to the car with the stolen goods.

It was the first time they left her unaccompanied in public. She feared it was a setup. Seizing her opportunity, she hid in clothing racks until she saw someone with a badge.

“I’ve been kidnapped,” she told the employee. “You need to call the police right now.”

Security caught her captors, but even the end of her ordeal was frightening. At the police department, she was handcuffed, but her “friends” were not.

“At any time they could have just lurched over; it just made me so mad, like I was the bad guy,” she said.

Waterloo case

A recent case in Waterloo mirrored her experience.

Two 16-year-old girls from Chicago were brought to Waterloo and forced to have sex for money in 2017. One of them had an infant daughter.

The girls, like Rios, were forced to shoplift. They were caught Aug. 29 at the Target store in Waterloo. The infant was later anonymously surrendered to a Waterloo fire station.

Lawrence Campbell Jr., 37, and Sade Desire Campbell, 25, of Waterloo, pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of children in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids in September. They were sentenced on March 27 to 10 years each, the minimum allowed by law.

The teens did not testify.

Waterloo police officer Stacy Hesse said trafficking victims often don’t feel comfortable speaking with law enforcement and prefer to confide in an advocate. Victims may fear their captors, or have feelings for them.

“There’s a factor of fear there ... and at that time their safety is more important than prosecuting them,” Hesse said.

“I always thought that the survivors would want to report that to get out of that situation, but that’s not always the case. They may feel the situation they’re currently in is better than the one they left. Sometimes they don’t see themselves as a victim,” Hesse said.

Until recently, many cases were mislabeled as abuse or prostitution. That could be frustrating for victims.

“Decades later, it’s finally being talked about,” Rios said. “They didn’t really have this name back then. I always said kidnapping.”

Congress acts

Trafficking continues to thrive, and with today’s technology children are more at risk, Rios said.

“(In 1992) they were on the streets,” she said. “Now with the internet, it’s even scarier. Now they’re hiding in hotel rooms. You don’t know who they are; their identity is hidden,” she said.

But Congress last month acted to crack down on the online sex trade.

The Senate voted March 21 to approve an anti-sex-trafficking bill that now awaits the president’s signature. It would allow victims to hold accountable online platforms that facilitate trafficking, a move prosecutors, victims and activists herald as a major step.

Backpage.com, a classified ads website linked to illegal sex trafficking, was shut down by the Justice Department on April 6. Seven top Backpage officials were indicted for facilitating prostitution through ads on the site, with victims as young as 14.

The seizure came two weeks after Craigslist eliminated its personal ads following Congress’ passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).

Backers of the legislation call it a major victory in the war against trafficking and the exploitation of children. But it could face a fight in the courts on free speech grounds and from advocates who say the measure conflates trafficking victims and consensual sex workers.

Iowa law

Iowa passed a human trafficking law in 2006, making the crime a class C felony.

The first conviction came in 2008. Leonard Ray Russell was sentenced to 25 years in prison for recruiting two Nebraska girls, ages 15 and 16, for prostitution and to perform at strip clubs in Denison, Davenport and Rockford, Ill.

A 19-year-old female prostitute befriended the girls before turning them over to her boss.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said a 2013 case in a small town near Iowa City caused him alarm.

“The Hills case was an eye-opener for all of us,” he said.

Five people were arrested. One of the victims was 15.

“And I’m sure it’s (happening) there, too, in Waterloo.”

Thompson said he is engaging with new legislative initiatives.

“We are empowering the public to be more engaged and aware of the fact these things do happen in Iowa, and that we will do something about it.”

The Waterloo Police Department now undergoes monthly training on the issue with the Iowa State Patrol.

An inaugural Iowa Human Trafficking Summit is set Wednesday and Thursday in Des Moines.

Other factors

The internet isn’t the only factor driving human trafficking. It thrives for many reasons.

Ben Brustkern, executive director at Friends of the Family, said for sex traffickers, as opposed to drug dealers, the product never runs out and the risks are relatively low.

“There’s so much money in it, violence falls behind it, taking $8,000-10,000 a month out of someone’s pockets,” Brustkern said.

With a smaller population, the Cedar Valley, may be a favorable “home base” for traffickers or a centrally located stop along the way to bigger Midwestern cities.

“We’ve become somewhat complacent as Iowans because we’re in the middle of the heartland, live comfortably, tend to believe everyone, and sadly, that’s not the world we live in today,” Thompson said.

Karen Siler, Friends of the Family’s anti-human trafficking manager, agreed.

“We know that any given day there are ads on social media for these kinds of businesses and enterprises, including Cedar Falls and Waterloo,” she said. “These people are dangerous.”

Homecoming

Though Rios escaped, her return home was not heartwarming.

“When I got rescued, I was in a dark place. I get back home and it’s so awkward because no one really knew what to say to me, they just wanted to not talk about it,” she said.

The silence bothered her. She tried several times to kill herself.

“You don’t care. You go out, get arrested, do dumb stuff, and you just feel like you don’t matter,” she said.

Rios took years to heal. She is now 42, living in Waterloo with her husband and toddler son. She finally reached a peaceful place in life. Now she’s passionate about helping survivors.

“I wish I could go back to me, and help her, be who I needed. I want to be that for somebody,” she said.

Advocates for child victims in court are commonplace now, but were not in 1992. Rios painstakingly traveled to Milwaukee several times to testify for each of her captors’ trials. She felt she had no support system and was a burden on her family. She needed insurance for counseling and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It wasn’t available then. She hopes groups like the Cedar Valley coalition are changing that.

Hearing the news of the Chicago teens trafficked in Waterloo lit a spark for Rios.

“I was so mad,” she said.

She spoke with staff at Friends of the Family and learned about the coalition launched in Waterloo in January for those determined to fight human trafficking.

On March 14, Rios spoke to the group.

“I tell my story, but I want to make sure something’s taken away from it,” she said. “It helps me to help others. Hopefully it will help make someone feel braver.”

Iowa schools are beginning to offer an “Any Kid Any Where” program to educate students about being safe and what situations to avoid. Programming has begun in Waverly.

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Copy Editor/Staff Writer

Staff Writer at the Courier

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