First of three parts
If the brutal world of teenage prostitution were a legitimate business, Toledo would be among its top employment agencies.
It has supplied top management iron-fisted pimps who demanded worker productivity and loyalty.
It has supplied middle management adult hookers under orders to beat discipline into underearning or renegade prostitutes.
And, most shocking of all, Toledo supplied the product girls as young as 12, sometimes kidnapped, always sold for sex.
"I know the FBI is concentrating on Toledo, and I know Toledo is one of the top cities in the country for teen prostitution," said Celia Williamson, a University of Toledo professor known nationally for research of prostitutes.
Deb Hodges, a top Lucas County Juvenile Court official, agreed: "We had one of the federal investigators tell us that Toledo was the No. 1 recruiting spot in the United States. ... It was mind-boggling."
Until recently, it was also largely undetected.
"We here in Toledo had no idea that this was going on," said Dave Bauer, an assistant U.S. attorney in Toledo. One big problem, he said, is that underage prostitution is "a mobile business."
Recruited here, the girls didn't stay long. Pimps quickly shuttled them across the country, and "they would quite easily fly under our radar screens," Mr. Bauer said.
Federal investigators last month charged 31 men and women with herding teens - including at least nine girls from the metro Toledo area - across state lines as sex slaves in a highly profitable and violent prostitution ring.
These were neither street- walkers nor escort-service girls, authorities said. Instead, the teens were rotated among motels, truck stops, and highway welcome centers.
But while the feds are able to lay out the inner workings of the Toledo-based prostitution ring, they can't explain why a handful of local pimps became such big players on the national scene, providing girls to more than a dozen states stretching from California to the nation's capital.
"Everybody has been saying, 'Why Toledo? Why Toledo?' And we don't know why," said John Stossel, one of the FBI agents leading the investigation.
The indictments, part of a massive child-prostitution crackdown the feds called "Innocence Lost," spelled out the sophistication and high level of organization among pimps who managed the business: setting prices, establishing work schedules, and negotiating turf.
Gordon Zubrod, an assistant federal prosecutor in Harrisburg, Pa., called it a "loose confederacy" of pimps, each with his own turf but enough reason to get along.
"They're all homeboys from Toledo, and it's to their benefit to cooperate," he said.
The local network expanded two years ago, after the feds cracked down on another national sex-for-hire operation in Oklahoma City.
The Toledo defendants, many of whom had operated the sex trade for years, "stepped into the vacuum," Mr. Zubrod said. "This opened the door."
It's a business that traffics in human misery.
"The cruelty has been astounding," Mr. Zubrod said. "Most of the women will have testimony [ranging] from having been pistol-whipped to having bones broken."
It's clear how pimps benefit: The indictments track coast-to-coast wire transfers totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. But what lures girls too young for admission to R-rated movies into this Triple-X world?
A few are kidnapped and forced into the sex trade by violence. For many others, "prostitution is a continuation of the victim's sexual exploitation, not the beginning," FBI Assistant Director Chris Swecker said at a Justice Department news conference last month in Washington announcing the arrests.
For these girls, he and others said, it's a simple trade-off: Prostitution looks better than a home life of neglect or abuse. A man who seems kind and attentive - at least at first - can be irresistible.
Still other girls leave home "for the thrill of it," stumbling into forced prostitution along the way, said Jim Anderson, one of the Toledo Police Department's missing-persons detectives. "They're 14, 15 years old. What do they really know at that age?"
Denise was 14 then. She knew.
A girlfriend told Denise, whose real name is not being used at her request.
"She said, 'I met this guy and he's a pimp He's got all these ho's and they work for him and they give him their money.' "
To the South Toledo teen, the scenario sounded "fascinating" - or at least like an escape hatch from a home she said she shared with a hooker mother who was often drunk or high. Maybe, Denise speculated, that's why her mother never noticed that two family friends had molested the teen for years.
One day Denise found her mother crying at the kitchen table. "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked her child.
But in Denise's mind, the better question was: How could you not have known?
"I think I was hardened. I didn't cry," Denise recalled. "I think that's when the resentment began toward my mother."
She skipped school. She smoked dope. She was "deep into rebelling."
And one day, she simply didn't come home.
Standing at a pay phone at a church festival, she punched in the phone number for the pimp she got from her girlfriend.
"He was in Harrisburg. I tell him about the [latest] altercation with my mom. I said, 'Can I come out with you?' He said, 'You know what you'll be doing?' "
"He said, 'You know you'll be prostituting?' "
"He said, 'You know you're going to have to give me the money?' I said, 'Yeah, I want to be there.' "
Hours after Denise stepped off the bus in Harrisburg, Pa., it wasn't the transactional sex that surprised her.
It was the violence.
Even now, seven years out of the business and removed from the control of any pimp, she still regards split lips and black eyes as mere occupational hazards.
"He was pretty good to me," she said of her pimp. "I can count on two hands the times he hit me."
Other girls, she added, had less merciful pimps and less luck with johns.
"I know girls who didn't make it out alive," she said.
Denise's story wasn't outlined in the recent indictments, but it might as well have been. In the world of paid sex, brutality is a standard means of maintaining a business structure - or, as prostitution researcher Ms. Williamson described it, "the rapes and the beatings and the stabbings and the brandings."
Ironically, investigators said it was the pimps who complained about working conditions.
"Both my hands were swelled up because I beat the bitch so much," the feds quoted one accused pimp as saying. That same man ended another beating only when he fractured his own hand, authorities said.
Another defendant confided to a fellow pimp that he beat a hooker for pulling in only $700 for a night's work.
Still another, authorities said, broke a woman's nose - an assault he'd been accused of twice before in Toledo. And in 2004, under investigation for a hooker's murder for which he was later exonerated, he talked bluntly with authorities in Indiana about pimp discipline.
"He said, 'Sometimes the only thing to get her attention is to hit her in the face,' " said Lt. Clarke Fine of the Hendricks County Sheriff's Office, near Indianapolis.
The brutality outlined in the indictments could indeed represent a long-standing practice of controlling women through force.
At least four of the Toledo men previously were accused of violence. In separate court cases, local police said these men, acting independently of one another:
- Locked a minor behind an "iron door" and raped her.
- Used a chain to beat another woman's face and body "for approximately three hours."
- Kidnapped a female and forced her to perform oral sex until she finally managed to leap "from [the] moving auto at Summit and Cherry."
- Smashed a bottle against a young girl's head.
The latest indictments claimed violence was sometimes even delegated to veteran prostitutes.
In another business setting, they might be called executive assistants. In the sex trade, they're known as "bottom bitches" - part enforcer, part cashier, and part recruiter.
Prosecutor Zubrod said these women will, "under orders, attack another prostitute and beat [her] with their fists or stab her or any number of things."
Fake IDs, real money
If Toledo was a recruitment hot spot, Harrisburg was its distribution center. Like no place else in the country, five major highways meet in the city, delivering an unending supply of paying customers.
"You can't do that in Chicago or L.A. or Atlanta," Mr. Zubrod said.
Wire transfers of tens of thousands of dollars - for food, fuel, clothes, and lodging - allowed the girls to crisscross the country.
Outfitted with fake identities, they remained as invisible as the underground economy in which they operated.
Denise picked up the routine quickly once she arrived in Harrisburg. Arrested? Never give your real name or age.
"You go to grown-up jail. You go to grown-up court. And you pay grown-up money. Then you're back to work," she said.
In one case last spring, a pimp turned to rote memorization to train two kidnapped Toledo teens.
"I know as far as the Social Security numbers and the IDs, both of the girls had to write on seven pieces of paper, front and back, on every single line, all their false information," the mother of one of the girls told The Blade.
Pimps monitored each other's product and services, purchasing women from one another and sharing trade secrets.
One inquired about another pimp's profits, according to the affidavit, which said "[he] replied that he had made a $10,000 down payment on a Cadillac and still had $17,000 left."
It was the "sophistication and the organization of the whole network" that stunned Mike Brennan, a longtime Lucas County juvenile probation officer.
"I was blind-sided by the magnitude of it. When I got a call from a federal prosecutor [about the network], I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, it's probably some overzealous prosecutor.' "
Now, he said, he has a keener understanding of how these men exploit children for a living.
"These aren't dummies we're dealing with," he said.
Too old for this
Now 26, Denise relaxed in her living room recently, her two girls playing on the floor and a Christmas tree in the corner.
In the end, she said, it was the gun pressed to the back of her neck that pushed her out of the business for good. The night it happened, she was six months' pregnant and tired.
She'd climbed into the tractor-trailer too willingly, relaxing her guard after the driver offered $60 for a $50 sex act.
Instead, she saw the flash of a silver handgun. He sneered. She pleaded for her life.
"You know what? I'm pregnant. Please don't do this."
He raped her and said she was lucky.
"I killed bitches," she remembered him saying. "I'm going to let you live.'"
Screaming, she ran from the truck.
She knew her pimp would find her. He did. She knew he would beat her. He did.
"He found me at a hotel. It was the worst he ever beat me."
From a hospital later that night, the battered mother-to-be sneaked out a back exit. If he found her again, she'd deal with it then. For now, she wanted out.
Anyway, she reasoned, she was getting too old for all this.
She was 18.
Contact Robin Erb at: email@example.com or 419-724-6133.
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