Investigation heralds new era in prostitution fight

FBI increasing resources in bid to cut off supply lines

April McSwain was 14 when she got involved in prostitution in Harrisburg, Pa. Five days after arriving, she was arrested.
April McSwain was 14 when she got involved in prostitution in Harrisburg, Pa. Five days after arriving, she was arrested.

April McSwain was a 14-year-old Bowsher High School freshman when she stepped off the Greyhound bus in Harrisburg, Pa.

The man who would become her pimp was waiting for her. She was on her first "date" within hours: "I don't really remember being scared."

Five days later, she was arrested. When authorities found out her true age, they put her on a plane home.

That was 1995.


A decade later, a federal prosecutor called Harrisburg the nation's most lucrative destination for prostitutes and pimps -- and Toledo had the market cornered.

Ms. McSwain initially spoke to The Blade on the condition that her real name not be used. She has since consented to be identified.

Ms. McSwain said she long ago left "the game." But had she stepped off the bus there recently, she might have discovered what others have learned: Don't count on prostitution to be dismissed as a mere nuisance.

It's a criminal enterprise.

"It's organized crime. You say [just] a bunch of pimps and prostitutes, but when you string the threads of the rope together, what we end up with in many of these cases is organized crime," said Chip Burrus, the FBI's acting assistant director of the criminal investigations division.

"We're not just sweeping the individual pimp out of the way. The idea is to get the criminal enterprise behind the organization," he added.

Indictments unsealed late last year as part of "Innocence Lost," a nationwide federal crackdown on underage prostitution, herald a new approach to fighting the commercial sexual exploitation of teens.

These days, pimping minors can mean life behind bars.

The ongoing investigation means the FBI takes teen prostitution as seriously as other illegal, high-profile activities.

Gordon Zubrod, an assistant U.S. attorney in Harrisburg assigned to the case, typically prosecutes organized crime, political corruption, and international money laundering.

"I knew nothing about [prostitution]," he said, but as the investigation grew, he concluded it was "just like an organized crime case -- different product, but follow the money."

It's not easy.

In a Pennsylvania state trooper barracks barely one mile away from one of the prostitutes' favorite truck stops, Trooper David Olweiler began collecting booking photos in a three-ring binder. It was his way to get answers to an increasingly frequent question: "Didn't we arrest this girl before?"

Before long, Trooper Olweiler said, "we had basically reached out to the feds for help [because] we were limited to what we could do."

So everyone sat down together: FBI and IRS agents, state police, U.S. postal inspectors, and federal prosecutors. They tapped phones, traced thousands of dollars in wire transfers, and grilled the women again and again.

Pulling all the information together was Jamie Konstas.

An intelligence analyst for the FBI, she is assigned to work from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In her cubicle in the suburban Washington office, her wedding photos hang alongside framed booking mug shots of pimps.

The FBI's goal, she said, "is to disrupt and dismantle the [prostitution] organization."

With a keyboard and mouse, Ms. Konstas has spent nearly two years keeping track of an ever-growing database of young prostitutes. She now knows more about some of these girls than their parents ever have - or will.

The investigation continues.

In 2005, the FBI hired 16 new agents, assigned exclusively to Innocence Lost. Another six are being added this year.

Cleveland, Mr. Burrus said, will see two new agents assigned to Innocence Lost - the greatest increase of any FBI field office.

"The only way you're going to take [underage prostitution] out in the long term is to eliminate the supply," he said, "but in the interim, you have to eliminate the enterprises that are doing this."

Contact Robin Erb at: robinerb@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.