BY LYNN OLDSHUE/LYNN.OLDSHUE@GMAIL.COM
Carley stopped for gas on the way to a Wednesday night church service in Mobile this past March, texting her mom, Erin, to let her know she made it. The family rule was to text at all stops. Arriving at the destination. Leaving the destination. Just to let her parents know everything was OK.
Thirty minutes passed. Plenty of time to drive from the gas station to the church. No text from Carley. Her dad, Jeff, checked the GPS app but there was no pinpoint for her location. Her phone did not take his call.
“My gut knew something was wrong,” Erin said. “We called 911 before we drove to the gas station looking for her.”
Carley was a high school senior who helped lead worship on Sundays in her youth group. Just two weeks earlier, Carley sent Erin a text that said, “I am so very blessed to have you in my life! Your advice, your help, your love, it all means so much to me.
I am forever grateful for such an amazing mother. Everything I am, you have helped me to be.”
“She is a good girl who is going to ministry school in the fall,” Erin said. “I never dreamed she would leave everything and go willingly to someone we didn’t know.”
This is a typical family with four kids and two Golden Retrievers. Erin got home from work that day and put a pot of chili on the stove. They talked of the whole family going to the church event, but Erin and Jeff were tired and let Carley go alone.
“I hugged her extra long before she left,” Erin said. “I told her I love her and to let us know when she got to the gas station and the church.”
When Erin and Jeff arrived at the gas station, they saw Carley’s car parked on the side, but she was gone. Friends and police officers arrived to help. Erin collapsed on the ground, praying to God to pro- tect her daughter. Carley had been missing for more than an hour and blocked friends and family from social media accounts to avoid being found.
“We posted her disappearance on Facebook asking for help because it felt so urgent,” Erin said. “Nothing in me thought this was a choice she made.”
Soon, a few unblocked friends Carley had overlooked saw activity from her on social media — a sign she was alive and involved in her disappearance. Detectives pinged her phone.
That night Carley pumped gas and parked her car, getting into a vehicle with a man she secretly met on Instagram three weeks before. He drove her across the bay to a motel room in Foley. He was 19 and stopped by once to see Carley at work, her parents later learned. She said she thought it was love, but knew her family would not approve.
Surprised to find another man waiting in the motel room when they arrived, Carley said she got nervous and realized she was in over her head. A few minutes later cell phones in the room began buzzing with notifications that she was a missing person.
Both men had criminal records. Their focus shifted from Carley to avoiding more time in jail. Carley called Jeff. A Mobile police officer picked her up and brought her home. The family was unable to press charges because the age of consent is 16 in Alabama, and Carley went willingly.
“What if we had hesitated to get help and they raped her?” Erin asked. “What else would they have done with her? She is safe at home, but we are both going through counseling.”
Erin said she is a mom who is in touch with her kids, checking phones and recognizing changes in behavior. But she was alarmed by how much she had missed and how easy secret relationships and messages are to hide.
“We discovered dozens of guys on Snapchat who sent her requests for pictures, or were talking a certain way. Kids are giving their trust to the wrong
people,” Erin said. “It shows how quickly girls can fall in love with the wrong guy and be lured into sex trafficking no matter who they are. Carley could easily have been gone.”
Other girls in South Alabama are not so lucky.
“Traffickers use dating apps and social media to pull in girls with low self-esteem making the internet the biggest facilitator of sex trafficking,” said Julie McGuire, supervisor over youth investigations for the Mobile Sheriff’s Department and the Childhood Advocacy Center. McGuire explained that the trafficker meets the victim online and starts a relationship, like a boyfriend. He spoils her for a few weeks by taking her to dinner or to get her hair and nails done. The girl thinks it is the love she has been looking for.
“When he has her, he asks her to earn money for them just once by letting someone pay to have sex with her,” McGuire said. “She agrees and it only takes one time for her to become a prostitute forced under control by fraud and fear. Her boyfriend be- comes her pimp and that is sex trafficking.”
McGuire said the trafficker may also hook a victim on drugs — often heroin. She becomes an addict trading sex for her next high, sometimes never realizing she is a victim.
In the early days of her law enforcement career, McGuire thought prostitution was a victimless crime and a choice women made. Then she met a sex trafficking survivor five years ago in an airport in Boston and realized no woman would choose this life. McGuire became the first person in the Mobile Sheriff’s Department aware of sex trafficking, paying for training sessions herself to learn more.
“It is a dark world happening right here,” McGuire said. “The average person doesn’t want to know what is happening under their nose. The only way to end sex trafficking is to stop the demand and arrest the men who are paying.”
A child’s access to technology is the key to that dark world and a risk factor for kidnapping, sex trafficking, pornography and sexual abuse, said Chris Duff, a former special agent for the Louisiana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Duff has arrested hundreds of internet predators and child pornography criminals and warns that a perpetrator can meet, groom and lure a victim with- out leaving his house or showing his face. Networks, forums and chat rooms foster the sexual exploitation of children and are some of the reasons Duff founded Innocent Eyes to help parents and communities fight the online exploitation of children on the Gulf Coast.
Posing as a 12- to 15-year-old boy or girl online, Duff attracts predators in minutes, seeing the interaction from a child’s eyes. “How old are you?” and “How are you doing?” are the warm-up questions often asked by predators before conversations turn graphic and sexual, Duff said. Request for pictures and videos cross the line into the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography.
“Kids send naked pictures to an unknown man who is using a fake account with a fake picture,” said Duff, who is now based in Gulfport, Mississippi. “Being a 48-year-old man asking for naked pictures would never work, but using a fake profile is surprisingly successful.
Duff advises parents to regularly check their child’s phone, tablets and computers, warning they may be disturbed by what they find. He said
70 percent of children’s cell phones have naked pictures, and many kids are watching pornography. The average age of a child exposed to pornography is 11 years old. By college, 90 percent of men and 27 percent of women watch porn daily. Duff says good kids watch porn, too.
Police officers, counselors, therapists, prostitutes, strippers and even radio shock jock Howard Stern say the internet changed pornography, creating a public health crisis that the public is reluctant to acknowledge.
“Pornography documents and facilitates sex trafficking,” said Melissa Farley, executive director of Prostitution Research and Education that is based in California. “It is driven by the same demand and thrives on the vulnerability and exploitation of women. The women are often under pimp control and pressured to do more extreme sex acts on film. Pornography, prostitution and trafficking are the same for the person who is being exploited for profit. The same violence against women and children is in all three.”
Local therapists say pornography is the reason parents bring in 12-year-old boys addicted to videos of brutal sex before they even hold a girl’s hand. It is why students obsessed with pornography on school- issued computers are sent to Baldwin Youth Services for intervention. It is why children are taken to child advocacy centers for sexual behavior acted out on younger brothers and sisters, cousins or a student in their class. It is why men pay prostitutes for the abusive sex they see in videos. It is why the demand for sex with children has transformed sex trafficking to a billion-dollar industry.
Stern, who made a name and a career talking about sex and admits to watching porn several times a week, said he is concerned with pornography’s effect on children and society.
“Pornography is desensitizing our kids and that scares the hell out of me,” he told Terry Gross in a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
“I can’t imagine being a kid today with that ac- cess to porn,” he said. “‘Gilligan’s Island’ and The New York Times girdle ads were my pornography. It troubles me that a 13-year-old boy or girl sees hardcore porn and expects that from sex. Pornography has to be doing something to them. I can’t imagine how charged up I would be growing up with this. I am not for regulation, but I wish our kids were more innocent now.
“How can you ever have a normal sex life when you watch that stuff?” Stern asked.
Access to pornography for children of any age is as easy as typing in the word Pornhub, one of the internet’s most popular sites for pornography. The website instantly fills the screen with pornographic pictures and videos, requiring no verification of age or parental consent. Every 60 seconds 63,992 new visitors arrive on Pornhub, 12 new videos are uploaded and 207,405 videos are watched, according to its 2018 year in review.
Greg Oliver was a teenager who became addicted to pornography while growing up in a Christian home. Attending Bible college in Birmingham to prepare for the ministry, he prayed that God would end his addiction. Pleading for spiritual help did not heal him. Neither did marrying his college sweetheart, Stacey. Pornography sexualized his concept of intimacy, and sex with his wife did not solve his problem.
“Real intimacy is letting yourself be fully known,” he said.
Intimacy also brings the possibility of being rejected, and Greg avoided rejection at all costs, even with Stacey. Pornography provided the physical release of sex without requiring emotional connection and vulnerability.
“When you’re scared of rejection, why risk a relationship when you think you can get what you need online?”
Greg’s pornography addiction began with magazines. In 1995, new technology — a computer with internet access — provided an unlimited supply of images and videos, driving him to new levels of addiction. Stress and self-doubt, two of his triggers, increased after he became a worship pastor in Birmingham. Greg disengaged from his family, eventually living a double life. Afraid to reveal his struggles, he tried to keep his secret and run out the clock.
“Pornography affects your brain chemistry,” he said. “Like all addictions, it escalates and keeps requiring more to achieve the same sense of satisfaction. I needed more graphic images and novelty to be aroused. Eventually, I crossed lines I said I would never cross.”
Lines were crossed and the things he said he would never do became things he did, including sex outside of marriage. In 2009, he sent an email arranging for a hook-up, accidentally sending it from his church email account. He was discovered and fired, but through Stacey’s grace and forgiveness his marriage survived, and he began a life of recovery from addiction. In 2015, Greg and Stacey started a nonprofit recovery ministry called Awaken to help people find freedom from sexual addiction.
“God wants us to have healthy, intimate sex lives, but pornography is not the way to do it,” Greg said. “Porn indoctrinates our kids early with the wrong message about sex and what they need. Parents have to engage early and often with their children if they are going to have any chance of a healthy view of sex.”
Parents paying attention and having hard talks might save a child’s life.
Amanda received a school computer at the beginning of seventh grade at Fairhope Middle School. The laptop came with an email address and internet access that opened the door to people and worlds her parents did not see.
A few weeks later, Amanda’s personality began to change. Her mother, Cathy, got “weird vibes” and became suspicious that her daughter was hiding something. Cathy collected Amanda’s passwords and found an email account that she knew nothing about.
Amanda was at the age that bullying began, and Cathy wanted to keep an eye on her.
“Amanda didn’t have a cell phone yet because we knew there was too much out there,” Cathy said. “I am a parent first, we can be friends when she turns 18.”
Cathy’s suspicion of something wrong was correct, but it was not bullying. Amanda was 13 and met a boy on a website for teens. The chatting got “real serious, real fast.” By the time the boy revealed he was a man in his 30s, age didn’t matter because “Amanda was hooked.”
Cathy learned that inappropriate pictures were exchanged and she found emails from the man, James Wesley Peterson from Kiln, Mississippi, encouraging Amanda to meet him. Cathy brought in the Fairhope Police Department and pretended to be her daughter to get more information. The FBI took over posing as Amanda, and soon Peterson crossed the state line to meet her at the Fairhope Public Library.
Texts told his intentions.
“I’m gonna kiss you silly. And probably touch you in a few inappropriate places . . . if you don’t mind,” he wrote. “I might try to jump your bones too.”
“You want me to make love to you in my truck on the day we meet?”
Peterson was a sex offender with two convictions when he drove more than 90 miles on November 1, 2016, to “jump the bones” of a child when he was arrested at the library. Crossing state lines made it a federal crime. A Fairhope officer said there were items in his truck that could be used to hide a body.
“This time there will be no early release,” Cathy said. “He got 17 years and he will do every day of that in federal prison. The only reason he is still alive is because I have kids and can’t go to jail. At least I know he won’t contact my daughter ever again. Maybe this keeps him away from someone else’s child.”
Amanda’s first boyfriend was a pedophile. It will take her years of therapy to get through that. Cathy said she didn’t think this could happen to her daughter. She didn’t think it could happen in Fairhope.
“There are people outside our perfect town who aren’t so nice and perfect,” she said.
*The names of Erin, Carley, Cathy and Amanda have been changed
If you suspect human trafficking or need help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888- 373-7888 or text “help” to 233733 (BE FREE).
For more information about Awaken Recovery: awakenrecovery.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about Innocent Eyes: in- nocenteyes.org/ or email Chris@innocenteyes.org
This is the third part of a five-part series on human trafficking in South Alabama.
In the next issue of Lagniappe, “The Sting of Ordering Sex Online.”
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