Indictments didn’t surprise some East County residents
By Gary Warth3 p.m.Dec. 27, 2014Updated11:49 a.m.Dec. 29, 2014
Many East County residents were alarmed, but not necessarily shocked, earlier this month by the arrest of 22 alleged gang members charged with coercing local schoolgirls into the sex trade.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me,” said Christina Hicks, president of the Kempton Elementary School PTA. “Not in Spring Valley. Nothing really surprises me anymore.”
Hicks, who has teenage sons at Steele Canyon High and Parkway Middle School, said she’s not very worried about her own children, but is concerned for other families with parents who are not as involved. She also is disappointed that the arrests were not followed by community meetings and forums on how to deal with a growing problem of gangs and sex trafficking.
The once-rural Spring Valley is where metropolitan San Diego starts giving way to the region’s back country. Urban concerns there have been festering for years yet some residents say they don’t have the resources to deal with them.
“I think we get forgotten about a lot, and I think this is why things like this happen,” Hicks said about Spring Valley. “We’re not a top priority. I think that if we were La Mesa, La Jolla or North Park, things would look very different.”
Hicks said Spring Valley residents must start working together as a community to protect their children. The growing association between gangs and sex trafficking, however, is hardly unique to East County.
San Diego Deputy District Attorney Mary Ellen Barrett said gang members accounted for more than half of the 68 defendants charged with sex trafficking since January 2013,
“I actually think that it’s higher,” she said about gang activity in sex trafficking. “The police will tell you 90 percent.”
Where to get help
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center provides help, referrals and general information for anyone who is or suspects someone who is being forced to engage in any activity and cannot leave. The center’s 24-hour hotline is 1-888-373-7888. Calls are anonymous and confidential.
In the first major case tying gangs to pimping in the county, 29 Oceanside gang members were indicted on federal human-trafficking chargers in 2011.
Last January, 24 alleged gang members in North Park were indicted on sex-trafficking charges that involved bringing underage girls to other states.
Those cases, like the most recently indictments in East County, were prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as RICO.
“It’s high-reward, low-risk,” Barrett said about why gangs have entered the sex-trade field. “It’s all about the money. If you have an amount of meth, you’re done after you sell it. If you have a young girl, you can sell her six times a night.”
“It’s mind-boggling that it’s happening here,” she said. “We’re America’s finest city. It’s beautiful. But there are a number of factors that promote it as a high-prostitution area.”
In the East County arrests, 19 men and three women were indicted and named members of a hybrid gang known as the Tycoons. According to the indictment, the gang sent young women and girls across state lines to Texas, Arizona, Kansas, Michigan and Nevada.
About 100 victims, some as young as 12, were identified during the two-year investigation.
The arrests came with the help of Grossmont Union High School District personnel who have been trained to look for signs of girls being exploited since at least 2009, the year San Diego County was identified by the FBI as a top location for trafficking.
Jenee Littrell, an assistant principal at the district’s continuation school Chaparall High, has become a nationally recognized figure in the fight against sex trafficking in schools and helped create a booklet on the subject.
“It’s to be proactive, and it’s for schools that may not understand this phenomenon,” she said about the booklet, which was created with a $25,000 U.S. Department of Education grant and is scheduled for release next month.
Littrell said she couldn’t give details about the district’s role in helping law enforcement in the recent arrests, but a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office credited school officials and other community members with assisting in the investigation.
“They did not look the other way,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said. “They saw signs of trouble, and they reported it. ”
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said the investigation began with work from parents and school resource officers. Joe Garcia, interim special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego, said the arrests were a reminder that community awareness is crucial in identifying victims and exposing perpetrators.
Meeting on gangs
The first joint meeting between the Gang Intervention and Prevention Commission and the San Diego Human Relations Commission is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Jan. 22 at Cherokee Point Elementary School, 3735 38th St., San Diego.
What to look for
Littrell said she interviewed educators in districts across the nation to compile a list of what people should look for to recognize sex trafficking victims.
“The warning signs are pretty common,” she said. “Truancy. Bruising. Tattoos (of money signs or gang names). Multiple cell phones. Certain languages.”
The booklet, “Human Trafficking in America’s Schools,” gives more details: An inability to attend school on a regular basis. Sudden possession of expensive items. Frequently running away from home. Frequent travel to other cities. Lack of control over a personal schedule.
Littrell said that as an educator she would not have associated those signs with sex trafficking without advice from law enforcement officials. She stressed that schools must create partnerships outside campuses to work in collaboration in solving the problem.
“It’s not a school issue,” she said. “It’s a community issue.”