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Caged

City tales | The growing crisis of child prostitution in the United States has hit major cities like Phoenix, where Christians and local officials are joining together to break free young girls

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

PHOENIX- In a sun-bleached Phoenix suburb, a diverse group gathers in the living room of Chad DeMiguel, a professional videographer. Charles Booker, a lanky college student who longs to break into acting, is sprawled in a red, overstuffed chair. Lexie Rich, 16, sits on the sofa, a selection of skimpy halter tops in her lap. Pat McCalla, 36, a nonprofit manager, stands to DeMiguel's left.

Several men in their 20s and 30s have posted themselves around the dimly lit room, which also features an odd accessory: an empty black cage, 3 feet by 3 feet by 4 feet.

All eyes are trained on DeMiguel, who begins reading solemnly from a police report: "Jade said Sept. 26, 2005, was the last day she had gone to school."

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Jade is not the real name in the police report about a 15-year-old Phoenix girl who, after getting in trouble with her parents, decided she would take off with a friend to teach them a lesson. But the rest of the details are real.

Jade's friend Bianca and Bianca's friend Matthew picked up Jade that day in a gray Cadillac. "Jade wasn't sure where she was going," DeMiguel reads. "She said all of a sudden Matthew told Bianca to duct-tape her up. They taped up her hands and put tape over her mouth and eyes. They told her if she screamed they would shoot her."

Matthew and Bianca took Jade to a house somewhere in Phoenix. Once inside, someone ripped the duct tape off Jade's eyes. Terrified, she saw she was in a bedroom. Then Matthew pointed a 9mm pistol at her forehead and pulled the trigger.

Certain she was going to die, Jade heard only a click. Matthew laughed hilariously at his empty-gun joke, and someone duct-taped Jade's eyes again. Then a girl named Jennell announced that a man in his 30s in the living room wanted to sleep with "a young female."

Altogether that night, four to five different men repeatedly raped Jade. Each day for the next 42, Matthew brought in multiple men who paid him to have sex with the young girl. Matthew told Jade that if she did not cooperate or tried to escape, he would pour battery acid on her younger sister's face. To prove he meant it, he showed her a photograph of someone he had already done that to.

At night, Jade slept on the floor, or in a secret compartment inside a bed frame where no unwelcome visitor, such as a police officer, might find her. To humiliate her, Matthew sometimes forced Jade to curl up inside a dog kennel-a cage like the one in Chad DeMiguel's living room.

The image of a young girl locked in a cage has become something of a symbol in Phoenix-a symbol of child sex-trafficking, an evil that once seemed confined to underdeveloped, crime-infested and corruption-ridden countries-but now is invading America.

In March, Matthew Gray, Jade's captor in what has become known as "the dog-crate case," was sentenced to 35 years in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping, sexual assault, and child prostitution. His conviction and others in the case are the first fruits of an unusually diverse coalition: churches, Christian nonprofits, and government officials working together to fight a common injustice.

Chad DeMiguel and those gathered in his home are part of that coalition. DeMiguel is producing a documentary on child sex-trafficking called Branded. Booker, Rich, McCalla, and the others will pose for still shots that, while discreetly staged, will reenact the horror of Jade's torment. The film is part of the Phoenix coalition's three-front war on child sex-trafficking: public education, legislative action, and the development of a safe house for child victims.

The FBI estimates that more than 100,000 children and young women ages 9 to 19 are trafficked for sexual profit in the United States. The average age of entry into the sex trade is 11 to 13 years old, according to the Justice Department. In Phoenix, the average child prostitute is 13.

Until recently, said Phoenix vice detective Christi Hein, the city's vice squad routinely tossed child prostitutes in jail, and that was that. As a newer officer in the early 2000s, Hein had worked in a high-prostitution area that was also rife with drugs.

"My view was that they were all just druggies financing their habits," Hein said. But in August 2005, Hein became involved in a case that changed her mind. The vice squad arrested "Melanie," a 15-year-old who had been with her pimp for just a few weeks.

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