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."
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.
"She and some friends had met this guy at a mall. He paid her lots of compliments and was really showy with his money, like a guy just trying to impress a girl," Hein said.
They exchanged phone numbers. Later Melanie and a girlfriend hooked up with the guy and some of his friends.
"What got me was that when I was 15, that could have been me," Hein said. "If a nice-looking older guy was going to show interest, I might've followed him blindly. [Melanie] was from a good home with two loving parents who were active in her life."
By the time Melanie's situation turned uncomfortable, she didn't know how to get out of it. The men took the girls to an apartment where events progressed from playful flirting to "playful" sex acts to photographs-blackmail material. The men then told the girls they were all going to a party at another house, but instead drove them to California then back to Arizona.
"Now the girls are completely disoriented and have no idea where they are," Hein said.
The men wound up putting Melanie on the streets to sell herself. Melanie's story is in many ways typical. To lure their prey, predators go where girls go, which in Phoenix often means to shopping malls. Usually, these men do not fit the stereotypical definition of a pimp, but instead are clean-cut and well-dressed, posing as modeling agents or photographers.
Once a pimp succeeds in getting a girl to leave the safety of friends and familiar places, he may either force her to submit (as with Jade) or "groom" her (as with Melanie), sometimes promising luxury and independence. Eventually, though, the girl becomes his captive. In one 2005 Phoenix case, a pimp "worked" five girls, ages 11 to 17, from an apartment outfitted with padlocks and bars.
But even those who don't physically imprison their victims keep them mentally shackled through violence, either threatened or real. Meanwhile, victims are completely cut off from friends, family, and finances. Many develop "Stockholm Syndrome"-or "traumatic bonding"-identifying and even sympathizing with the trafficker.
That's where the road got tough for Christi Hein. For two years, she worked case after case, rescuing young girls from abusive pimps, but with end results that drove her to distraction: Pimps got off with little or no jail time. And, brainwashed or terrified of retribution, the girls almost always ran back to their abusers.
The only safe place to put them was in jail. "We tried so many different times to come up with some other kind of facility where girls could get help and counseling, but everything kept falling through," Hein said. "I had pretty much given up."
As Hein and her fellow vice squad officers struggled with how best to serve justice, Mark Connelly, pastor of Superstition Springs Community Church, struggled with how his church could advance biblical justice. As church leaders explored areas of need, they became involved with Homes of Hope, a program in Fiji that provides housing, food, medical care, vocational training, and Christian discipleship for girls rescued from sex traffickers. Superstition Springs invited other Phoenix-area churches to form Vision Abolition, a 501(c)3 that battles child sex-trafficking.
In late 2005, former Phoenix vice mayor Peggy Bilsten got a telephone call from the city's vice squad. "Peggy," the officer said, "there's a crime scene you're going to want to see."
Bilsten, who is a Christian, now serves as Humanitarian Ambassador for the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona. But for 14 years, she served on the Phoenix City Council. The police came to know her as someone who cared passionately about crime victims.
The crime scene was the aftermath of Jade's captivity. Bilsten was shocked to see the dog crate, the rape room, and various instruments used to torture the girl. After vice officers briefed Bilsten on Phoenix's child prostitution problem, she researched the topic further on her own. Then she held a press conference. Local talk shows and print media ran with the story, the image of the dog crate case exploding the myth of the rebellious teen streetwalker and showing that most child prostitutes aren't entrepreneurs, but slaves.
In 2006, Bilsten asked the mayor to form a task force of prosecutors, law enforcement officers, counselors, and other professionals who could address various aspects of the problem. A review of existing vice laws showed a "complete defense" for pimps and johns with regard to child prostitution: All either had to do was say he didn't know a minor girl's true age.
Bilsten asked task force prosecutors to write a new law that closed the loophole. The Arizona Senate adopted and passed the bill, SB 1268, unanimously. But three House lawmakers-a liberal Democrat and two Republicans-argued that the bill stripped away the constitutional right to a defense. Bilsten was stunned: She could not imagine anyone opposing a law that punished people engaged in the sexual abuse of children.
Bilsten reached out to several churches, urging citizens to stand up in support of the new legislation. "But they didn't want to hear about it," Bilsten told WORLD. "Child sex-trafficking was not an uplifting story."
Discouraged but determined, Bilsten spoke at a luncheon at Food for the Hungry (FH), the Christian international relief and development organization headquartered in Phoenix and working in more than 26 countries. It was the spring of 2007. Sitting in the audience was FH Senior Manager of City Initiatives Pat McCalla.
In her talk, Bilsten described the dark world of child sex-trafficking. "My heart was so heavy," Bilsten remembers. "I was thinking, Where are God's people?"
When she finished her talk and looked up, she saw tears in Pat McCalla's eyes.
When McCalla heard Bilsten speak, he knew that not only was child sex-trafficking a major issue for Phoenix, but that few in the city were aware of it. McCalla saw that Food for the Hungry could contribute most by acting as a "convener," linking people already working separately on the problem. McCalla connected Bilsten with Vision Abolition, and Bilsten connected Vision Abolition with the government task force.
Soon a meeting was set in which, for the first time, representatives from nonprofits, churches, and government would sit down to discuss a problem that challenged the entire community.
That meeting was the first of many that included law enforcement, child protective services, state and local prosecutors, counselors, even the mayor and representatives of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. To date the coalition has succeeded in toughening penalties for adults engaged in sex acts with minors and in launching a public education initiative that includes Branded, the DeMiguel-produced documentary set to debut on April 12.
Vision Abolition has identified 133 trafficked kids and is now reaching out to 20 to 30 new victims each month. In four years, the coalition's goal is that Vision Abolition will have opened a safe house that will shelter and restore child sex-trafficking victims.
There will be challenges: Funding. Zoning. Legal questions such as whether a facility designed to rescue and restore can also be locked-to protect girls both from pimps and from their own bad judgment. But McCalla, Bilsten, and Superstition Springs' Mark Connelly all said government officials haven't balked at the idea that the planned home will be Christ-centered.
Detective Christi Hein, for one, believes it is biblical values that have made the people of Vision Abolition and Food for the Hungry willing to come alongside her and others fighting child sex-trafficking from within the confines of bureaucracy.
"I think it's only because they're faith-based that they're willing to take this on and to deal with the hurdles," Hein said. "Until this group came along, I had given up. They've given me new hope."