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Prostitution 'Circuit' Takes Girls Across North America

Nicky, an 18-year-old with red hair, blames her mother, who was a prostitute, for getting her into the sex trade at age 12.

She admits to being naive back then. Certainly she didn't know about the "circuit" used by those who procure children for sex - or where it would take her.

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It didn't take long for her to find out.

Two years of earning money through sex in a Calgary bar flashed by. Then she found herself on the street as an independent or "renegade" prostitute. It was there she learned about how those who run the child sex trade in the United States and Canada operate the circuit.

She recalls the summer evening when a BMW with three men pulled up to her corner. Without warning they threw her into the trunk and took her to a hotel where they told her she would work for them in Seattle.

"I told them they would have to make me - and they did," she says. "They beat me unconscious. I ended up working on a Seattle street corner for three months. The entire time, there was this guy, sitting in a doorway on the other side of the street, with a gun pointed at me."

Nicky now works the streets on her own in Vancouver.

Prostitution pipeline

Like sheep led by vicious shepherds, children are being systematically moved by procurers along the "Pacific circuit" or prostitution "pipeline" that runs from Vancouver to the US West Coast - then west to Honolulu.

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Business is brisk on the pipeline, says Robert Murphy, a US Border Patrol special agent in Blaine, Wash., whose job involves unravelling conspiracies to move youths across the US-Canada border for the sex trade.

"There is a trend during the summer for pimps to work their young victims west from Toronto and Calgary on to Vancouver - and then on south to the US, partly because the weather's better," he says. "The girls are often loaned from one pimp to another one in another city. And we have American pimps going up to Canada to recruit."

Up to 300,000 in North America

But Canada is hardly the major source of children for the North American sex trade. Despite a widespread belief that the trade is a sordid bit of back-alley life confined to Asia or certain streets in New York and Los Angeles, it's actually a lucrative and growing business in North America, police and social workers say. An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 children are in prostitution in the US and Canada.

Nobody knows the true number. But Vancouver, B.C., Vice Sgt. Gordon Elias says the cross-border movement of children for prostitution seems to be growing. "These guys definitely move them around," he says.

No vacation in Hawaii

Krista Mitchell found herself funneled into the Pacific pipeline in 1993, when she was 17 years old. She was first lured into prostitution by a Vancouver pimp, a woman, who was a partner of a male Honolulu-based pimp. Krista was taken to Honolulu, where she worked under the name Tammy Drake, making $500 to $1,000 a night for her pimp. After her parents tracked her down, the pimp was convicted on charges of bringing a minor illegally into the US for prostitution.

Her case was a rare success for US authorities, who are putting more resources into investigating the cross-border sex trade.

Honolulu is an attraction to pimps marketing girls, because many well-heeled Japanese tourists visit there, police say; Honolulu may also be a transit point for funneling girls to the Far East, says J. Robert Flores, former acting director of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the US Department of Justice.

Make them a star

Typically, recruiters "used to come and tell little blond girls that they were going to make them a movie star - or take them to Japan to become a dancer. Then they take their passports and they can't leave," says Lois Lee, director of Children of the Night, a facility for youths recovering from prostitution.

Trapped in Japan

Standing alone under a streetlight in downtown Vancouver, 18-year-old Heather consents to take a break and be interviewed. She tells of being forced into prostitution in Toronto when she was 11 years old - first by her mother, a heroin addict who wanted money for her habit.

Later Heather was sold to a gang or "family" of pimps, well known to Toronto police. Along the way, however, she was befriended by Tracy, another girl in prostitution. Not long after, though, Tracy disappeared.

"I know that they do sell white women to Asia," Heather says. "It actually happened to [Tracy].... They took her to Japan in 1993. They told her she was going to be a model."

Heather says Tracy is still in Japan and still being sexually exploited because she gets monthly phone calls from her, calls that are monitored. "I worry about her all the time," she says. "But I don't know how I can help her get away from them."

Besides moving children to the sex market, pimps also travel far to recruit. One New York pimp recently told of a recruiting trip he planned to Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas, Oklahoma, and California, says Frank Barnaba, whose Paul & Lisa Program works with children in prostitution in the New York City area.

The targets are often naive and troubled girls willing to believe stories that they have a future in modeling, or some other ruse. Prime territory for these agents are poor areas or city streets with homeless youths.

Most children "working" New York City streets are not from New York, Mr. Barnaba says. The kids he finds were recruited by pimps trolling for troubled youths through the shopping malls and fast-food restaurants of the Midwest - heartland places like San Antonio, Cleveland, or Wichita, Kan.

Not in Kansas anymore

Kansas is the state that New York City pimps love most, Barnaba says. Over a five-year period, 33 of 262 children he identified working as prostitutes in New York said they were from Kansas. Florida ranked second with 22.

To keep the youths under control and stay one step ahead of the law, pimps often move from city to city. The unfamiliar surroundings can prevent a child from forming friendships or figuring out whom to trust. The child or adolescent is also kept penniless.

Some marketers of children keep them locked up for days and weeks at a time in "trick pads," say police and others. The pads involve much more organized criminal effort. Vancouver police found one in the early '90s. But generally they are difficult to catch because they operate in a house or hotel for only a few days.

Eyewitness to a trick pad

Calvin Lee, a former social worker in Vancouver, saw a trick pad in 1992 that was run by a Vietnamese gang. He happened upon it while visiting a teenager living there. "I doubt if there were any girls over 17 in the entire place," Mr. Lee says. "It was run by an Asian male in his early 30s. I saw sex acts going on. Not all the girls were there of their own free will.... Some had been in there for weeks - Vietnamese girls and white girls."

Before he could report what he had seen to police, he says the operation disappeared. "It's very much a shadow world," he says. "They don't advertise in the papers. They move quick."

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