TWIN FALLS • Across the country this week, during a three-day FBI sweep, police arrested 150 pimps and rescued 105 children who had been forced into prostitution.
While there were no Idaho arrests, local investigators say they know human trafficking happens here.
The Magic Valley lies along a main corridor of the interstate system, which means drugs and humans are being trafficked across our borders.
Prostitution arrests are fairly rare in Twin Falls, and detectives with local police and the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office say they haven’t seen a case of child prostitution in their careers.
In many local cases, women who may or may not have a pimp come into town, advertise they’re at a hotel, then move on, said sheriff’s Lt. Perry Barnhill.
“I wish we could look into it more,” Barnhill said. “I think we could find out a lot more about it.”
The sheriff’s office was extremely productive in its Rock Creek Park sting operation last summer, he said.
“We were there for a short time and had two customers right away.”
Barnhill said deputies could stand to do more operations, but the time it takes to set them up is
“It is solely time and manpower,” he said. “It’s not a funding issue.”
The sheriff’s office and police monitor free classified websites, such as Craigslist and Backpage, for posts about possible prostitution.
Those sites usually contain contact information police try to use, Barnhill said.
“We call the number and find where the person is, if the call is returned,” said police Sgt. John Wilson.
When police get to the location, they try to assess what’s really going on. They ask about what they call freedom of movement: Are you allowed to come and go as you please? Do you live and work in the same place? What were the conditions when you left your previous home? Are you ever physically restrained? When someone locks you in a room, who holds the key? Are you allowed to move about in public without being watched? Are you allowed to go buy things on your own?
“If we get straight answers, we can find out if we have a pimp,” Wilson said.
Straight answers are often difficult to get, whether out of fear or because the people don’t consider themselves victims.
“She may in her mind think that she’s doing this willingly, but an underage girl can’t consent,” Wilson said. “They may view the person controlling them as an ally or friend and the police as an adversary.”
Police often are given fake names or birthdates, and building trust is a process, he said.
“Then we start getting into the runaways,” Barnhill said. “They get into the wrong crowd, and the next thing you know they’re turning tricks.”
That might sound like exaggeration, but the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that nearly 450,000 children run away from home each year, and one-third of teens living on the street will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
“One of our bigger hurdles is our officers just aren’t faced with this call a lot,” Wilson said. “After doing some investigations once or twice, they have an idea of what questions to ask.”
Local law enforcement has assisted other agencies, including in Portland, Ore., Wilson said.
Portland police asked Twin Falls officers to verify information from a victim of prostitution who said she’d been in Twin Falls. Police were able to contact hotels where the victim had stayed and a mechanic where the woman said she’d taken a car.
“People in Twin Falls are hopefully aware that if a crime happens in Salt Lake or Portland or Los Angeles, it can also happen in Twin Falls,” Wilson said. “People need to be aware that these crimes do occur and that because we’re a smaller community, we’re not immune.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.