Michele TeBrake is a philanthropist, advocate and Cold Spring businesswoman. Her shop, Trendsetters Boutique, is a fun little spot on Main Street that sells fashion accessories — jewelry, hats, scarves, purses– and was established in 2006 to provide support to charitable organizations. Michele aims to support causes locally, regionally, statewide, and globally. “It’s the reason I went into business,” she says, “to provide financial support to people less fortunate.” Money from Trendsetters has drilled wells in India, helped build an orphanage in Kenya, and supports Michele’s most passionate cause, rescuing girls and women who are victims of sex trafficking, the forced participation in prostitution.
Globally, Michele supports Freedom Home in the small country of Moldova, located in Eastern Europe between Romania and Ukraine. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and girls living in rural areas have become easy prey to sex traffickers. Michele explains that traffickers will arrive in poor villages and claim, “We have jobs for your daughters.” The villagers of Moldova lead simple lives, uninformed by television or the Internet. Moreover, they want to believe their daughters are able to earn money. What they don’t know is that their daughters are about to disappear into the sex trade. Freedom Home is a refuge; a home where girls and women who have escaped the sex trade can live and heal.
Sex trafficking came to Michele’s attention several years ago by way of a friend who works as a missionary to Freedom Home. “I was shocked and appalled,” Michele says. She started supporting Freedom Home but, “My heart ached to do more.” That’s when she met with an employee of Breaking Free, a Minnesota nonprofit that provides services to victims of sex trafficking. Michele has been working with the organization for about four years and each month donates a substantial amount of her Trendsetter profits to the group. She is also a speaker for the organization and stocks their nonprofit boutique; all boutique profits go back into programs and services. Breaking Free offers support and programming designed to help women reclaim their lives. Their philosophy is that prostitution is never a choice but“a modern-day slavery that entraps women and girls.” In other words, they want the public to stop thinking of prostitution as the “oldest profession” and begin to recognize it for what it is, the “oldest oppression.” As Michele puts it, “The tactics used to manipulate these young children are horrific. I don’t believe for one second that any little girl would choose to be beaten and raped several times a day at the hands of a stranger.” Breaking Free offers a number of services for victims, including housing, crisis intervention, life skills education, parenting classes and counseling. For the offenders, or johns, the organization provides a class called “Offender’s Prostitution Program,” commonly referred to as “John School.” Michele’s mission is not only to support the work of Breaking Free but also to get the word out about the sexual exploitation of girls and women. “I want Minnesotans to know this is happening in their backyard.”
That’s right, according to the FBI. The Land of 10,000 Lakes sells, on average, 10,000 girls and women into sex slavery each year, and that number is increasing rapidly. Sex trafficking, is the fastest-growing black market crime in the world, second only to drugs. The Twin Cities is the thirteenth largest sex trafficking market in the nation. Another surprising hot spot is Duluth where vulnerable girls, especially Native Americans, are targeted. Some girls as young as ten years old have been lured away with promises of nothing more than clothing, shoes, gifts and nice meals. A girl trapped in the sex trade is expected to service an average of eight to ten men each day. Girls sought by traffickers often live in poverty and have been physically and/or sexually abused in their homes. Girls and teens are found in all venues of the sex trade, including brothels, online escort services, massage parlors, strip clubs, and street prostitution.
I spoke with Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner about activity in Central Minnesota, and he said the biggest problem is people “not understanding that it’s happening.” Runaway girls are especially vulnerable. Sheriff Sanner explains that his deputies are trained to immediately forward to the FBI any suspicions of trafficking “because this crime crosses out of our jurisdiction very quickly.” He also points out that the “Internet makes these crimes easier to commit because it’s easier to sell their product, which is, in this case, sex.”
The website, backpage.com offers adult services by location, and yes, St. Cloud has plenty of “escorts,” the popular euphemism for sex workers. Though the pictures of the escorts appear to be adult women, it is often a minor who actually answers the call. According to Homeland Security, the agency charged with investigating and fighting labor and sex trafficking, the crime occurs in every county of Minnesota.
Sergeant John Bandemer of the St. Paul Police Department is a member of the Gerald D. Vick Human Trafficking Task Force, founded in 2005. The Task Force includes several agencies and organizations including the FBI and Breaking Free. Sergeant Bandemer says that backpage.com is constantly being monitored. “The agreement to pay for sex is enough to make an arrest,” says Bandemer. The evidence is often in the form of emails, voicemails, or text messages. Arranging to pay a juvenile for sex is a felony.
Bandemer told me about Akmal Karon who was arrested in the St. Cloud area by the Stearns County Sheriff ’s Department and is awaiting trial in Hennepin County. Karon is charged with eight felonies, all related to prostitution. Two of the charges are for soliciting girls under the age of 18 to practice prostitution. One child was only 13 years old when Karon picked her up in front of her home in Brooklyn Park. The other girl, who was 16 at the time of the arrest, was a runaway. Karon found johns on backpage.com and prostituted the teens in hotels in Minneapolis, St. Cloud, and Duluth. He controlled the girls with beatings and rape. Karon burned the older girl with his cigar and hit her in the head with a bottle for not bringing in enough money. The 16-year-old was discovered to have been at a St. Cloud hotel 80 times in the year prior to the arrest. Mr. Karon apparently took pride in his lifestyle and position of power over the teens. The evidence against Karon includes sporting a tattoo that reads “Pimp life.” No one has accused Mr. Karon of being smart.
There has been a push to shut down the adult classified section of backpage.com, owned by Village Voice Media, because of the ease with which the site facilitates the prostitution of minors. The Minneapolis City Council in August 2012 joined St. Paul and cities across the nation in calling for the shutdown of the adult pages. Backpage.com says it requires users to report abuse and exploitation, that it caters only to adults and has no plans to close its adult classified section. The following is an ad released in July of this year by Fair Girls, a group dedicated to preventing the exploitation of girls worldwide, and also calling for a shutdown of backpage.com. The ad is the true story of a girl who was lured into prostitution at the tender age of nine.
“I THOUGHT HE WAS MY BOYFRIEND, I THOUGHT HE LOVED ME FOR REAL, BUT HE MADE ME WORK EVERY DAY. HE THREATENED ME, HE MADE ME TAKE DRUGS, HE RAPED ME A BUNCH OF TIMES, AND THEN HE SOLD ME TO 4 SOMETIMES 5 MEN A DAY FOR $100/HOUR. ONE TIME THERE WAS 10 MEN IN 1 DAY. I THOUGHT THEY WOULD KILL ME, I THOUGHT I’D NEVER GET AWAY. MY PIMP ADVERTISED ME ONLINE AT BACKPAGE.COM. THAT’S HOW THESE GUYS BUY ME… I’M 13.”
In addition to investigating and prosecuting those who prostitute girls and women, The Human Trafficking Task Force provides education and training for law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Recently, they launched a campaign for prevention and education jointly with The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota called, “MN Girls are Not for Sale.” This initiative facilitates public understanding of the fact that girls engaged in prostitution are victims in need of help, not juvenile delinquents. In July of 2011, Governor Mark Dayton signed into law the Safe Harbor Law that defines sexually-exploited children under the age of 16 as victims in need of protection, and refers 16- and 17-year-olds to support and recovery services. The law also increases fines on the johns who pay for sex services. Safe Harbor recognizes the girls as casualties of the sex trade, used and abused by two criminal offenders—the sellers/pimps and the buyers/johns.
Sergeant Bandemer says that the Task Force has also increased “john sweeps” to twice a month as a method of prevention, and they are working with the johns they arrest to create a profile of men who choose to buy sex online. Battling sex trafficking is “challenging work,” Bandemer says, “and unfortunately there’s always plenty of it.”
Michele tells of a young woman “who was sold by her parents when she was about eight years old. She can’t even remember not being abused. These young girls have had their lives taken from them.” After a recent visit to speak at Breaking Free, Michele was told by a young woman, “Before you came today, I felt like I had no hope. Now I feel I can survive.” Perhaps as valuable as Michele TeBrake’s financial support is her emotional support. Michele lets victims know that she cares and that their lives matter.
318 Main Street
Cold Spring, MN 56320