By: Melina Matthes
OMAHA (KPTM) - You might not think of Omaha as being a hotbed for the slave trade, but if you don't, think again.
There is evidence that hundreds of girls, some in their early teens are being sold as sex slaves in truck stops in our area.
Fox 42's Melina Matthes took a hard look at a problem some don't want to admit exists and at what some are doing to try to stop it.
The FBI says the problem is real. Law enforcement officials say I-80 plays a big part in helping men buy and sell young girls.
While many are kidnapped, some who runaway from home are easy targets for pimps traveling through.
Now police are reaching out for help and some truckers are signing up. They are now the eyes and ears of our highways. They're working with local law enforcement officials to stop this nightmare.
300,000. That's a big number and it's the number of children who are kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking each year according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Terry Smith is a trucker working to fight the sex trade. He said, "it's just horrible, any number is horrible, small number or large, especially if it's younger girls."
He said girls approach him often at rest stops. "Just knock on your truck door and ask if you want some company or at you in passing if you're walking by. I mean, they know what they're doing, you know what they're doing, they don't have to ask you straight out. They'll ask you if you want some company or if you need your truck cleaned."
FBI officials say the average person doesn't see what's really going on at truck stops. Most think the girls are prostitutes, but they say that's not true. Many are being forced into it by someone that bought them. The girls call them pimps.
"Personally, I'd like to find out who they are and take justice into my own hands," Joseph Shaffier said.
"As far as I'm concerned if they can do that to a child or anybody, they're not human," Larry Ziegler said.
The FBI says traffickers recruit out of schools, shopping malls, concerts and football games.
One woman formerly trapped in the sex trade spoke with Fox 42 News. She said her pimp approached her while she was working at a restaurant and it all started with a compliment.
"Oh my god your eyes are so beautiful, you're this, you're that and it was nothing that happened in one occurrence. So it was every time he came in, there was something to be said. From there he kept doing that until I began to open up and once I began to open up, you know the tactics that he used were no different than any other guy trying to get a girl out for a date," Katrina Owens said.
She says he promised her the moon. Everything a young girl could want, from designer purses to jewelry. "Everything that glitters, ain't gold as they say you know, you never know how someone's gotten what they've gotten and you know there's nothing that's free. There's no such thing as a free lunch. There's nothing that's free and it all comes at a cost."
A price higher than she ever expected, "he was physically abusive, he was emotionally abusive, he isolated me from my family so there was no contacting anyone, he threatened to harm my family if I were to walk away. He had all of my personal information so you know it wasn't very easy for me to just walk away," Owens said.
The FBI said that's something you should keep your eye out for. If you see a group of girls with someone who is carrying their ID's or controlling their purchases, take note.
Owens said her pimp also forced her to get gas. "You know quite often and legally you have to be 16 to pump gas. Anything outside of that is a problem, you know? If you see a young girl, quite often, homes aren't near truck stops. So the likelihood of someone just walking to the store or the likelihood of them just pumping their parents gas is little to none. So quite often if you see someone that's under age that are in those placesthat should be a red flag that something's going on.
Owens said the sex trade is a violent business. Many girls have to have facial reconstruction and false teeth put in from being beat up or held hostage by their pimps. She said when it comes to helping these girls, you never know who is watching. The best thing you can do is give them a word of encouragement, hand them a phone number they can call for help, or call local law enforcement.
Sex trafficking has been reported in all 50 states and the FBI says thousands of slaves are brought to the United States each year from other countries. All of who are bought and sold for the sex trade.
For more information on sex trafficking, visit truckersagainsttrafficking.org, www.polarisproject.org, or ivegotaname.com.
If you or somebody you know is trapped in a sex trafficking situation, call the national human trafficking resource center hotline at 888-373-7888.