It was a Chinese buffet restaurant in southeast Missouri, and from the outside, no one would know there was anything illegal or wrong about it.
But from the kitchen's view, things were very different, according to Erin Heil, a criminal justice professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The restaurant's workers were kept against their will, forced to live together in a house monitored with video cameras, and were not allowed to leave except to work.
The workers' "rent" was taken out of their salary, but since rent was $50 a day, their salaries never paid off their supposed debt. Thus, they could never leave, and were forced to work for nothing.
It's human trafficking, which SIUE political science professor Denise DeGarmo called "the most common form of modern-day slavery." Three members of Congress organized a summit at SIUE earlier this week to share information about the problem of human trafficking for labor and sex, and its prevalence right here in the metro-east.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said there is a lot of shock, even in the halls of Congress, that it's happening in small towns and rural areas, not just large cities like Chicago or Las Vegas.
"It's a multimillion dollar industry. It can happen in your town, in your neighborhood, next door," said U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-St. Louis, said the average age of a girl drawn into sex trafficking is 14. Wagner has sponsored several bills including the SAVE Act, which adds advertising to the list of activities that can get one charged with engaging in human trafficking and/or child sex crimes.
The primary targets of the SAVE Act are websites that allow blatant ad images and "unsubtle offers" of sex for sale, Wagner said. Quite often, the girl being offered is a minor forced to service 20 or more customers a day, she said.
"It is a horror that is hiding in plain sight," she said.
In 2013, one website alone made more than $4 million per month on sex ads, Wagner said. "They are making way too much money off this conduct to stop," she said.
The SAVE Act would make those selling the ads for the girls as culpable as the ones who kidnapped or forced them, she said. Other pieces of legislation include Justice Department grants to expand efforts against child trafficking in the U.S.; "safe harbor" laws to treat minors involved in sex trafficking as victims rather than criminals; and an international "Megan's Law" that would require the Department of Homeland Security to establish an "Angel Watch" center to track sex offenders and notify other countries of their international travel.
The bills all passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 20, but still must be approved by the Senate. This is one area where Davis and his Democratic opponent, Ann Callis of Edwardsville, agree. "I see a real opportunity for Congress to crack down on human trafficking and do a better job enforcing the law to protect victims across the world," said Callis, who is a former judge.
One of the most important steps is getting the public to realize sex trafficking is not solely about undocumented immigrants in some faraway metropolis, according to Deirdre Lhamon of The Covering House in St. Louis. It's also about teenagers lured away by pimps soliciting them on Facebook, pretending to be a Hollywood agent and telling them they can be actresses or models. He starts them with a "few photos," then a webcam, and then the clubs and the hotel rooms, she said.
Sometimes it starts closer to home: parents or stepparents renting children out for drug money, girls with older boyfriends renting them out to pay off a debt. It's not just girls, either: boys are drawn in and forced into the sex trade as well, but people tend to stereotype that females are the only victims, said Kristen Eng of Hoyleton Ministries, which has been actively fighting trafficking in Southern Illinois.
Among adults, sometimes it's a mail-order bride lured to the U.S. on a ruse and finds herself trapped with a "debt" she can never pay off.
And the children are not always runaways or kids from bad homes. "I honestly thought most of the girls had no parents who cared, but we've had two fathers who rescued their own children, one of them overseas and the other out of state," Lhamon said. Others are kids who even continue their normal lives, going to school and church, but have a secret life that is taking them over.
It's not just happening on the streets of St. Louis, but here in the metro-east, Lhamon said. "The river divides the states, but it doesn't divide the problem," she said.
Last month, the FBI partnered with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and local law enforcement for Operation Cross Country, which rescued 168 children across the nation from child sex trafficking and arrested 281 traffickers. The FBI division for southern and central Illinois recovered two children and one pimp during the operation.
While sex trafficking -- particularly of children -- gets the most attention, Heil said it is important to remember labor trafficking as well. The workers in the Missouri restaurant are just one example; undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable, but American citizens who fall into hard times are also caught in it.
"They're told, 'I'll pay your mortgage if you go work for my brother in Texas," Heil said. They may be promised a job, a house, any bait-and-switch from answering the wrong advertisement. They follow the work, and are ensnared in a nightmare, she said.
Rescuing them often takes more than just a police raid, particularly for victims of sex trafficking. The trafficker's hold on the victims is mental and emotional as well as physical; the mental dominance takes months or years to break, according to Lindsey Ellis with Covering House.
Derek Velazco of the FBI said between 100,000 and 300,000 children are drawn into sex trafficking each year across the country. But in one year alone, there were fewer than 6,000 prosecutions. About 42 percent of traffickers are female, far from the stereotype of the male pimp. Orders come from the Internet, rather than walking the street.
In one case, a Chicago trafficker named Datsun Sawyer had more than 16 girls in his "stable." The youngest was 12 years old and carried her teddy bear to her "dates." The girls are often branded, sometimes with a tattoo behind the ear, to indicate they are the property of their trafficker.
Sawyer was recently convicted and sentenced to 50 years in federal prison, Velazco said.
And in all the interviews he's done, he said, not one woman was the Hollywood stereotype, happy in the life, being paid and doing what she chose to do. Every one of them had been beaten and raped, he said, and would tell him, "I can't keep doing this."
The online ads are often misleading, Velazco said, using pictures of adult women to throw off the police but using key words to advertise for child sex.
It's those ads they hope the SAVE Act will stop, Davis said, by giving prosecutors more tools to fight them. In the meantime, there are projects like the proposed Eden's Glory safehouse in Bond County where survivors of human trafficking can receive shelter, counseling and a chance at a new life. In addition, the Violence Prevention Center of Southwestern Illinois plans to begin speaking in public schools this fall, warning kids about the false promises made on social media to lure them.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.