Prostitution has largely migrated from the streets to the Internet, making it difficult for law enforcement to curb illicit behavior.
Officials in Minnesota say they're concerned that traffickers in underage prostitutes have gained access to countless customers who browse ads online - and enormous new reach into the homes of potential new victims.
Homeland Security Investigations, a federal office that fights human trafficking, recently released the details of a closed case to shed light on how the buying and selling of minors can flourish in Minnesota.
The case began with a call about spilled milk on a kitchen floor.
"Someone had shot a bullet through his front door," Blaine police detective Tom Johann recalled of the Jan. 8, 2011 call from a man who reported the gunshot. "The bullet had went through the door of his refrigerator striking the milk carton and eventually becoming lodged in the back of the refrigerator."
The man who lived there didn't have much to say about who would want to shoot a bullet into his house and after a few days he stopped returning detectives' phone calls. Johann said it looked like the case would go unsolved, until nine days later, when 911 operators received another call about a domestic disturbance in Anoka. A young woman told police her boyfriend had a gun and was threatening to kill her.
Officers arrived and arrested the man who was trying to drive away. Once he was in custody, the victim started to talk about her life as a prostitute and how her pimp used the Internet to seek clients.
"The young 16-year-old girl began to tell the deputy ...that it wasn't really a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and that it involved a several-month period of prostitution and violence," Anoka County Sheriff's detective Tom Strusinski said.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, the Twin Cities metro area is the 15th highest sex trafficking center in the country.
The business of buying and selling minors for sex can flourish in any community, say officials at the federal Homeland Security Investigations office. The agency, which combats sex and labor trafficking, finds cases in every county of the state.
As in the Anoka County case, a fight between a prostitute and a pimp is often what brings such cases to light, detectives say.
The girl, whose name is not public record because she is a minor, told detectives that her pimp, Zaiye Dehkee, fired the gun through the front door in Blaine. She said he was trying to scare a customer who had paid $200 for sex with her instead of the agreed-upon $400. The girl gave an address for an apartment in Minneapolis where police could find the 9 mm handgun. She also showed detectives the Web sites that listed her as an escort.
When Strusinski called Special Agent Ann Quinn of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, who specializes in investigating prostitution cases, he learned state authorities were investigating Dehkee but had not identified his victims.
Quinn had received a tip that Dehkee, a 21-year-old native of Liberia, might be selling underage girls for sex. She looked for Dehkee's phone number on Google and found ads on Backpage.com, one of many sites that advertise escort services.
"This was how we found the victim," said Quinn, as she opened her laptop computer. "Her picture was on the Internet. This is often how we identify juveniles. That is not a mature body; that is not a mature face. Additionally, in the Backpage ads, oftentimes ads will say 'new, fresh faced, just started.' That's an indication for Johns ...that this is a new girl."
The victim told detectives she met Dehkee through the social networking site, Tagged.com. She told him she was 16. After they met and had sex, he suggested she could make some easy money dancing for his business called "Midwest Maidens." They'd known each other a week.
Quinn said the Anoka teen quickly attracted regular customers who wanted more than dancing.
"The younger the girls, the prettier the girls, the more traffic they get," Quinn said. "Her phone was ringing off the hook. You know, she was a young, blond female with blue eyes and that tends to be the johns' favorite victim of choice."
The girl told detectives she'd been sold 600 times to men as far away as Duluth and Wisconsin, sometimes as often as eight times a day.
Under federal law, using girls under 18 for prostitution is considered sex trafficking because a minor cannot consent to the activity. Pimps often move girls to a neighboring state, where they have sex with older men. Moving girls across state lines thwarts law enforcement, and keeps the girls isolated, giving pimps more control.
State and federal law enforcement agencies do not release numbers of active cases. But Homeland Security Investigations officials say they conducted more trafficking investigations nationally last year than ever before. In fiscal year 2011, the department initiated 722 cases that resulted in 271 convictions. One of them was Dehkee's.
As for the Anoka teenager, Strusinski, the Anoka County detective, said the girl's story is typical. An older man and smooth talker seduced her, offering what seemed to be a faster life of parties, new clothes and meals out.
Dehkee's scheme only unraveled because he wanted to move another female into the Anoka house he shared with the 16-year-old. She'd introduced him to other women they'd brought into the business, including another minor, according to detectives.
But she didn't want to be displaced as the queen, the number one girl, the "girlfriend." They fought, and she took her pimp's phone, his lifeline in the prostitution business. This was the fight that led to the domestic violence call to the Anoka County Sheriff's office.
In February, Dehkee pleaded guilty to a state charge of promoting prostitution of a minor, and a federal charge of possession of child pornography for pictures he had of the girl on his laptop.
Dehkee, who is serving both sentences concurrently at a federal prison in Mississippi, is due to be released in November of next year. He and his defense attorney declined to be interviewed for this story. Dehkee wrote to MPR News that he would only agree to be interviewed if he was paid for his time.
Homeland Security Investigations officials aim to disrupt and dismantle such criminal enterprises and get the victims to safety, said Christopher Oelkers, the agency's supervisor in the Dehkee case. Locking Dehkee up for 36 months on a federal child porn charge is one way to do it.
"I don't want to say we're settling, but a lot of times the victims aren't in a position to testify and we're causing more harm by trying to get them to testify," he said. "So we can get them for a crime they've committed that we can prove."
Investigators say pictures found on a computer are more reliable evidence than putting a victim on the stand. By the time cases go to court, victims often aren't as eager to cooperate, special agent Quinn said.
"Oftentimes charging decisions are based on the level of cooperation of the victim at the time of trial," Quinn said.
Prosecutors say many victims return to prostitution. They often don't have the skills or education to support themselves another way. Detectives say the victim in this case is doing OK, but would not put MPR News in touch with her.
There are so many cases, detectives say they have to prioritize, working first on cases that involve juveniles, multiple victims or extreme violence.
Strusinski, the Anoka County detective, said no community is immune. He's worked cases stretching from the Twin Cities metro area to the outer suburbs to small towns.
"Men are out there having sex with small children. No one wants to know," he said. "It's a bury-your-head-in-the-sand kind of [mentality] unfortunately." These are throwaway kids from bad homes. It's a taboo subject that people won't talk about and until people start actually taking about it like this today people aren't going to understand that it's a real bad problem out there and we need to accept the fact that we need to fix it."
Law enforcement officials say three ingredients allow the crimes to flourish: men who pay for sex; a seemingly endless supply of vulnerable girls whose parents don't know, or don't care who they're falling prey to; and a reluctance by the public to report suspicious properties that attract frequent male visitors at all hours of the day and night.
They say the johns in Minnesota tend to be white, middle aged, and married.
The Dehkee case, they say, shows that prostitution involving minors can -- and does -- happen anywhere.