The trafficking of young girls for sex in the U.S. is often overshadowed by the attention paid to the $150 billion international trade. A Crime Report investigation looks at victims and their families in south Florida, now one of the nation’s major human trafficking centers.
To this day, the man who raped 13-year-old Lucia Marie Skelly and forced her into trading sexual favors for money has not been arrested or charged.
That infuriates—but doesn’t surprise—her mother. When Lucia ran away last year from their Fort Lauderdale, Fl., home, the local police didn’t respond to Mary Skelly’s initial plea for help.
“The Fort Lauderdale police never showed up at my house the day I first reported my missing child,” she recalled. “I don’t know why.”
Lucia finally turned up on her mother’s doorstep ten days later, branded with a lotus flower tattoo (the international sign for human trafficking), bruised, beaten and raped (they would later find out she had chlamydia, a disease transmitted by sexual contact, but the hospital did not do a rape kit test).
But getting her daughter back was only the beginning of her mother’s ordeal. Although Skelly provided the Fort Lauderdale police department with the name, date of birth, address, and even the Instagram account of the 22-year-old man who trafficked her daughter—details she obtained from her daughter and her own investigation—no one appeared to follow up on the information.
This doesn’t surprise John Rode, a former law enforcement officer in Miami who now works as a private investigator who searches for missing and runaway children in south Florida, with an organization called Global Children’s Rescue, which he started with his partner, Justin Payton.
“I think the problem is education within police departments,” he said.
“What’s missing within police departments is an understanding of what human trafficking really is. Human trafficking is not only on the border of Mexico. It’s not only in Arizona and Texas, with young girls coming out of containers.
“Human trafficking starts out as a simple runaway case. Girl runs away from home. A few days later someone takes her in, gets her on drugs, and she’s held against her will. Now she’s a victim of human trafficking. It’s a local community problem.
“The public doesn’t realize that, and the average police officer on the street doesn’t realize that.”
Few Americans, in fact, are aware of the scope of the problem.
Most U.S. media attention has focused on overseas sex trafficking—an estimated $150 billion global criminal endeavor that surpasses the illegal sale of firearms and is expected to soon outpace revenues from the illegal drug trade.
But it has become a growing concern in the U.S. itself. A month-long investigation by The Crime Report in south Florida, a state that now ranks number three in the nation for sex trafficking, according to the Florida Department of Health, found that the region’s mushrooming business of sex trafficking has largely outpaced local law enforcement’s understanding of the issue and ability to cope with it.
More disturbing still: Florida authorities say more than half the victims are under 18.
And for some of the youngest of them, victimization begins a few miles from home—within shouting distance of their families and beneath the radar of local authorities.
“Traffickers aren’t shipping these young girls to France,” said Justin Payton, Rode’s partner at Global Children’s Rescue. “They are (often) just going up the road.”
The Crime Report’s interviews with victims and their families in south Florida made clear that the common perceptions of human trafficking as an organized criminal activity—while accurate as a description of the clandestine movement of labor—do not necessarily reflect the reality of sex trafficking in the U.S.
The victims are almost exclusively runaway youth, whose vulnerability and desperation are exploited by older men. In 2017, an estimated one out of seven runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.
“I see it all the time,” said Jane Biglesen, director of the Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives at New York’s Covenant House, a homeless shelter for runaway and trafficked youth.
“A teenager on the street alone, scared and hungry, is a huge target for a pimp. Victims generally are not locked up. Instead, that person feels traumatically bonded to their perpetrator. So they might be allowed to walk around freely but the pimp says ‘if you ever leave I’ll kill you.”
Adds Payton: “It’s happening under our noses every day. A person may appear willing and happy, but feel like they have nowhere else to go.”
That, in turn, is a reason why the special plight of these youngest trafficking victims often escapes the attention of law enforcement. Few police officers have been trained to identify them, and if the girls are picked up in a sweep by law enforcement of sex workers, they may even find themselves subject to criminal prosecution.
Federal law specifically prohibits the sexual exploitation of minors, and most states reinforce this with statutory rape laws. So, in theory, prosecuting a case of child sex trafficking could be as simple as pursuing a statutory rape charge. But The Crime Report’s investigation found that many police authorities were reluctant to prosecute traffickers for fear the case would not hold up in court.
Interviews with families of human trafficking victims, the victims themselves, private detectives, and the Miami-Dade State Attorney, made clear that local law enforcement needs educated, human trafficking personnel on the ground, trained to recognize the signs of human trafficking.
Our investigation focused on south Florida, specifically Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach— large destination cities that attract human traffickers.
The difference that a pro-active, organized approach can make in getting these girls to safety became obvious when we met Miami State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
In 2012, Fernandez Rundle established a multi-agency task force in Miami, considered the state’s principal target city for sex trafficking. The task force included a special police unit that focuses solely on sex trafficking.
All 35 police departments in Miami-Dade County know to call the trafficking unit when they have a case, Rundle told The Crime Report, adding that the effort to raise officers’ awareness begins with the training of all 5,000 police officers on the ground.
“We teach them to recognize the signs of human trafficking,” she said. “Where (to) send victims; how to find them shelter.”
The task force also targets licensed doctors and nurses in the county, who are now required to attend a mandatory training course, and it works closely with THRIVE, a medical clinic established by the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, that helps victims speak freely, away from their traffickers.
The clinic, the first of its kind in Florida, has special accommodations for victims, including increased privacy measures, minimized wait times, a trauma- informed trained healthcare team, and patient-sensitive procedures to reduce re-traumatization.
And, finally, the task force offers training to judges about the unique difficulties of prosecuting human trafficking cases. For instance, victims often do not want to take the stand for fear of retaliation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still prosecute,” said Fernandez Rundle, noting that as minors, young victims are unable to give consent under Florida law.
“Judges have to be creative with their cases because these are not your typical victims,” she said.
The effort has begun to show success. According to the task force website, as of 2017, police intervened with 582 human trafficking victims and filed 436 cases.
But less than an hour’s drive away, in Fort Lauderdale, the picture is very different.
While Fort Lauderdale (and Palm Beach as well) do have their own human trafficking police units, they do not address the scope of the problem, both Rode and Payton claim.
While establishing a unit is a critical first step, they argued the lack of an organized approach similar to Miami-Dade’s means that trafficking victims and their families are badly served, they said.
The Crime Report contacted the Fort Lauderdale police department several times for comment on the department’s policies and practices, with no response.
But interviews with three mothers in the Fort Lauderdale-Palm Beach area who were willing to talk about what happened to their daughters suggest how much remains to be done.
Mary Skelly: Heartache Turns to Rage
When Mary Skelly found out her daughter Lucia was sitting in juvenile detention with chlamydia (after being arrested a second time for stealing her car), she became enraged.
One of the many missteps in her daughter’s case, the hospital forgot, or simply neglected, to do a rape test after Lucia had been raped, branded with a tattoo and trafficked for ten days. The evidence was lost, and a case that was difficult to prosecute from the start, seemed impossible.
Lucia was branded with a lotus flower tattoo, which she told her mother “was put on her in Miami.” Her mother believes she was marked by her traffickers, as it is a crime to tattoo a 13 year old. The lotus flower is the national symbol for human trafficking because it grows in the mud into a beautiful flower, representing the adversity and hardship many human trafficking victims face.
Skelly has an eerie feeling Lucia’s traffickers knew this, and branded her.
Lucia’s involvement with a sex trafficker arguably was fueled by her own rebellious streak.
By the age of 13, she was taking her mother’s car out for joy rides down the Interstate. Her joyrides landed her into the juvenile justice system. After a first 21-day detention in juvenile facility, her mother began sleeping with her car keys and purse at night to ensure her daughter’s joy rides would stop. But on the morning of March 27th, 2017, she woke up to discover her purse, car keys, credit card, gun and social security card were missing.
The car was gone, and so was her daughter.
She called the Fort Lauderdale police on the way to work to report her missing daughter and stolen items. Then she checked her email and noticed a money-wire transfer to a 22-year-old man who she later learned threatened to kill Lucia and her mother if Lucia did not steal her mother’s belongings.
Skelly alerted her oldest daughter, Katie, about the odd money transfer. That enabled Katie to obtain the man’s address, date of birth and criminal history. Skelly forwarded the information to the Fort Lauderdale police.
The police promised to meet her at work that day (Broward Health Imperial Point, a medical facility where Skelly worked as a nurse). They never showed up.
The next day, she got a call from a different police department, the Broward County Sheriff’s office, saying that her car was at the man’s house and she needed to come pick it up. When she got there, her daughter was nowhere to be found.
At this point Lucia had been missing for over 24 hours, with little to no effort from the police to find her. She was missing a total of ten days, during which time Skelly does not believe the police were looking for Lucia.
Katie Skelly obtained the Fort Lauderdale police report and found out the police had mis-identified Lucia. The report said Lucia had blonde hair and green eyes. Lucia has brown hair and blue eyes.
“Is anyone even looking for my sister?” Katie asked her mother. “If so, they’re looking for the wrong person.”
“They didn’t even want to get the description right” added her mother. “I don’t know if they changed that information yet. It’s unbelievable.”
When Lucia came home ten days later, on April 5, she showed up with a lotus flower tattoo on her neck, a large bruise on her leg, and fingerprint marks on her neck. She was wearing a green camo sweatshirt and sweatpants and thong underwear, underwear her mother had never seen before.
“The girl smelled so bad.” Her mother said. “She looked awful. She couldn’t even walk and she was holding her hip. She hadn’t showered in ten days.”
The first thing Lucia said to her mother was that she was hungry, and that she wouldn’t leave again. But Skelly convinced her to go to the hospital, Broward Health Medical Center, where she used to work in the ER.
In the Emergency Room, Skelly had a few minutes alone with the doctor, where she told him her daughter was kidnapped, raped, returned home, and had not showered yet. Skelly wanted her daughter to be tested by the rape crisis center. As a former employee, she knew the hospital had protocol for situations like this— or so she thought.
In the meantime, Katie Skelly called the police to let them know Lucia had returned. The police showed up at the hospital and put Lucia under custody. There, Lucia became so upset that she had to be sedated.
The next day, two detectives from the Fort Lauderdale police department showed up at the hospital to investigate the case.
One of them interviewed Lucia that day and deemed her “uncooperative,” her mother told The Crime Report.
Lucia was discharged from the hospital five days later, without a rape test conducted. She was sent to a juvenile detention center, with chlamydia.
“This is where I am infuriated” Skelly said. “There was a mishandling from day one, but at the hospital, she was in a position to get evidence taken, and they did no testing. I don’t know why. I don’t think they take human trafficking seriously.
“Fort Lauderdale doesn’t view human trafficking as what it is.”
Lucia is still very hesitant to talk about her story, but she has shared some details.
The teen said she was taken to Club Space in Miami, which experts have said is known for child trafficking (her mother emailed one of the detectives, asking for video surveillance at Club Space, but did not get a response.)
Lucia also said she was hit by a sledge hammer on the leg and was strangled because “somebody thought she stole something.”
She admitted that the trafficker told her he would kill her and her family if she didn’t do what he wanted.
Lucia also gave Fort Lauderdale police the name of another man who raped her, but according to Skelly, a detective interviewed the man, who said he had nothing to do with it, and the police department took his word for it.
Currently, Skelly lives in Long Island, New York, because she could not stand to live in Florida anymore. Lucia waits at a mental health treatment facility in Gainesville, Fl., and will be moving to New York with her mother shortly.
She hopes to start eighth grade next year.
Editors Note: After speaking with The Crime Report, State Attorney Fernandez has decided to take on Lucia’s case and provide a lawyer and a human trafficking specialist to interview and investigate Lucia’s claim she was taken to Club Space in Miami.
Nicole Twist: A Rescue Opportunity Missed
Sophie Reader, 15, was last seen on video walking down the street, alone, at 3 am in Fort Lauderdale on May 19th, 2017. According to Sophie’s mother, Nicole Twist, a police car drove by her, but did not stop. She has been missing ever since.
Twist said she saw the original video footage, but claimed it was since edited to remove the cop car driving past.
“They drove right by her. They could have saved her.”
According to Twist, Sophie started acting out after she turned 11. She suffered from bipolar disorder and had sudden outbursts, but her mother noted she was also very naive and impressionable.
“More so, naive,” Twist recalled.
Twist believes that Sophie, wherever she is in the world, is being trafficked, and that her traffickers found her on social media.
About a year before she went missing, Twist found Sophie on a “sugar daddy” website, an online website for selling sex. Apparently, Sophie had been on several similar websites. Notably, in one of her final diary entries, Sophie wrote that “she finally found a grown-ass man that loves her.”
She also had $400 in cash under her bed.
Sophie was living with her father at the time, and Twist believed she was going down a dangerous road. Her mother remembered shopping with her, and Sophie wanted to buy thigh-high stockings. Twist refused.
“I told her I don’t know what you’re doing but it’s not going to be good,” she recalled. “I told her she was going down the wrong path.”
Then, in their last conversation over the phone (on Sunday May 14th, six days before Sophie went missing), Sophie told her mother she was going to California to be a model. The conversation, according to Twist, was “over the top” and “bizarre.”
“She kept saying how beautiful she was. It was so bizarre. I had never heard her talk like that before.”
Twist didn’t realize it at the time, but Sophie was likely being fed that by her traffickers. They were giving her a sense of “fake confidence” that Twist advises all mothers to look out for.
When Sophie ran away from home on Friday, May 19, her father went down to the Fort Lauderdale police station and filed a missing persons report.
But, according to Rode, a missing persons report can take between three and five days before it reaches a detective.
The long waiting time can be detrimental to a missing persons case, because the first 48 hours are critical to finding a runaway or missing person.
“It takes several days for a missing person report to get to a particular sergeant,” the ex-Miami Vice cop explained.
“The sergeant then assigns it to a detective. That’s a delay of three to five days before a detective can investigate. In Sophie’s case it was even worse because she had a prior runaway report. The police assumed she would come back again. But two days turned into two weeks. And she’s been missing for over a year now.”
“The first 48 hours of a missing child is a crucial time,” he said. “Police underutilized this time by assuming the young girl will just come back.”
Two weeks after Sophie went missing, Payton and Rode had taken on the case. The two private detectives were sitting at lunch with Mrs. Twist, calling Sophie’s phone over and over again (which had been turned off), and finally the phone started to ring. Once the phone rang, it could then be tracked. Peyton and Rode handed this information over to the Fort Lauderdale police right away, but law enforcement did not follow up on it until a few days later.
By then, it was too late.
“That was our last chance to get her back safely,” said Payton. “That phone could have been tracked on a Sunday. That phone needed to be tracked immediately. They waited too long. That could literally be the difference between life and death for her.”
For Sophie, it might have been. She has been missing for over a year now, and the police have no active leads, her mother said.
The detective from Fort Lauderdale told Twist she thinks about Sophie’s case all the time, but she is not sure she believes it.
“I don’t think police department cared about me as a mom,” she said. “When your child goes missing it’s the worst thing in the world and to be insensitive to that… to not have the time to return a phone call… they need training.”
About a month before Sophie went missing, her and her friend went to a hotel in Fort Lauderdale with two older men, where they were given drugs and Sophie “had sex” with a 27-year-old. However, under Florida state law, it’s defined as rape and punishable by imprisonment for at least 30 years or life, for anyone over the age of 18 to have sex with a minor.
As far as Twist knows, “nothing ever happened to the guy” but the police have his information.
“I don’t know if the police interviewed those guys or not, but the thing is these guys did it to Sophie and they are doing it to other girls as well,” she said.
In her darkest moments, Twist believes it would be better if Sophie were not alive, because the alternative is much worse: life as a sex slave.
But she has a message for her daughter: Just come home.
“I know if she is able to come home, she would come home. She knows how much I love her and no matter what she did, she is always going to be my kid, my baby. Once a mom always a mom. You always love your child.”
Colleen Hernandez: Daughter Chained to a Pole
As Colleen Hernandez was reminded by the Palm Beach police department, her daughter was not the only missing persons case they had. Hundreds of kids went missing each month, they told her. While Hernandez understood that her 15-year-old daughter could not be the center of attention for an entire police department, at the end of the day, she didn’t care.
“I was concerned with my own child,” she said, “and I do not believe police did everything to find her.”
At first, the Palm Beach police department was responsive to Mrs. Hernandez. They sent a detective out to interview her on the first day her daughter, Jane (who asked that her real name remain anonymous) went missing. Hernandez was also given a missing persons coordinator.
But as time went on, Hernandez discovered that it took days, sometimes weeks, for the coordinator to follow up on the leads she had been providing. Notably, leads were only followed up if Hernandez’s detective was working, and if no other cases were being worked on at the time.
Meanwhile, her daughter Jane would go on to live in a tent for 100 days, being pimped out to a 35-year old man named “G” in exchange for crack, which she would smoke with “Eric” her trafficker, who was also sexually abusing her.
One of the first places Jane went when she ran away was ‘tent city,’ a living area for homeless people behind a Home Depot in Palm Beach. It was 1 am and Jane was on her way to her grandmother’s house, but she was hungry so she decided to stop at Dunkin Doughnuts, right next to Home Depot. There, two men stopped her and summoned her over to the tents. They smelled the weed she had on her and wanted to smoke.
Jane ended up staying at ‘tent city’ for a few days, where she was raped by a 20 year-old man named “Edgar.” She described the scene in an interview with The Crime Report:
He started pulling me into a hug. He started taking off my clothes. I told him to stop. He had sex with me. I thought ok this is not happening again. I didn’t want it to happen. The fourth or fifth day, he asked if we could do it again. He said he would do it anyways. Edgar had sex with me again.
Next, Jane went to see her friend Eric, a 19-year-old who was living in a tent behind his grandma’s house. The two had started talking on Instagram, and Eric said she could stay with him for a little while.
There, Jane was sexually abused every day by Eric, who threatened to kill her if she ever left. Jane did attempt an escape once, but Eric ran after her, and then chained her to a pole. He was also cutting her with razors and slowly starving her.
Then, Eric started selling her to his friends in exchange for drugs.
He traded traded my body for crack to his friend. His friend is G. G is 35 years old and said he liked younger girls. I felt like a noodle because I was so high. I told G ‘stop I don’t want this.’ He told me ‘I don’t care.’ I was smoking crack at this point. I was never addicted to crack until I came here.
But when Jane told the Fort Lauderdale police her story, they told her it would be too hard to prosecute, because there were too many “inconsistencies.”
Because Jane had said yes to Eric a few times, the detectives did not think the case would hold up in court.
Jane later explained to The Crime Report that there were a few times she said yes to Eric because he was hitting her and slicing her with razors, and she was scared.
Eventually, Eric’s grandmother found Jane, and sent her off. Jane showed up at her own grandmother’s house 100 days later in the pouring rain.
From there, the police took Jane back to Eric’s house to retrieve her clothes. As far as the Hernandez family knows, Eric has not been investigated by the police, although Jane gave the police all the names and details of the men who sexually assaulted her.
The Palm Beach police department does not consider Jane’s case a human trafficking case, but she does.
“I didn’t ask to be sold for drugs,” she said. “I was not OK with having sex with 35-year-old man so Eric could have crack.”
When Jane looks in the mirror now, she does not feel beautiful. All she sees is a damaged person.
Parts 2 in this series will take an in-depth look at Global Children’s Rescue, and its efforts to rescue trafficked children. Part 3 will examine the detrimental role social media plays in child sex trafficking, and how technology such as facial recognition, could be used to recover missing and runaway youth.
Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.