Nashville Scene: Sex trafficking of minors remains a dirty secret — and agents, officers and victims' supporters want to bring it into the light

Nashville has a booming tourist trade, a robust economy, large-scale events that bring hundreds of thousands of new faces to town each year, and an enviable geographic position at the hub of multiple travel routes. Those factors make the city extremely enticing as a vacation and convention destination.

They also serve the needs of an industry that police, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and victims' support groups hope to repel.

In the state of Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, dozens of minors are moved each month along networks of human trafficking. Estimates from various sources place the number as low as 65 and as high as 120. While the information won't appear on travel brochures, the city of Nashville is uniquely poised to become a larger stop on the trafficking circuit.

"Everything that makes Nashville a great place to live is also appealing to traffickers, who see this as a business," explains Derri Smith, executive director of End Slavery Tennessee, an organization founded in 2008 to strategically confront human trafficking in Tennessee. "We've got a thriving economy, a lot of growth, and a lot of tourists and events. That means people are coming in who might leave their morals at home, and that makes for buyers of sex."

Nashville's proximity to Atlanta — one of the largest domestic human trafficking hubs, according to a 2014 Urban Institute report commissioned by the U.S. Justice Department — and the fact that three major interstates intersect within our city limits makes it an ideal location to funnel people through a reverse underground railroad.

Compounding the problem is the fact that human trafficking is an extremely difficult issue to tackle. Discrepancies exist in the reporting of incidents, especially involving minors. Young victims of trafficking are often entrenched in complicated dependent relationships with their captors, unaware that they're being held in forced prostitution.

Legislation involving sex trafficking is relatively new in Tennessee, and intervention work by law enforcement and social services is challenging. But lawmen, government agents, lawmakers and victims' advocates are working to build their own anti-trafficking network, before Nashville becomes a fixed point on a grid of modern-day human slavery.

The problem isn't confined to any one corner of Middle Tennessee. In February, seven people were arrested in Franklin following an investigation into Oriental Massage Center on Sugartree Lane. The bust followed a high-profile raid almost exactly a year before, when detectives from Metro Nashville's Specialized Investigations Division team (formerly known as Vice) hit four Nashville massage parlors — Acupressure Treatment Center on Fourth Avenue South, Daily Massage on Gallatin Pike, ABC Massage on Franklin Pike, and Golden Massage on Abbott Martin Road.

The raids found evidence of illicit activity, including prostitution and trafficking. Swept up in the raid on Golden Massage, which operated in the same Green Hills strip mall as a wine shop and just down the street from Hillsboro High, were three women of Asian descent who spoke only Mandarin Chinese and could not even identify the town where they lived. (See "Crimeless Victims of a Victimless Crime," March 24, 2014.)

What makes human trafficking hard to fight, in part, is that it's hard to define. In 2013, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report stated, "Minor sex trafficking occurs in both rural and urban counties, wealthy and poor families, and racially diverse communities, but minors who come from impoverished households may be especially vulnerable to victimization."

In short: almost anyone, anywhere. "Furthermore," the report summarized, "sex trafficking in the United States has traditionally been the purview of the State Department because it has long been believed that the victims of trafficking are mostly immigrants. Anecdotal evidence and new data are challenging that assumption."

The report profiled 21 counties with the highest rates of underage sex trafficking, seeking insight into what makes certain populations especially vulnerable. According to data gathered by the TBI for a previous 2011 study, Davidson County had the highest percentage of minor and adult sex trafficking cases. Seventy-three percent of respondents reported cases of minor sex trafficking, with more than 100 known cases of both adult and minor trafficking over the previous 24 months.

Events that drive tourists to town increase reports of trafficking, the report noted, mentioning the opening of the Music City Center as an example. Coffee County — home to Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and above-average meth- lab seizures — was singled out as the only rural county with more than 100 reported cases of minor sex trafficking.

The information gets progressively vague beyond those stats, however. Some victims are immigrants pressed into service as sex slaves, or youths sometimes lured away from malls and other public areas in the anonymity of a crowd For others, the path is much more gradual and slippery.

Sheila Simpkins McClain grew up with a mother whose idea of parenting was teaching her almost four decades ago how to perform oral sex. McClain was 6 at the time. She was 14 when she ran away and met a guy — "just the typical 'boyfriending' situation where I thought he was my boyfriend," she tells the Scene.

Before long, though, she remembers, she was selling her body to feed them both. The years that followed were nightmarish. McClain was in and out of juvenile homes and lived a life on the run. She eventually moved to Memphis, where she met a pimp. He introduced her to a world of interstate sex trafficking.

"He sold me a dream," McClain says. "He took me from state to state, selling me. When I tried to run away, he'd find me."

McClain's pimp brought her to Nashville in 1996. While she managed to escape from him, the experience left her with a drug addiction she couldn't kick on her own. McClain credits an outreach by Nashville-based nonprofit Magdalene, which assists women in escaping life on the streets, with resetting the needle on her compass.

"[Magdalene] was doing an outreach on Murfreesboro Road, and that's when the seed was planted," recalls McClain, who ended up working with the program for nine years. "A couple of months later I went to jail. I wrote the judge — Judge Casey Moreland — a letter, telling him about the Magdalene program. I asked him if he would give me another chance and let me go into that program. And my life has been different ever since."

Today, McClain has a college degree and is married and the mother of two children. As director of survivor services for End Slavery Tennessee, McClain shares her story time and time again, illustrating the scope and severity of the issue.

Derri Smith founded End Slavery Tennessee in 2008 after years of experience working internationally against human trafficking. The nonprofit provides therapy, addiction treatment if needed, and housing, connecting the dots to best serve an individual's recovery needs.

"We do a lot of in-house services, but we also connect community partners," Smith says. "We have therapy, classes, jobs, education and support groups. We also connect to that array of community services that are needed. But because there's a single point of contact, it works best for the survivor, because they're with people they trust, and it works best for the community because there's not this disjointed, disconnected approach to services where things fall between the gaps and where nobody quite knows who to communicate with and what to communicate."

As a result, the services End Slavery Tennessee offers depend on the unusual particulars of each case.

"We have a girl who is branded across her neck with her trafficker's name, so we'll make sure she gets tattoo removal," Smith explains. "We have somebody who lost her baby during the trafficking — she's a teenager — so we'll make sure she gets the best care, the best lawyer to help her with that. We work in a very comprehensive and individualized way."

That's why it's vital, Smith says, to have actual survivors on staff like McClain, whose experience allows her to bond with recently recovered victims. McClain says the intervention process includes working through stages of change. When police busted the Oriental Massage Center in February, End Slavery Tennessee was on hand, offering help to the five female victims.

"I started off at End Slavery as an intervention specialist, because I'm a survivor myself," McClain explains. "Most of the time, if there's a sting with the police, or if someone is found, I'm the first point of contact, so I will go and try to build a relationship, gain some trust, tell them my story to let them know that they're not alone, and then give them options. If they're ready and they want help, they leave with me."

Best-case scenario, that's what happens. But what the TBI wants to do is eradicate human trafficking from the state of Tennessee. And the most effective way to do this is to go right to the source: those who buy and sell humans.

In June 2013, Metro police arrested a Trenton, Tenn., native named Michael Kohlmeyer. According to police and court documents, he'd contacted an online escort service and requested a girl between the ages of 8 and 16. The escort service contacted the police. An undercover SID detective responded, leading to his arrest.

In the past, only sellers of sex, not buyers, had been prosecuted as traffickers. But the climate had changed over the past five years, according to TBI assistant special agent Margie Quin.

Driven by a 2011 study by the TBI, in partnership with Vanderbilt University's Center for Community Studies, Tennessee lawmakers passed some 36 laws toughening guidelines for sex-trafficking charges. Among these were stricter sentences for those who sell or purchase minors for sex.

Under these new laws, Kohlmeyer was charged with solicitation of the rape of a minor, soliciting sexual exploitation of a minor by electronic means, and trafficking for a commercial sex act. In April, Judge Mark Fishburn sentenced him to 22 years in prison for trafficking a person under 15 for a sex act.

"I saw pictures — this guy built a concrete slab room with nothing but a toilet and a cot and a door opening only to his bedroom," says Smith, who sat in the courtroom for Kohlmeyer's sentencing. "He has serious problems."

The Kohlmeyer case marked the first time a buyer of sex was found guilty of sex trafficking in Tennessee. Just five years ago, the crime was a misdemeanor. Today, it's a felony.

"One of the biggest impacts you can see right now is the types of sentences that are being handed down as a result o trafficking conviction," Quin says. "Michael Kohlmeyer is a perfect example. That's one count of trafficking for sexual servitude — under 15 years of age is a Class A felony, 15 and over is a Class B felony."

Shared Hope International, a nonprofit fighting global sex trafficking, ranked Tennessee as the nation's toughest state for statutes prosecutors can use against commercial sex exploitation crimes. In addition to more severe sentencing for sex crimes involving minors, the Kohlmeyer case exemplifies what Quin calls a commitment by state lawmakers, law enforcement and the courts to target buyers of sex.

"This is a supply-and-demand issue," Quin says. "Adding individuals who promote — just promote — prostitution is now a registerable sex offense. Those sorts of laws, I think, really tell you what the intent of the General Assembly is, and that is to really go after the buyers and sellers — to shift the focus off the women and onto the men who are selling and buying."

Through its Select Committee on Children and Youth, the Tennessee General Assembly tasked the TBI in 2010 to determine how widespread sex trafficking was and what needed to be done. The effort involved surveying nearly 1,000 individuals working in law enforcement, social services, the courts, treatment providers and academia in counties across the state to learn about their experiences with human trafficking over the past 24 months.

The resulting report, Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking and Its Impact on Children and Youth 2011 , opened light onto a statewide issue that operated largely in the shadows. The study emphasized the impact of sex trafficking on minors, though adult sex trafficking was also present in many of the counties surveyed. According to Quin, who participated in the report, the numbers took many by surprise.

"I think, frankly, we were all surprised at the prevalence that was reported in the initial study," she says.

Echoing others in law enforcement who spoke to the Scene, Quin says it's difficult to get precise statistics for human trafficking. Even so, while densely populated urban areas contained a higher concentration of reported trafficking of minors — Coffee, Davidson, Knox and Shelby led the state — 42 percent of rural respondents reported sex trafficking in their counties.

"You see enormous numbers in huge urban centers — the volume is just higher, because the demand is higher," Quin says. "But what's been so surprising in our report is that this seems to be just as prevalent in rural locations as in urban locations, which tells me that obviously the dynamic can be quite different."

Methods to identify and fight trafficking in those areas are notably distinct. In cities, johns are more likely to use the Internet. Even when escort service websites or major sites like or Craigslist are busted, people find ways around the restrictions. As Quin explains, rural, poverty-stricken areas provide different opportunities for johns.

"A mother selling her kid for sex to get money to buy pseudoephedrine to make meth is just as likely to happen in a county with less than 50,000 people as it is to happen anywhere else — probably more so," she says. "We're seeing in some of these poorer counties higher rates of sex trafficking. Now, is poverty the reason we have sex trafficking? No, but it's certainly a driver, because some of these rural counties that have unusually high numbers of trafficking are also Tennessee's poorest counties."

At the same time, the study showed the difficulty the various people fighting trafficking have in agreeing on the issue. Data from the study showed that law-enforcement personnel and civilians such as social workers both view minor immigrants as the most vulnerable group. But law enforcement perceived immigrants as the group generally most at risk, while civilians reported that minors were most likely to become victims.

This wasn't the only rift in perception. Individuals who work in social services reported more cases of sex trafficking than those who work in law enforcement, highlighting how difficult it is for police to identify and help victims.

People who engage in prostitution — whether they're minors or adults — are fearful of being punished for a crime, and are less likely to contact the police if they see minors involved in prostitution or trafficking. But they could be more likely to contact organizations like End Slavery Tennessee.

"We've had women on the streets who will see somebody young being sold, and they will get her help with us," Smith says.

Such outreach will be pivotal in confronting an issue that is already tough to quantify. If you're wondering why you haven't heard much about human trafficking in Tennessee, McClain suggests it's extremely difficult for people to accept that it's happening in their own city. This gives predators and johns an edge in conducting illicit activity in plain sight.

"The reality is, when it comes to trafficking, this has been going on for a long, long time," McClain says. "Now it's just finally being talked about. When I was 14 years old on the streets in San Francisco working for a guy, no one paid no attention to it. And I'm 45 years old right now. That's a long time ago. Now it's the new thing that everyone's talking about."

The 2013 follow-up by the TBI to the original 2011 study noted the similarity to domestic violence as public awareness started to increase in the '60 and '70s. "Sex trafficking transcends social and geographic boundaries," the report said. "Domestic violence was an overlooked social problem until that time. As was recognized in domestic violence cases, sex trafficking has emerged as a legitimate social problem, and there are examples of victim-blaming and denial of the problem's existence."

According to McClain, a shift in public perception of the severity and frequency of the issue is essential. The formation of organizations like End Slavery Tennessee, the passage of laws, and the dedicated efforts of TBI are all factors in raising awareness throughout Tennessee.

"I don't think people really wanted to admit that children were being sold," McClain says. "But I think communities have started to really pay attention to what's going on, and maybe because everyone's been getting so involved with international trafficking, they finally got the a-ha moment that it's happening here. And it's connected, too — it's been going on for a long, long time."

Among the 941 participants to the 2011 survey, law enforcement had the highest response rate, with 94 percent returning results to TBI. The high response rate suggests they are clearly willing to combat the issue. Until recently, however, they haven't been entirely able.

"One of the most alarming statistics that we got — besides the sheer volume of cases or incidents — was the fact that 79 percent of the people that responded said they didn't feel their agencies were adequately trained to even recognize or identify a case of human trafficking," Quin tells the Scene. "We've got 94 percent of law enforcement responding, and 79 percent of those that responded to the survey don't think that their agencies can even identify a case. That becomes extremely problematic."

According to a 2014 report by Polaris, which has published yearly ratings on the 50 states' and the District of Columbia's anti-trafficking legal frameworks for the past four years, 37 states passed modern slavery legislation in the previous year. Delaware, Washington and New Jersey were the only states that received a "perfect" score — meaning they met criteria in 10 categories of laws integral to combating trafficking and supporting survivors. The TBI's follow-u reported that Tennessee ranked in the top tier. Yet Polaris noted that our state lacked training for law enforcement.

But according to Quin, the TBI had already identified the need to educate law enforcement officers on the distinct challenges of identifying human trafficking.

"The TBI then turned their focus to training and awareness over the past three or four years," she says. "We've been out across the state training law enforcement and other agencies, first responder types, on how to recognize a case o human trafficking. What does a victim look like, how they present themselves, at what point in a system do we have an opportunity to intervene or identify a victim, and those sorts of things."

This year, Quin says, the legislature gave her unit four agents to spread across the state to train more law enforcement officers and first responders. On May 21, the district attorney's office announced these four agents — assistant district attorneys Tammy Meade, Antoinette Welch, Zoe Sams and Vince Wyatt — as members of the human trafficking unit. Working out of the district attorney's office, this team will work in partnership with End Slavery Tennessee and multiple law enforcement agencies.

"I think those first couple of years, they will work predominantly to train and raise awareness," Quin says. "They will also work cases, because we felt pretty strongly that if you aren't out there working cases — and if you aren't out there seeing what's happening — the patterns and trends change with regard to criminal activity. If we don't stay current in the way that it's occurring — things that criminals do to avoid detection — then we're not going to be able to train effectively, especially law enforcement."

MNPD training officer Matt Dixon was part of the SID team involved in the Golden Massage sting, which he said was instigated by a civilian complaint. After launching an investigation intended to attack multiple locations, the team secured search warrants for the massage parlors and the home of main suspect Peng He, Golden Massage's owner. Dixon says law enforcement and the public must be taught to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

"It's important to educate law enforcement and the public in general," Dixon says. "I couldn't do my job without End Slavery. They're not only educating us, but they're providing a service that the police does not provide."

Such organizations also play an integral role in assisting law enforcement and the courts in prosecuting perpetrators and pimps. Survivors of trafficking and prostitution are often suspicious of the powers that be, especially if they have a record. If they don't trust the system to prosecute their captors, they're not going to make the best witnesses.

This is especially true with minors. Dixon says that if they're placed in Department of Children's Services custody, they're likely to run away. But if they can be convinced that somebody is actually going to help them, they're more likely to seek a path to recovery.

"Sometimes they don't even consider themselves victims of a crime," Dixon explains. "That's why we have to work with End Slavery. We're lucky in Davidson County, that our chiefs, the D.A.'s office and the community, are behind us, and that they let us investigate the crime."

In addition to End Slavery Tennessee, programs like the Hannah Project assist survivors through the recovery process. Spearheaded by assistant D.A. Antoinette Welch, the Hannah Project offers those charged with prostitution an educational session that will, upon completion, expunge their records. Dixon says the three women arrested during the Golden Massage sting completed the program. Since they were not minors, he does not know their current whereabouts.

As for how widespread human trafficking is in Davidson County and beyond, Dixon says it's tough to get an exact figure.

"I can't give you an exact number, but it is more prevalent than we think," he says. "We have to do reports, and the way we do that is through classification codes, and it's reported through that system. For example, a narcotics offense would be '35A,' so I could look and see how many there are."

Yet while kidnapping, rape and prostitution all have distinct codes — and human trafficking could involve all of these offenses — there is currently not a separate code for trafficking, making it even more difficult to quantify.

"In my opinion, it needs to be on there," Dixon says.

While Tennessee has taken major steps forward in combating human trafficking within our borders, progress can't happen fast enough for those held in captivity.

"Every time a victim bumps up against the system and doesn't get identified, then we lost an opportunity to rescue that victim, which means bearing the life for weeks, months, years longer, and the complex trauma that occurs can build exponentially," Quin says.

"We're talking about the extreme end of complex trauma here," Smith adds. "This is not the same as one rape. When you have somebody whose been trafficked, they might be sold an average of 10 or 12 times a day. The average age entry is 12 to 14 for girls and 11 to 13 for boys, and they've almost always been the victims of child abuse or trauma earlier in their lives, and that's what makes them so vulnerable to this type of exploitation.

"It leads to a very complex kind of trauma; a deep need for love, acceptance, belonging, that hasn't been met. Traffickers are master manipulators, and they can come along with a dream — that they're a boyfriend, and that they of love you, and they make you feel special — and you're going to have a happily-ever-after kind of life, and that's a powerful thing. Once somebody is trafficked, the average life expectancy is seven years."

McClain says End Slavery Tennessee works with anyone who has been trafficked — sex trafficking or labor trafficking — and that the majority of the survivors are women.

"Currently we're working with seven labor trafficking and 22 sex trafficking victims, and five of them are juveniles," she says. "[It's] easier for me to make a connection with a juvenile, because they know whenever I'm coming, they're going to get lunch, or get to go shopping, we're going to get to build a relationship."

This relationship building is a key part of the healing process, as juvenile trafficking victims often have a strong emotional tie to their captors and, accordingly, severe trust issues.

"It's because they think they love them, you know?" McClain says. "They think that they love them. And that's probable the hardest hurdle for me, getting them to realize that's not love. Getting them to see that they're actually victims. Because the reality of it is, sometimes, that life is better than the life that they were running from."