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Truckers Take The Wheel In Effort To Halt Sex Trafficking

Jul 13, 2016
Originally published on July 13, 2016 6:23 pm

Editor's note: This report contains accounts of rape, violence and other disturbing events.

Sex trafficking wasn't a major concern in the early 1980s, when Beth Jacobs was a teenager. If you were a prostitute, the thinking went, it was your choice.

Jacobs thought that too, right up until she came to, on the lot of a dark truck stop one night. She says she had asked a friendly-seeming man for a ride home that afternoon.

Jacobs says he gave her something to drink in an old McDonald's cup, and drugged her. As she was waking up the man announced that he was a pimp. Her pimp.

"I kind of laughed at him, and I said, 'Oh, that's great, but I'm not that kind of girl,' " Jacobs remembers. "And I tried to get out of the car, and he pulled me back in by my hair, beat me, and he said, 'No, b****, I didn't ask you. This is what it is. I own you now. You're going to sleep with this man in this truck, and he's going to give me the money to get to Chicago.' "

She pleaded with the truck driver and cried all through the rape. The john got mad and demanded his money back.

"So, the pimp then beat me up right there in the street, right in the parking lot, and told me if I ever lost any more money for him again he'd kill me and my daddy," Jacobs says.

Despite the noise, no one at the truck stop intervened. And for the next six years, this violent pimp forced Jacobs to work as a sex slave.

The awareness of sex trafficking has changed a lot since then. Just last year, an old motor home parked at a truck stop caught the eye of trucker Kevin Kimmel.

"I saw a guy go in it, and I saw motion to the RV," Kimmel says. "And then I saw what I thought was a young girl peek out and be abruptly pulled back from the window, and the shade pulled back over it."

Kimmel called the police — and ended weeks of torture, starvation and forced prostitution for the victim.

Kylla Lanier says that Kimmel's actions "epitomizes the mission" of her group, Truckers Against Trafficking. She founded the group with her mother and three sisters a few years ago. It dawned on them that truckers would be great allies.

"Trafficking happens everywhere," Lanier says. "It's happening in homes, in conference centers, at schools, casinos, truck stops, hotels, motels, everywhere. You know, it's an everywhere problem, but truckers happen to be everywhere."

And these days TAT stickers, wallet cards and posters — showing a phone number for a sex trafficking hotline — are becoming ubiquitous in the trucking industry.

TAT teaches drivers to try to spot sullen, hopeless-looking children, teens and young adults. Perhaps they're wearing revealing clothing, or maybe have tattoos like bar codes or men's names that might indicate ownership. The group also promotes a hotline to report trafficking.

Jacobs managed to escape her life of forced prostitution after being jailed while working away from her home city. Now she counsels other survivors and works with TAT to help drivers understand the trafficking victim's point of view.

Trucking companies and law enforcement are enthusiastically on board, helping to reach nearly 250,000 drivers, whose calls to the hotline have freed hundreds of trafficking victims.

The approach is so effective that Kansas' attorney general wants to compel truck driving schools to teach sex trafficking prevention. In Ohio, says State Patrol Capt. Mike Crispen, it's already in the curriculum.

"It's just opportunity," Crispen says. "It's an opportunity to educate and get more eyes on the road for us."

Truck stops are fighting trafficking too.

Between the energy drinks upfront and the showers in back at a TA Travel Plaza in Oak Grove, Mo., about a half-hour from Kansas City, monitors play anti-trafficking videos 24/7. Stickers and wallet cards are on the counter, and anti-trafficking posters hang all over the store.

Employees are trained to spot trafficking, and District Manager Sam Tahour says the effort has completely changed his view of sex solicitation.

"If I saw a prostitute, I would have thought, 'Hey, that's what they want to do.' Now I know what signs to look for," Tahour says. "I know what actions to take. Be on the lookout for this. This is what's going on out there, and these people need a hero."

Copyright 2017 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit KCUR-FM.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Right now, across the United States, thousands of men, women and children are being forced to work as prostitutes. We're going to hear how the trucking industry is helping to fight this. A small group has been mobilizing truckers and working to change certain perceptions about prostitution. Some of the details in this story are graphic and may not be appropriate for all listeners. Our report comes from Frank Morris of member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Sex trafficking was not top of mind in the early '80s when Beth Jacobs was a teenager. She figured if you were a prostitute, that was your choice. That is, right up until she came to on the lot of a dark truck stop one night. She says she asked a friendly-seeming man for a ride home that afternoon. She says he gave her something to drink from a McDonald's cup. She was drugged. And as she was waking up the man announced that he was a pimp, her pimp.

BETH JACOBS: I kind of laughed at him, and I said, oh, that's great, but I'm not that kind of girl. And I tried to get out of the car, and he pulled me back in by my hair, beat me and he said, no [expletive], I didn't ask you. This is what it is. I own you now. You're going to sleep with this man in this truck, and he's going to give me the money to get to Chicago.

MORRIS: She pleaded with the truck driver and cried all through the rape. The john got mad and demanded his money back.

JACOBS: So the pimp then beat me up right there in the street - or in the parking lot - and told me if I ever lost any more money for him again, he'd kill me and my daddy.

MORRIS: Despite the ruckus, no one at the truck stop intervened. And for the next six years, this violent pimp forced Jacobs to work as a prostitute. The awareness of sex trafficking has changed a lot since then, and you can see that by what trucker Kevin Kimmel did last year when an old motor home parked at a truck stop caught his eye.

KEVIN KIMMEL: I saw a guy go in it, and I saw the motion to the RV. And then I saw what I thought was a young girl peek out and be abruptly pulled away from the window and the shade pulled back over it.

MORRIS: Kimmel called police, and that call ended weeks of torture, starvation and forced prostitution for the victim.

KYLLA LANIER: Kevin Kimmel epitomizes the mission of Truckers Against Trafficking.

MORRIS: Kylla Lanier co-founded the group Truckers Against Trafficking, or TAT, with her mother and three sisters a few years ago. It dawned on them that truckers would be great allies.

LANIER: Trafficking happens everywhere. I mean, it's happening in homes. It's happening in conference centers, at schools, casinos, truck stops, hotels, motels, everywhere. You know, it's an everywhere problem, but truckers happen to be everywhere.

MORRIS: And these days, TAT stickers, wallet cards and posters are almost everywhere in the trucking industry. TAT teaches drivers to try to spot sullen, hopeless-looking children, teens and young adults. Perhaps they're wearing revealing clothing. Maybe they have tattoos, like barcodes or men's names, that might indicate ownership.

The group promotes a hotline to report trafficking. Trucking companies and law enforcement are enthusiastically on board, helping to reach nearly a quarter million drivers, and trucker's calls to the hotline have freed hundreds of trafficking victims. The approach is so effective that Kansas's attorney general wants to compel truck driving schools to teach sex trafficking prevention. And in Ohio, that is already on the curriculum. It's not just truckers, truck stops are helping, too.

SAM TAHOUR: Let me show you some of the things that we do for our drivers.

MORRIS: At this TA Travel Plaza near Kansas City, between the energy drinks up front and the showers in back, District Manager Sam Tahour shows off monitors playing anti-trafficking videos 24/7. Stickers and wallet cards are on the counter and anti-trafficking posters hang all over the store. Employees are trained to spot trafficking, and Tahour says the effort has completely changed his view of prostitution.

TAHOUR: You know, if I saw a prostitute, I would have thought, hey, that's what they want to do. Now I know what signs to look for. I know what actions to take. Be on the lookout for this. This is what's going on out there, and these people need a hero.

MORRIS: A hero, someone to report the crime, and after that, someone like Beth Jacobs. Jacobs escaped a life of forced prostitution after being jailed while working away from her home city. Now she's a sex-trafficking survivor, counseling victims and working with Truckers Against Trafficking to help drivers understand the trafficking victim's point of view. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.