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Stillwater police monitor for possible human trafficking

Stillwater Police

About 45 or 50. That’s the number of names on one Stillwater Police detective’s watch list.

Using a program designed for law enforcement, Det. Tom Comstock monitors the ads they post, watching for them to advertise that they are coming to Stillwater.

Unlike the term “watch list” might imply, they’re not terrorists. They’re not even drug dealers. They’re prostitutes, and Comstock watches them closely because they might be something more.

They might be human trafficking victims.

Prostitution arrests are rare in Stillwater; there have been only 12 since 2014. Nine of those were undercover stings carried out in cooperation with the Human Trafficking Unit of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the state agency responsible for investigating human trafficking. Though they resulted in arrests for prostitution, they were set up to catch human trafficking, a strategy Comstock said police always keep in mind.

“When you say the word ‘prostitute,’ you’re working a human trafficking case,” Comstock said. “Potentially.”

Prostitution, performing sex acts for money, is a crime in itself. But there is often another crime going on behind it: human trafficking. Human trafficking occurs when a person is coerced into performing sex acts for money. The law considers people in that situation to be victims rather than perpetrators.

Capt. Kyle Gibbs of the Stillwater Police Department said the idea that prostitutes are always there voluntarily is false.

“So often, the prostitutes aren’t there by choice,” Gibbs said. “That’s the human trafficking aspect.”

The possibility of human trafficking in Stillwater came to the forefront in 2017 when a report of untoward behavior kicked off an undercover operation at OK Massage at 602 W. Sixth Ave. in Stillwater. Police arrested one masseuse for offering to perform lewd acts for money on an undercover officer.

At the time of the arrest, the arresting officer noted the woman spoke very little English. In less than a week, the state filed a motion to dismiss charges because she may have been a victim of human trafficking. Comstock has his doubts.

“The human trafficking on that one was 100% never proven,” Comstock said.

Laura Austin Thomas, the Payne County District Attorney, remembers the woman herself said she was a victim.

“She felt she was a victim of trafficking,” Thomas said. “She felt she didn’t have a choice. Now, factually, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I wasn’t going to lose anything and I could have helped someone, so that’s why I did that.”

Reece Lane, the Payne County Jail administrator, is convinced she was a victim, Thomas said. Though he refused to give details to protect the woman’s privacy, Lane said training he received on human trafficking victims led him to the conclusion.

“According to the training, she looked like she met the criteria to the extent that I wanted someone to take a look at it that knew more than I did,” Lane said.

After the charges were dropped, the woman was sent to a place in Tulsa that is supposed to help victims. She has since disappeared, Comstock said.

In late 2018, police arrested two masseuses at Oriental Massage in Stillwater in two separate stings. As with the 2017 case, a customer notified police something was wrong at the parlor, and police sent in an undercover officer to catch them in the act. But the 2018 arrests were a little different.

When Comstock went in, he started seeing signs that it might be human trafficking instead of voluntary prostitution. The women lived at the massage parlor, for example. They didn’t have proper documentation for being an employee. They didn’t even know who their boss was.

“Not the smartest man in the world, but two and two came up with, I need to call somebody else,” Comstock said.

The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics Human Trafficking Unit was unavailable, so Comstock called the Department of Homeland Security, which also handles human trafficking. That investigation is ongoing, Comstock said.

DHS did not respond to a request for comment.

One of the women failed to show up for a court date in December and has not been seen since. The other is scheduled for a court appearance Monday.

Attempts to get in touch with the owners of the massage parlors were unsuccessful.

Unlike some states, Oklahoma does not require that massage parlors get a license before operating, and Stillwater does not require that most businesses, including massage parlors, get a business license before operating. This lack of oversight makes it easier for illicit parlors to set up shop, stay under the radar and continue operating even when suspected of illegal activity.

The massage parlor arrests are not typical of prostitution stings in Stillwater. Out of the 12 prostitution arrests since 2014, only three were made at massage parlors. Eight of them were at motels. These were stings set up by police where police chose the motel and lured a prostitute there by pretending to be a customer.

This trend is similar to the rest of the United States, according to a 2016 publication from the Polaris Project, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping human trafficking. The publication puts hotels, motels and massage parlors among the most common locations for commercial sex, alongside residences, strip clubs and truck stops.

That’s a fact of which Maci Slater, an Oklahoma State University graduate, is keenly aware. Slater has been interested in the impact of human trafficking on the hospitality industry since she attended the American Hotel and Lodging Association Legislative Action Summit as a student. Now, as a general manager at the Best Western in Weatherford, Oklahoma, Slater sees first-hand the challenges of combating human trafficking from inside the hospitality industry. Between time crunches, high employee turnover and guests wanting privacy, creating an atmosphere where employees can spot human trafficking is difficult.

“We go through employees very quickly, so often times you’re just getting to train them on how to do rooms, or how to do their job, and you’re often not getting to that other training, such as prevention and safety and all that good stuff,” Slater said.

But she has found ways to fight human trafficking by encouraging a “see something, say something” attitude, educating herself on the signs of suspicious behavior and making sure staff enters hotel rooms at least every other day, even if the guest has a “do not disturb” sign on the door.

“If they put their ‘do not disturb’ up the first night, we will honor that,” Slater said. “If we see that it’s up the second night, we’ll actually put a note on the door saying that we will enter the room within twenty-four hours.”

Similar practices are becoming more common across the hospitality industry, Slater said.

“[We] make sure that our guest is safe, that our property is safe and that there is nothing illegal going on in our rooms,” Slater said.

When police make a prostitution arrest, Thomas said, the district attorney’s office treats it just like any other misdemeanor case. Thomas doesn’t have enough prostitution cases crossing her desk that Payne County has a special program for them.

“They’re handled just like other misdemeanor cases,” Thomas said. “You look at the background of the individual, you look at what they need, you look at what we offer in those cases.”

During a prosecution for prostitution, Thomas said she’s not looking for signs of human trafficking.

“It would come up in the investigation if it’s going to come up,” Thomas said.

The SPD checks for signs every time it arrests someone for prostitution.

“Every case, if they’re present, they’re interviewed in regards to human trafficking by the experts,” Comstock said.

Since the Stillwater Police Department started doing undercover stings, Comstock has seen a drop in prostitution-related crimes. Sometimes he tries to set up a “date” with a prostitute only for the woman to tell him she won’t come to Stillwater.

“That’s what I want to hear,” Comstock said. “I want to hear they don’t want to come here, that they’re concerned about it being law enforcement. That’s what I want to hear.”

Whether in motels or in massage parlors, prostitution is not a victimless crime, Thomas said.

“It’s a risky behavior,” Thomas said. “So it affects the individual more and increases their likelihood of disease, violence. Prostitution is not the safest act to engage in.”

Comstock said they often see other crimes tied in with prostitution.

“During the prostitution stings, not only have we made arrests for the crime of prostitute solicitation, but we’ve made weapons charges, we’ve made narcotic arrests, so there’s a whole element of criminal activity that goes along with it,” Comstock said.

Both massage parlors are still open, though they have both changed their names. OK Massage has become Number One Massage and Oriental Massage is now Yun Foot Massage.

The problem still exists, but Comstock wants the public to know the police are working on it.

news.ed@ocolly.com