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Federal agent trains strip clubs, dancers to detect sex trafficking

by JOHN ROGERS The Associated Press | February 2, 2016 at 4:15 a.m.
A member of the industry group Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking reads a guide card explaining trafficking and smuggling as part of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security's "Blue Campaign" aiming to teach the public, owners of strip clubs and strippers how to spot sex traffickers, at a workshop at the Burbank Community Services Building in Burbank, Calif.

LOS ANGELES -- Dwayne Angebrandt wasn't all that surprised when his bosses at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asked their expert on sex trafficking to put together a public presentation on how to spot its signs.

What really took him aback was the audience he was asked to deliver it to: a group of strip-club operators.

For years, law enforcement agencies had suspected such a group would likely be made up of some of the very people who are quietly selling women into prostitution. Or at the least, acting as middle men for people who do.

"I wondered where was the intersection with what our message is and what their message is," he said of entrepreneurs whose business model is hiring women to dance naked in front of men and then paying them with only the tips the men offer.

But as the special agent in charge of the Southern California office investigating human trafficking quickly learned, many of the club operators and their dancers he met were surprisingly clueless when it came to spotting the problem.

Three years after his first presentation an unlikely alliance has formed between his agency and a group called Club Organizers Against Sex Trafficking. It's one that seeks to train managers and dancers how to spot pimps and other traffickers who shadow their clubs and to report them to authorities.

Since the presentations have begun, officials with the group and Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement say several suspected pimps have been reported to authorities, and a handful have been arrested.

"There was stuff they were telling us to watch for like if a girl comes in to audition and she has someone with her to speak for her, that's a red flag. If she doesn't have access to her own ID, that's a red flag," said a 24-year-old dancer who attended a recent session in Denver.

"It's stuff that sounds kind of fishy, but I probably wouldn't have put two and two together if I hadn't had a class like that," added the woman, who dances under the name Tandy.

Michael Ocello, who operates 17 clubs and who founded the group after one of his clubs in Maine was raided as a result of a tip that turned out to be unfounded, said one of the first legitimate busts resulting from the training occurred at another of his clubs, in Denver.

A young woman came to apply for a job accompanied by an authoritative woman who held the applicant's indentification and did all the talking while the prospective dancer sat nervously.

The nervousness wasn't surprising, Ocello said, noting a career change to nude dancing isn't something anyone takes lightly. But the training session had made his manager suspicious, and he asked to call the woman aside for a private audition. Instead, he asked why she wanted the job.

"The answers are simple: I lost my job, I've got to make tuition, I've got to make rent, I've got a kid, my husband lost his job, there's a gazillion reasons. But they're all going to focus on that financial aspect," Ocello said. "But this woman said, 'Well, this is where my friend said I got to work.'"

Immigration authorities were contacted and the authoritative woman was arrested. Ocello didn't know the case's outcome, but he added he hoped his club manager saved someone's life.

In Beaverton, Ore., a club's call to police to report that it had discovered it was employing a 15-year-old runaway "with a very good fake ID," led to the girl's pimp being sentenced to life in prison.

In that 2014 case, said police detective Chad Opitz, the club had been busted before for hiring an underage girl and was being careful not to let it happen again.

Opitz, who has attended a Club Organizers Against Sex Trafficking training session himself, said he isn't sure how much of an effect the efforts really have in influencing an industry he sometimes finds reluctant to cooperate with authorities. But he adds, "I think it can't hurt. Awareness within the club is always very important."

That's what Angebrandt was counting on when he spoke to more than 100 club operators, and a handful of dancers, at a training seminar in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank earlier this month. So far about 10,000 people have attended such gatherings nationwide, Ocello said.

Angebrandt told the Burbank group of a case involving a trafficker posing as a video producer who persuaded a woman to dance in a club in Atlanta. Soon he was pimping her for sex with club patrons. When she tried to return home he threatened her family.

"Was your industry a part of that?" he asked. "No, but it was your industry that was promoting it."

Afterward, Chris Hassey, who operates a club in Sacramento, said the advice was "very informative, eye-opening."

A Section on 02/02/2016

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