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Published by Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
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WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS
When you get to Vegas, you've made it."
Maria could hardly believe her luck. She had been selling her body
since she was thirteen on some of the toughest "tracks"
in the country-the ghetto corners in Hunts Point in the Bronx, the
dark alleys of Philadelphia, the cheap hotels of Boston.
"Do you know how many times I got raped?" she says. "Do
you know how many guns I got put to my temples? How many times I had
knives to my throat? How many times I got beaten-with hangers, brooms,
whips, and belts?"
Now here she was, just seventeen years old, once an aspiring choirgirl
from a small town just outside Atlantic City, New Jersey, riding in
a white Mercedes-Benz past the dazzling lights on the Las Vegas Strip.
She had a pile of money by her side and a snazzy car to drive, and
it could not get much better than that.
True, she told herself, the car wasn't hers. The money wasn't hers,
either. Like everything else she had, including her body, it all belonged
to her pimp. But that didn't matter to the young girl, not then. Nothing
was going to diminish the glitter and glamour of this moment. At long
last, she had graduated from being a "track ho," working
the streets, to a "carpet ho," walking the casino floors.
There was just one refrain running through the teenager's head: I
feel so cool.
* * *
The woman stares out from the billboard, wearing a sultry look on
her face-and little else.
your pleasure is our business! is the catchy slogan for a local strip
club on the expressway leading to the famous Strip in Las Vegas.
But it could just as well be the city's official motto. Everything
is for sale here, and nothing sells more than sex.
A big part of what is for sale is illegal sex with minors. The 2009
National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking issued by Shared
Hope International, put Las Vegas at the top of ten cities it surveyed
for the Department of Justice. Shared Hope estimated there were about
four hundred young girls being trafficked in Vegas every year thanks
in part to what it called a "hyper-sexualized entertainment industry."
On the roofs of taxicabs, big display ads promote "gentlemen's
clubs." On street corners, young men hand out flyers to eager
tourists announcing toll-free numbers for sexual encounters. The city's
Yellow Pages directory boasts eighty-nine pages of listings for "escort
services." The section starts with a full-page ad for a "barely
legal teen hotline" offering "hundreds of choices"
of blonds and brunettes. The next page offers "college teens"
and "naughty school girls," and promotions for "teen
cheerleaders" and other youthful offerings go on for dozens of
pages. Nevada, after all, is a notorious tourist destination because
it offers legal prostitution, with close to forty licensed bordellos.
It all helps to lend what Shared Hope calls a "veneer of legitimacy"
to illegal sexual activity with youth.
What many tourists don't realize is that the state still prohibits
prostitution in counties with populations of more than four hundred
thousand, which includes the largest cities of Las Vegas, nearby Henderson,
and Reno. But the geographic niceties of the law don't concern the
men who flock here from all over the country and around the world.
They are looking for women they can rent by the hour, by the act,
or for the night. And they are looking for women of all ages. It is
a sad rule of business in the sex trade: wherever women are for sale,
the commercial sexual exploitation of young girls is never far away.
"This is the mecca for child prostitution," says Sergeant
Detective Gil Shannon. "They all come here."
Shannon should know. He has been a cop in this city for twenty years,
most of them with the city's vice unit. And he realizes that his squad's
statistics point not so much to success as to the depth of the problem:
in the past decade, the Las Vegas police have rescued 1,518 juveniles
forced into prostitution from the streets of the city, averaging more
than a hundred girls every year. But what happens in Vegas doesn't
stay in Vegas. In cities across America, hundreds of thousands of
children get caught up in the trade. At least 60 percent of the young
children picked up for prostitution-related offenses are not from
The number of girls working the streets, the casinos, and the hotels
keeps rising, even as their age keeps dropping. "They are getting
younger and younger," Shannon says. Like Maria, they come from
all over the country, shipped in by pimps on an underground network
that traffics in young flesh. Maria's pimp, a shrewd and ambitious
entrepreneur who went by the street name Knowledge, was based in New
York and Atlantic City. He had arranged for one of his senior women,
nicknamed Lotion, to pick her up at the Las Vegas airport in his Mercedes-Benz.
Lotion was tall-Knowledge liked women with height-and pretty, with
white-blond hair and a thin body.
"You're going to be a Vegas ho now and that's the best kind of
ho to be," Lotion explained as they cruised down the Strip. "This
is the best place to be, because Daddy only comes here once every
two months to check on us," she said, using the slang term for
a pimp. "Daddy" signifies a father figure who requires both
submission and affection, someone who professes to love them but will
not hesitate to punish them if he thinks they have strayed. "As
long as we send him his money all the time," Lotion said, "we
can do whatever we want."
Maria's awe turned to anger when they arrived at the comfortable
apartment Knowledge kept in Vegas. It came with a two-car garage and
a covered parking spot for Knowledge's Mercedes. Inside, it featured
wood paneling, expansive carpets, and a wide-screen TV.
"Fuck it! It had to take me this long to work my way out here?"
Maria blurted out loud. "We have been living in some shitty-ass
place in New York, and this is what you bitches out here have?"4
Even as she spoke, she knew the reason. Prejudice is built into the
prostitution business. White girls, known as "swans" or
"snowflakes" in the trade, are usually a lot more profitable
for the pimps than their African American counterparts, called "ducks."
It is that simple.
"It's a fact that white women make more money," Knowledge
once told the rap music magazine Ozone, which called him the most
successful pimp in the country. "The average dude that buys pussy
is white and they prefer their own kind."
Thanks to her Hispanic background, Maria's light brown skin and straight,
dark hair made her somewhat more marketable than the African American
girls. But the rules of the game still grated. "If I was white
and had blond hair, I'd have been in Las Vegas sooner," she says.
"Everybody Knowledge had working there was white except for me."
It was her first disappointment with her new life in Vegas. It would
not be her last.
That night, dressed in a tight skirt and high heels and carrying
a small white purse, Maria set out with Lotion to learn the ropes.
"She took me everywhere," Maria recalls. "She wasn't
showing me how to be a ho, because I knew how to ho. But she was showing
me how to work the Vegas casinos."
Lotion told the teenager where the hottest spots were, where to sit,
and where to walk. More important, she gave her tips for staying out
of trouble with the law: "Always keep it moving. Never sit for
too long. Always move." It was a rule that Maria would soon ignore
at her peril.
She had no idea that mistake would help spark a major operation by
a new FBI task force that had just been created to rescue children
just like her. Maria would find herself at the center of a two-year
probe that would shine a light on America's dirty little secret: the
exploitation of hundreds of thousands of young girls as prostitutes.