If only Katie hadn’t responded to the Facebook message. That’s
how her ordeal began in the summer of 2011—with a vague enticement from an
unfamiliar name, Rain Smith.
“You’re pretty. You could make some money.” Those empty words
had lured her into a stranger’s car.
It hadn’t been clear how she’d make money, and now Katie knew
there was no “Rain Smith.” There was only the man in front of her—Justin
Strom, a member of the Underground Gangster Crips gang in Fairfax County
and the leader of a sex-trafficking operation.
Strom said he wanted to put her to work as a prostitute. Katie
told him she was only 17 and not interested. He tried a different tactic,
taking out a stash of cocaine and offering her some. She said she didn’t
do that, somehow mustering the courage to slap his hand away.
She watched as the white powder dusted Strom’s lap. Then she
felt her head slam into the car window.
• • •
One year earlier, in the fall of 2010, Detective William Woolf
was tailing members of the gang MS-13 in an unmarked police car when he
noticed something strange.
Woolf has a youthful smile. He wears sneakers and T-shirts, and
when he cracks a joke, you can see how he might relate to the teenagers he
meets on the job. Around the Fairfax County Police Department, he’s known
Woolf had been working gangs in Fairfax County for four years.
He had spent much of that time tracking MS-13, a Salvadoran gang that has
a big presence around Washington.
Something was different this night. The men had a girl with
them—she looked underage—and they appeared to be driving around aimlessly.
Woolf watched as the girl got out of the car, entered an apartment
building, and emerged about 15 minutes later. The pattern repeated a
couple of times before Woolf felt certain about what he was
Detective William Woolf was tailing members of the gang MS-13 when he noticed something strange. The men had a girl with them, and they appeared to be driving around aimlessly.
He had no choice but to blow his cover. He and a federal agent
who was with him went in and rescued the girl. She was 16 and being sold
Woolf had heard rumors from his street sources about gangs
prostituting girls around Washington but had never seen signs of it
firsthand. Soon, though, other MS-13 sex-trafficking cases would unfold in
One of the traffickers Woolf discovered that first night was
Alexander Rivas, who admitted recruiting two underage girls as prostitutes
and is now serving ten years.
There was also Jose Juarez-Santamaria, who prostituted a
12-year-old throughout DC, Virginia, and Maryland and let his friends rape
her. He was sentenced to life in prison.
And a federal jury gave Rances Amaya, known for carrying a
machete, 50 years behind bars for trafficking three teen
But as Woolf pursued MS-13, another enterprise operated
Through social-media sites including Facebook and MySpace,
investigators say, Justin Strom invaded homes in Fairfax County,
Arlington, and Alexandria. He waited at Metro stops and trolled shopping
malls. He even infiltrated the halls of Fairfax County public schools,
some of the best in the country, where he used female students to lure
classmates into his sex-trafficking ring.
Anywhere a teenage girl might be, Strom was
• • •
When you tell people you’re working on a story about child sex
trafficking, the first question they ask is “Where?” They picture brothels
in Bangkok or back alleys in some Eastern European country. Few guess it’s
happening in places like Fairfax, the nation’s second-richest county,
where families flock to raise their kids in quiet cul-de-sacs.
But since 2011, police and federal agents have taken down 28
juvenile sex traffickers in the eastern district of Virginia, most just
outside DC, and have identified 41 victims—all of them American citizens,
many from middle- or upper-class families.
In Northern Virginia, the problem stems from street gangs such
as MS-13, the Underground Gangster Crips, and SUR-13. Only Southern
California has had a similar number of gang-controlled child
Police and prosecutors don’t know whether this crime is new or
has just gone undetected until recently. If a gang member gets pulled over
with guns or drugs in the car, he’s busted. But there’s nothing illegal
about having a girl in the passenger seat. Gang members tell the girls to
wear normal school clothes—sweatshirts, jeans, backpacks—and they
typically use the same girls for only a few weeks, to avoid drawing
attention from police or parents.
Traffickers know whom to target: a girl at the mall who avoids
eye contact when paid a compliment, an angry teen posting on Facebook that
she hates her parents, a girl who can’t afford clothes trendy enough to
fit in with the popular crowd.
Many of the girls have problems at home, and some have a
history of sexual abuse. Others just lack self-esteem or feel
ignored—regular teenage problems that leave them vulnerable to a skilled
And, as I learned when one girl called me to talk about her
experiences with Strom, those who fit the legal definition of “victim”
don’t always see themselves that way.
• • •
Billy Woolf partnered with FBI agent Jeff Johannes on an MS-13
sex-trafficking case in early 2011, and they’ve worked together ever
since. When Woolf sees something in the field or gets a report about
suspected trafficking that could rise to the level of a federal offense,
he calls Johannes to loop in the FBI. The two see each other or talk by
phone almost every day.
Johannes specializes in crimes against children, and unlike
Woolf, he looks tough—burly and bald, with clear blue eyes and graying
stubble. When he and I meet at the FBI’s Washington Field Office, he’s
polite but guarded, careful about how much he can tell a
Johannes’s occupation requires reticence—a label on the
office’s mini-blinds warns not to open them more than 45 degrees, lest
anyone try to spy through them—but he softens when I ask why he chose such
“It has its moments where it’s just nothing but pure sadness,”
he says. Yet the rewards outweigh the heartache: “You can’t get any more
black-and-white, good-versus-evil than when you’re involving
Woolf and Johannes have found an ally in US Attorney Neil
MacBride, who oversees the region that includes Fairfax County. MacBride
has made ferreting out traffickers one of his office’s top
Knowing that MacBride wants to take down sex traffickers as
badly as they do motivates Woolf and Johannes. And MacBride has a powerful
tool—the federal statute for sentencing juvenile sex traffickers is
severe: It imposes a mandatory minimum punishment of ten years in prison
and a maximum of life.
In November 2011, a Child Protective Services report landed on
Woolf’s desk. According to police, a 17-year-old named Laura had confided
to a school administrator that she’d been hanging out with a guy she
called Jae, who paid her to have sex with men, and she wasn’t sure what to
do. (Laura would later deny saying any such thing to anyone at
Laura comes from money—her father runs a government-contracting
firm. But her life hasn’t been easy. Her parents are divorced, and she
says one of her sisters has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and the
other has been arrested on gun and drug charges. Laura herself has been in
and out of rehab for cocaine and other drugs for years.
Woolf drove to Laura’s house, a 4,000-square-foot home in
Fairfax Station, to talk to her and her parents. Laura told him she didn’t
need help and wasn’t in danger. Her response didn’t surprise Woolf—he’d
met other girls in her situation who refused to cooperate, often out of
devotion to their persecutors.
“It’s very similar to domestic violence,” he says. “Because
this trauma bonding occurs, there’s this loyalty.” That loyalty can be
especially strong in gangs, he says, because they indoctrinate girls into
believing they’re becoming part of a family.
Laura wouldn’t talk, but her parents handed over her laptop.
Horrified, they told Woolf they’d do whatever they could to help the
investigation and keep their daughter safe. When Woolf and Johannes
examined the computer, they found that someone had logged onto Facebook
from it using fake names, including “Rain Smith.” On Laura’s Facebook
profile, she listed Justin Strom, nicknamed Jae, as her
Woolf recognized Strom, who was then 26 and had a long
affiliation with the Crips. Strom had grown up in Fairfax County and gone
to Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield but gotten involved with gangs
early on. His criminal record included 11 juvenile offenses, and after he
was stabbed in the stomach at age 18, he had the words thug life tattooed
over the scar. Woolf had investigated Strom for robbery, assault, and drug
dealing, but this was the first evidence he’d seen that the Crips were
Just a week after Woolf met Laura, another 17-year-old,
Meg,came forward. Her parents had been tracking her cell phone and saw
that she was traveling to neighborhoods where she had no good reason to
be. When they started asking questions, Meg confessed that Laura, one of
her classmates, had recruited her into Strom’s prostitution ring, under
his instructions. Meg’s parents called the police.
Meg gave Woolf and Johannes new clues into how Strom ran the
operation, and she named men who worked as drivers and bodyguards for the
girls. Woolf and Johannes found messages between Meg and Laura on Facebook
that corroborated her account. In one exchange, Laura told Meg to call
Strom for more details about how she could start making money.
• • •
Through Laura’s laptop, Woolf and Johannes found that Strom was
advertising girls on Craigslist and Backpage.com. They got warrants for
records from those sites. They also compelled Facebook to turn over
records for the fake accounts Strom used. Those searches revealed the
identities of girls Strom had contacted, giving Woolf and Johannes a long
list of possible victims to interview.
Woolf and Johannes say predators such as Strom spend entire
days trolling Facebook, looking for girls who post about fighting with
their parents or feeling left out at school. They can detect when a girl
has a void in her life they can offer to fill. Facebook has privacy
settings, but plenty of kids leave their thoughts and feelings open for
anyone to read.
From Strom’s “Rain Smith” Facebook account, a message had gone
out to more than 800 girls: “You’re pretty. You could make some
It was the same message that had popped up in Katie’s in-box in
the summer of 2011, when she was 17. When Woolf and another Fairfax County
detective tracked Katie down, she told them how those words had changed
Katie went to high school and came from what Woolf would later
describe as “a normal home.” But the prospect of making money had
intrigued her. Woolf and Johannes say girls her age often are lured by a
desire as trivial as wanting extra spending money for clothes.
Soon after Katie responded to the message, another girl—who
turned out to be one of Strom’s prostitutes—picked her up. She drove Katie
to meet Strom and two of his associates, Henock Ghile and Donyel
Katie found herself in a car with four strangers, realizing she
had made a dangerous mistake. Strom and the others explained the plan to
prostitute her, and Strom said she had to have sex with him and Ghile
first, as a sort of initiation. Katie told detectives she pushed Strom’s
hand away when he offered her cocaine and she saw the white powder spill
all over his lap. Then her head hit the window.
She remembered how Strom had pulled her out of the car and led
her around the corner of a nearby apartment building. How he had pressed a
knife to her neck and demanded a blowjob. How she had felt sick and tried
to refuse him. How he had sliced her across the forearm with the
Woolf and partner Jeff Johannes found Facebook exchanges between Meg and Laura. In one, Laura told Meg to call Justin Strom for more details about how she could start making money.
The detectives noticed scars on both Katie’s arm and her
forehead. Hospital records confirmed that a gash above her eye from that
night had required stitches.
Before Strom finished with her, Katie told the detectives, he
ordered her to stand and bend over. It was the first of 15 rapes she
endured that night.
Strom then took Katie into the apartment building, where he
forced her to have sex with 14 men, one after the other. She remembered
that Strom was there for most of the rapes and that he collected $1,000
from the men.
In the early morning, Strom’s associates drove her home. They
called her a “whore” and a “slut” and told her she’d gotten what she had
coming. If she told anyone what had happened, they said, they’d come back
and kill her.
• • •
Police also found Jessica, who told them she’d met Strom at the
Franconia-Springfield Metro stop in the spring of 2009. Though commuters
crowd the station during rush hour, it’s quiet in the middle of the day.
Trees and underbrush surround the area.
Jessica, 16 at the time, said Strom approached her and told her
she was pretty. He said she could make a lot of money by having sex with
men, but first he “needed to see if it was good.” Jessica told detectives
she was flattered by the attention. She agreed to have sex with Strom
right there in the woods.
Jessica said she worked as a prostitute throughout the summer
of 2009 in Virginia and Maryland and that Strom and his associates fed her
a steady supply of marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, and booze. She would go
home and eat dinner with her family, then get high and go to work. She
said Strom was violent and that when she told him she wanted out, he
grabbed her around the neck and squeezed hard. This wasn’t a job she could
Strom’s victims were helping Woolf and Johannes put together a
disturbing profile of a man selling girls in 10-to-15-minute increments
for anywhere from $30 to $100. He found a loyal clientele in neighborhoods
such as Commerce Street in Springfield and Chirilagua in Alexandria. Just
minutes from McMansions and tony shopping districts, these areas are home
to low-end apartment complexes targeted by child traffickers.
Strom was a pro at finding girls with poor self-esteem and
manipulating them into doing—and thinking—whatever he wanted. He clearly
knew how to elude law enforcement—he’d been running the operation
undetected for years.
At 10 pm on Christmas Day 2011, Woolf’s phone started ringing.
He was celebrating at home with his family, enjoying some rare time away
from the job.
Laura’s parents had reported her missing in early December, and
Woolf had spent weeks handing out his cell-phone number and information
about Laura to motels around the area, in case an employee recognized her.
Sure enough, one did.
Laura called me as I was reporting this story, and we talked
about her time on the run with Strom. She said it was her idea to flee.
First Woolf had come to her house, she said, and then police showed up at
school to question her. She was worried.
“I’ve run away several times,” Laura said. “That’s all I know
how to do. When something goes bad, I run.”
Laura told me Strom had received an unfair share of the blame,
and she wanted to correct the record: “A lot of the girls said Justin did
stuff that I did.”
She told me she’d dabbled in prostitution before she’d ever met
Strom and that it was Strom’s friend Donyel Dove who introduced her to the
“I’ve always been viewed as a ho,” she said. “Once you’re
called something enough, it’s like ‘Well, I already am.’ ”
According to Laura, Strom—who became her boyfriend—never wanted
her to sell herself. “Prostitution is kind of a relief,” she told me. “You
get to be somebody else. You’re with a stranger that doesn’t know you,
that doesn’t judge you. It’s kind of like an out-of-body experience.” She
said the clients were men of all ages and races and she was never
Laura wanted me to know she was the ring’s real leader, in
charge of recruiting and selling the girls. But she was involved only for
six months, and Strom’s operation spanned at least five years. Gangs often
use one girl, whom they call the head bitch in charge, or HBIC, to manage
the others, and Woolf and Johannes say Laura filled this role for
Laura told me she’d managed about ten girls and that none were
totally innocent. She said they were free to quit at any time and they all
helped recruit friends and classmates. They had “a lot of trauma” in their
past and most of them had drug addictions, but she didn’t see many cases
of prior sexual abuse. Rather, they had been ignored or excluded by their
“I think neglect is sometimes harder on people than abuse,”
Laura said. She recalled a time when she accidentally burned her face on a
cigarette and no one at home would help. Strom invited her over and
treated the burn. She said he was like family to her.
As for Katie’s account of her brutal rape and assault, Laura
said: “I don’t think any of that’s true.”
• • •
For three weeks, Laura and Strom had jumped from one motel to
the next, going as far as Atlantic City and being careful not to stay more
than one night at the same place. Laura turned tricks to help pay for
They wanted to relax over the holidays, so they settled into
the Travelodge in Alexandria for three nights instead of their usual one.
Located on a tidy, tree-lined street, the motel, though shabby, doesn’t
look like a harbor for runaway girls.
Laura wanted me to know she was the ring’s real leader, in charge of recruiting and selling the girls. But she was involved only for six months, and Strom’s operation spanned at least five years.
On Christmas, Laura and Strom watched movies and cooked a stew
“We got too comfortable,” Laura says. So when Woolf knocked,
she wasn’t surprised. If she was going to be arrested, she wanted to have
a cigarette first. She lit one, then let the police in.
For Woolf, finding Strom and Laura together was an opportunity
to nail down an important piece of his case. “She’s a juvenile,” Woolf
told Strom. “I’m recovering her because she’s a missing
Child sex-trafficking cases require investigators to prove that
perpetrators knew, or had reason to know, that they were dealing with
minors. Now that Woolf had told Strom that Laura was underage, Strom
wouldn’t be able to deny later that he knew.
Laura was right to smoke that last cigarette, because Woolf
took her with him. But he hadn’t caught Strom doing anything illegal in
the motel room, and he and Johannes hadn’t finished building their case
against him. Arresting Strom would have to wait.
• • •
Woolf and Johannes watched Strom closely as they continued to
gather information from victims and follow his online trail. They
installed a tracking device on a white Cadillac Seville that Strom and his
associates used to drive girls around, and they began tracing the gang’s
phone calls. When the gang attempted to put girls to work, investigators
Strom brought three girls, including Laura, to an Alexandria
neighborhood on Valentine’s Day 2012. He waited in a parked car while they
stood on the side of the street.
Laura says they weren’t trying to find men that night—they only
wanted to buy drugs—and that the outing had been her idea. Because it was
Valentine’s Day, she says she wanted to go out to dinner and have a little
Unbeknownst to her or Strom, Woolf was there, too, watching
from an unmarked car. The girls weren’t finding any takers. About ten
minutes passed before they climbed back into the car with Strom and
started to pull away. Woolf—who was out of his jurisdiction and unable to
make arrests—dialed the dispatch number for the Alexandria Police
He told the operator who he was and what he was seeing and said
he could direct Alexandria officers to Strom’s vehicle. He knew they
wouldn’t be able to arrest Strom—nothing illegal had happened yet; the
point was to prevent it from happening. Alexandria police showed up and
pulled Strom over. They arrested Laura on an outstanding warrant for
The same month, Woolf and Johannes sat down to interview
Christopher Sylvia. Back in November, Meg had identified Sylvia as one of
Strom’s drivers. Sylvia was in police custody after violating a protective
order to stay away from an ex-girlfriend.
He admitted his involvement and specifically recalled driving
Meg to meet men. He talked about Strom’s role, saying that at one point he
asked Strom why he “messes” with young girls instead of adult
Woolf and Johannes had by now spent three months on the
investigation, often pulling 80-hour weeks. They were building a strong
case—one that could dismantle Strom’s entire organization.
In the predawn hours of March 28, 2012, a small enclave of
townhouses on Rocky Gap Court in Lorton sat dark and quiet. The
cookie-cutter homes, distinguishable by paint color and not much else,
look like typical, middle-class suburbia.
Inside a cream-colored, three-story home, Strom was asleep. It
was from this townhouse that Woolf and Johannes say Strom ran his
trafficking business. He had brought many of his underage victims
there—leading them past a KinderCare daycare center to his back patio
door, which is obscured by trees—and invited men over to have sex with
Woolf and Johannes had by now interviewed ten of Strom’s
victims and corroborated their stories. They finally had enough evidence
to bring Strom down.
SWAT teams from Fairfax County Police and the FBI arrived at 6
am. They barged through the small front door, finding mattresses on the
floor and condoms strewn about. At Strom’s sentencing, his lawyer would
describe him as having lived in “a perpetual fog of alcohol and
Woolf and Johannes watched from the command center in the FBI’s
office in Manassas as the arrest team apprehended Strom. They could see
the action play out on flat-screen monitors and hear updates coming in
over the radio.
At the same time, SWAT teams arrested Henock Ghile, one of
Strom’s drivers, and searched the home of Michael Jefferies, who worked as
a bodyguard for the girls. It was the first time the FBI had ever done a
“takedown”—multiple, simultaneous arrests and searches—in a child
sex-trafficking case. Strom and his associates all pleaded
The arrest team brought Strom to the FBI’s Manassas office,
where Woolf finally had the chance to question him. Woolf says that when
asked how many girls he had sold, Strom answered: “Too many to
• • •
On September 14, 2012, prosecutors asked Virginia federal judge
James Cacheris to sentence Strom to life in prison.
A stream of his victims and their family members stood up to
describe the devastation Strom had left in their lives.
Jessica, now 20, told the court about the summer she was
“I had been playing soccer, had good friends and a good
relationship with my parents. . . .” she said. “The same day I met
[Strom], I found myself, or lost myself, in the arms of thugs and
hustlers. I was brainwashed into believing that having sex with men for
money was normal, an everyday thing.”
She said she continues to struggle: “I have been in three
rehabs, three hospitals, had a suicide attempt and outpatient treatments
with multiple therapists. And even after all that, I still seem to feel
broken, worthless, and unequal to society.”
Laura was at a rehab facility in Colorado, so she was unable to
attend. She says she believes police sent her away to keep her from
speaking in Strom’s defense at his sentencing—a claim Woolf calls
“ridiculous.” He says Laura’s parents paid for her treatment at the
facility and that a juvenile court had ordered her there for an unrelated
Laura’s mother spoke in her daughter’s absence: “What Mr. Strom
subjected my daughter and these other young girls to is the most
degrading, despicable, inhumane act of depravity any parent can
Meg’s father challenged the judge: “My marriage is failing; my
family is failing. I failed my daughter. I hope you don’t fail
Strom listened—even teared up—as the people who blamed him for
ruining their lives spoke. Then it was his turn.
“I want to say to the families and the victims and to my family
that I’m sorry for all the pain that I caused them,” he told the court. “I
don’t want to blame it on drugs or alcohol, but it had a big part. . . . I
ask God to forgive me. I ask for mercy. Your Honor, I just ask that you
have mercy on me.”
To some extent, Judge Cacheris did. He gave Strom 40 years, not
life. Strom spends his days now in a maximum-security prison in
Victorville, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. His
codefendants are also locked up. Donyel Dove got 23 years. Michael
Jefferies, Christopher Sylvia, and Henock Ghile are each serving ten.
(Attempts to reach Strom’s codefendants directly and through their lawyers
• • •
This winter, I sent Strom a letter explaining that I was
writing about his case and offering him the chance to comment. His
response, two weeks later, stood out in my stack of mail. He had scrawled
a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (“Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do
that.”) on the back of the envelope along with the phrases “cold world”
and “God is love.”
Given that Strom had pleaded guilty, signed a statement of
facts admitting to the investigators’ findings, and said at his sentencing
that he accepted responsibility and had ended his involvement in
prostitution only a month before his arrest, I was thrown by what he
He claimed he hadn’t been involved in sex trafficking for
“several years.” He said Katie, the girl who was raped 15 times, didn’t
exist. He mentioned Laura and how she doesn’t consider herself a victim.
He also wrote that he was in solitary confinement because “there’s said to
be a hit out” on his life.
I wrote him back, asking why he would plead guilty and
apologize if none of the allegations were true. In his response, he said
his codefendants had conspired to “pin me as the leader” and that he
pleaded because his lawyers told him he had no chance of
He also changed his story from his first letter and claimed
that he had never trafficked young girls. He again addressed the rape
accusation, writing that he was “known for being a ladies man” and had no
need to force himself on women.
Strom’s letters were littered with strange quotes and
indecipherable Bible references. Laura had told me he’d introduced her to
philosophy; maybe these rambling thoughts were Strom’s attempt to sound
He sent me one more piece of mail. He’s married now, to the
mother of some of his five children; the couple wed while he was in
prison. But with this last letter, Strom included a photo of himself and
Laura. She’s smiling and kissing his cheek. The angle indicates that one
of them was holding the camera. As I studied it, I wondered if they’d
taken the photo while they were on the run together over
Laura is 18 now. She spent eight months in Colorado getting
sober and participating in therapy for kids who have been sexually
exploited. She says she became a leader among her peers at the treatment
“The staff saw me that way,” she says. “It made me feel good,
just how people viewed me.”
She says she’s drug-free. She has a job as an administrative
assistant and plans to start community college in August. She and her
mother hadn’t had a relationship since she was 12, but now she says they
e-mail and hang out.
But Laura remains loyal to Strom. She talks about how he may be
able to appeal his case—unlikely, given his guilty plea. And though he’s
married, when I ask her if she thinks they’ll reconnect one day, she
doesn’t rule it out: “I don’t really know where we’re at or where we’re
going to be in the future.”
I ask what advice she’d give to other girls. She says staying
busy with something positive, like a sport, is important. Keeping out of
trouble, she says, requires finding “a place to belong.”
I look at the girl—young and pretty—in the photo with Strom. I
hope she’s found her place.
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.