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 as Billy.
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 seeing.
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 for sex.
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 rapid succession.
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 girls.
But as Woolf pursued MS-13, another enterprise operated undetected.
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 lurking.
• • •
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 sex-trafficking cases.
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 manipulator.
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 reporter.
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 difficult work.
“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 kids.”
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 priorities.
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.