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 school.)
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 boyfriend.
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 trafficking girls.
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.
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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 money.”
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 her life.
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 Dove.
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 knife.
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.
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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 just quit.
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.