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'It's a Pandora's box that we opened': Fort Collins police on human trafficking

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month
Human trafficking
Posted at 4:41 PM, Jan 29, 2020

EATON, Colo. -- She was held captive for five years, not by force, but by mental manipulation.

"I was trafficked from the age of 23 to 28 as a single mom," said Megan Lundstrom.

Exploited for sex while her children were asleep in another room.

“I perceived there to be no other option,” Lundstrom said. “It’s the most common form of domestic human trafficking. It’s either a family member or an intimate partner.”

In Lundstrom’s case, it was a man who said he loved her.

“It’s called grooming and over the course of that grooming process, vulnerabilities are either identified or created by the trafficker and then they’re exploited," she explained.

January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and while Hollywood often projects images of kidnappings and victims being tied up, the truth is surprising and eye-opening.

“Sex trafficking, especially in Colorado, is not something that people understand," said Colette MacFarland, co-founder of Coffeehouse Ten24 in Eaton, Colorado, a nonprofit that donates all proceeds to local, regional and international sex-trafficking organizations.

Doris Meeker is the cook and baker who first had a vision for the coffee shop.

"We just wanted a place where people could gather," said Meeker. "We also needed a mission. What can we do to make the world a better place?"

Eighteen miles west of Eaton is the City of Fort Collins, where police say sex trafficking is prevalent.

"Fort Collins is the number one city in Colorado for the demand for commercial sex trafficking, which floors me,” said Fort Collins police officer Rob Knab.

Knab said domestic human trafficking looks much different than the movies.

“I think a lot of people look at the movie Taken with Liam Neeson and see a girl chained to a bed with a line of guys lined up outside a curtain and the girl’s doped up on heroin,” Knab said. “The vast majority of these cases aren’t like that.”

Lundstrom said it’s usually a toxic relationship with someone you know.

"A lot of people think this can't happen to a U.S. citizen,” Lundstrom said. “This can't happen to a person living in suburbia. But, if it can happen to me - it is absolutely happening to further marginalized individuals."

Lundstrom’s partner ended up pimping her out in Colorado.

“And then I was sold from him to another pimp in Las Vegas and trafficked out there for another year," she said.

The problem is so pervasive, financial institutions like Western Union are tracking the movement of dirty money, daily.

"It’s a very complex issue. The criminal element is looking to exploit these people, purely for financial gain," said Scott Apodaca, director of Western Union’s financial intelligence unit.

"As the traffickers continue to get more advanced in their techniques to hide the funds and launder money, we are doing the same," Apodaca said.

Police are, too.

Knab recently posed as a young girl online and got hundreds of text messages.

"It was like - beep, beep, beep, beep," Knab said. “In 24 hours, we had 258 different people contact that ad."

Fort Collins police stumbled upon the trafficking issue just four years ago.

“We started investigating unusual hotel crimes back in 2015,” Knab said. “Fights, robberies, stabbings, drug calls.”

Knab said they quickly figured out that trafficking was at the core of all those calls.

“It’s literally a Pandora's box that we opened,” he said. “The majority of the time it does start as an intimate partner and we call those 'boyfriend pimps,'” Knab said.

Why Fort Collins is such a hub for the criminal activity is still somewhat of a mystery.

“I think it’s a number of things,” Knab said. “It’s our proximity to major highways, the fact that we do have a lot of wealth in parts of our community, we’re also close to oil fields in Weld County which attract that kind of activity. And now, we have this reputation among the ‘Johns’ that this is the place to come.”

Knab has now made trafficking one of his signature issues.

“My goal is to reverse that completely,” Knab said. “This is my home. I want to make Fort Collins the most hostile community in Colorado for this to occur.”

In the past few months, Fort Collins has conducted 10 stings and charged 127 men for crimes related to trafficking.

"What does it look like when it's down the street?” MacFarland asked. “What does it look like when it's my teenager who somebody is targeting online?"

MacFarland said awareness is the key to stopping it.

“Our kids are on Tick-Tock, they’re on Facebook, Snapchat,” she said. “These predators are really intelligent. They know where to go. So, we are bringing awareness and showing people what it looks like when it does happen.”

Lundstrom has now started her own nonprofit called Free Our Girls , a network of exploited women and men and their journey to freedom from exploitation and trafficking.

“It’s about creating a platform that’s empowering for survivors,” Lundstrom said. “You’re told by everybody – your abuser, society – that you’re choosing these things. I’m here to tell you that’s not true.”

This story was originally published by Russell Haythorn at KMGH.