Saved In America: A look at human trafficking in the U.S.
This week, an eye-opening look at the startling scope of Human Trafficking right here in the US. It’s on the rise. Young girls are groomed and lured by drug cartel-connected thugs then sold as a product to be owned. Experts say it’s happening in every state— even in quiet towns where you wouldn’t expect it. That’s where an eclectic group of former police and Navy SEALS comes in.
Sharyl Attkisson: We’re in southern California with a team of operators searching for a missing teenager named Cecelia.
Sean Murphy: So, we've got some intelligence that, two houses that she's been floating back and forth from through the social media. So, we're just going to go out and a set up on the house and hopefully we'll get an eyeball on her at the house.
Sharyl: Sean Murphy is a retired police lieutenant who’s on the case.
Sharyl: Is there fear that she could be falling into a trafficking situation?
Murphy: There's always that fear. There’s some red flags with this one. One of the contacts is a 30-year-old male. Yeah—enough said about that. And she’s what, 14?
Sharyl: Other Saved in America crew members are planted outside a group home for troubled girls. Ever since they discovered traffickers and gang members stalking the home for victims, they set up camp.
Drone operator: There you go, got some people there.
Sharyl: They use a camera and drone patrolling for signs of trouble.
Joseph Travers, also a former cop, leads the team.
Joseph Travers: One day the parent wakes up and their child's gone.
This has night vision and all that good stuff.
Sharyl: Travers started the all-volunteer Saved in America in 2014 to rescue missing and runaway children. As early as middle school, Travers says, girls are seduced on Facebook or recruited at school by gangs who sell them as modern-day sex slaves.
Travers: What they do is they're preying on the young 13, 14 or 15-year-old girl who might be crying on the end of the lunch bench and befriend them telling the girl how beautiful she is. She should be a model. See in a street gang lifestyle the way to become a street gang member is you have to be “jumped” in. And one of the ways to get jumped in this to become a recruiter and manipulate young girls to bring to the gangs so they can sell them for a profit.
Sharyl: Are drugs often involved in these disappearances of these children?
Travers: Yes. On every occasion. The traffickers start with marijuana and progress to ecstasy, Xanax, and eventually heroin.
Sharyl: Social media almost always holds the key as to who the runaways may be with. That’s how Saved in America managed to track Cecelia and two other girls on the radar today.
Briefing: Cecilia was found and discovered missing midnight, June 2nd 2018, she left all her belongings except for her cell phone.
Sharyl: The pre-operation meeting resembles a Special Ops mission briefing combined with a police patrol briefing.
Travers: She’s on our radar, heavily on our radar.
Sharyl: Saved in America’s volunteers are all former-Navy SEALS or police. Each volunteer is a licensed private eye and licensed to carry firearms. All of their work is done in coordination with local police who are called in to make the actual recovery —and any arrests.
Sharyl: After the briefing, we head out with Murphy to touch base with Cecelia’s mother.
Heidi Valenjan: My daughter she ran away from her group home, and we're - she's been gone since June 2nd, we are hoping that we can find her.
Sharyl: How did you find this group?
Valenjan: I, I went online and I, I just searched investigators and I found them and I contacted them. And they contacted me back and said that they can, they can help me.
Sharyl: What do you worry about?
Valenjan: Everything. Everything, I worry about trafficking, I worry about drugs. I worry about everything. My biggest fear is that she's dead and that’s just scary for me.
Sharyl: Saved in America doesn’t charge anything. Rich or poor receive the same dedication and help for free.
Murphy: There’s not a whole lot of time to be honest with you
Sharyl: We make our way to stake out an apartment where Cecelia’s cell phone has pinged. Three sets of team members watch the apartment from different hidden spots.
Murphy: Hey Rob, you got a little mini a minivan that just pulled out of there coming towards you.
Saved in American volunteer: One male just came out of the front.
Murphy: Yeah. Everybody's going to a birthday party somewhere in that building. Yeah. This address popped up and the other kid’s address popped up.
Sharyl: Saved in America estimates there are thousands of victims each year in San Diego alone. The FBI officially considers it one of the worst areas in the country for child sex trafficking.
Sharyl: How does the border factor into this?
Travers: The border factors in because that is where the conduits or the lanes of drug trafficking is. If you want to find a child sex trafficker, find a drug dealer. It's one in the same. The street gangs cooperation with the prison gangs and the cartels. So those routes— San Diego's number two in the country because San Diego's drug corridor is number two in the country. Texas corridor is number one in the country for narcotics and it's also number one in the country for child sex trafficking.
Sharyl: Travers says he came up with the idea for Saved in America after reading about Brittany Drexel, a missing young girl who was murdered in 2009 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Travers: I read another article about United States Navy SEALS, former SEALS going overseas and rescuing children and I thought, “I need to meet these SEALS and we need to do this here because our children are being enslaved because the drug traffickers who developed these routes throughout the country have now decided they're going to start selling our children.”
Travers: We keep books, we have 79 now.
Sharyl: He says they’re now finding volunteers and taking cases around the country.
Travers: There’s the first child we recovered 14 years old in 2014. And then this young lady 15, we had to recover her twice. The parents had a party for her when she got out of rehab , some of her friends and relatives and myself and one of our operators. She was training to be an Olympic star. This girl we took out of a gang house in Compton where they were, had her sold and ready to ship the next day. We got her. They had her sold to another gang faction in Las Vegas. They take the girls and sell them to the different other gangs all over the country. Here’s a bad guy. Yeah, he's in jail.
Saved in America volunteer: Where she coming from?
Sharyl: Saved in America didn’t find Cecelia during our visit. But weeks later, at the Cheese Steak Grill in Oceanside,
Saved in Volunteer: Hey Frank, I think we got her.
Sharyl: They tracked her down with a man she’d been staying with.
They notified police— and gave the good news to her Mom.
Saved in America Volunteer: How long has it been?
Valenjan: Since June, June first.
Sharyl: Since Cecelia had run away from supervised foster care, she’s on her way back to juvenile detention - but separated from the man, and safe.
Suspect: I’ll find you baby. Hey! Love you!
Cecilia: I love you too.
Saved in America volunteer: Good job, good job.
Sharyl: What happens to the ones who are not rescued?
Travers: they end up with a with a hell on earth life, of being sold multiple times for money, being beaten, moved around, have no privacy, have no freedom, is all taken away and it takes years and years and years and years of rehabilitation to fix one mind that is caught up in that system.
Sharyl: You say you have to have heart to do this. Why do these guys do this with no pay?
Travers: One day I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize, and it was one of the girls in rehab that I had rescued. And she just said, “I just wanna say thank you to you and your team for getting me and rescuing me from where I was.” And that in and of itself makes everything worth it.
Saved in America has begun teaching its investigative techniques to other public and private agencies.