SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — It was an anonymous two-story house with an outdoor side staircase, nothing that looked ominous to Kevin Koliner when he passed by going to and from work. On one evening stroll, the federal prosecutor heard loud noises but figured it was just a party. Later, he'd discover the ugly truth.
In a squalid second-floor apartment, just blocks from the U.S. attorney's office, Mohammed Sharif Alaboudi ran a violent sex trafficking ring, preying on young, troubled women. He plied them with drugs and alcohol, gave them clothes and a place to stay, and forced them to engage in sex acts with strangers. Prosecutors dubbed his place a "house of horrors."
The case of Alaboudi, now serving four life terms, offers a glimpse into how the feds are waging an aggressive campaign to root out the illegal sex trade lurking in what might seem an unlikely locale: the quiet prairies and sleepy hamlets of South Dakota.
"We're just a friendly state and I think traffickers see this as a trusting place and think, 'They're never going to catch me. They're not so bright,'" says Jenise Pischel, program coordinator at Our Home Inc., a private non-profit that has helped trafficked girls., including a 14-year-old in the Alaboudi case. "Well, we seem to be catching an awful lot of them."
In recent years, the feds have pursued about 50 sex trafficking cases, winning dozens of convictions, three resulting in life sentences. Bolstered by state and local authorities, they're also getting support from a diverse network that includes Native Americans, motel owners, church groups and the Junior League.
The cases have ranged from predator stings at the last three Sturgis motorcycle rallies to busts of lucrative businesses that have transported girls as young as 14 to Minneapolis, Fargo, Sioux City, and other cities around the Midwest. Police also have detected a circuit some traffickers travel that includes parts of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.
Most traffickers who've operated in South Dakota have been transplants with criminal records; two serving life were reputed Chicago street gang members. Customers — or those caught in stings — have ranged from a Texas air traffic controller nabbed at Sturgis after answering a bogus online ad offering sex with a 12-year-old (his sentence: 15 years) to a Lamborghini-driving local doctor who prescribed illegal Oxycodone to a trafficker (his punishment: 22 months).
While trafficking exists across the nation, there is something distinctive about South Dakota: About half the women in the federal cases have been Native American, a particularly vulnerable population in this state where some of the nation's most impoverished communities are on reservations.
"You've got a number of perfect-storm factors," says Sarah Deer, a law professor at William Mitchell College in Minnesota and an expert on domestic violence in Native American communities. "You've got poverty, you have high, high rates of sexual abuse, which is often a precursor to prostitution and you have just a sense of desperation on the reservation in terms of day-to-day life."
Native American women with drug or alcohol problems are especially susceptible, Deer adds. "That's leveraged against them," she says. "It's, 'Come to Sioux Falls. Come to Rapid City. I'll make sure that you get the crack that you need. All you have to do is do some favors.'"
Trafficking is "not a new crime," she says, but the growing prosecutions reflect "a new recognition."
And yet it's barely visible because it's conducted largely through online ads. "It's like turning over that rock and finding that thing you didn't know about," says Sioux Falls Police Lt. Dave McIntire.
Law enforcement has tried to draw attention to it, leading workshops, for instance, for hotel and motel workers to alert them to warning signs. Federal prosecutors have made more than 100 presentations to various group and conducted training for tribal law enforcement on all nine reservations in the state on how to identify trafficking.
The Junior League has spoken about trafficking at schools, PTOs and 4-H clubs, financed billboards and prepared TV public service ads.
"We didn't know it was right here in our own backyard," says Harriet Yocum, president of the Sioux Falls chapter of the women's group. "We became passionate about this and we wanted to do something."
The combined efforts help dispel any notion that South Dakota, with its low-crime rate and pastoral image, is immune from this problem. "We can no longer say this is rural, safe South Dakota," Pischel says. "It's happening in the quietest of places across our nation, not just here."
Police and prosecutors say South Dakota's very remoteness, its pockets of poverty and its highway system make it appealing to traffickers.
Some have migrated here "to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond," says Brendan Johnson, former U.S attorney. "They found less competition than they would have in a larger community. They probably had wrongly conceived notions that they could outsmart law enforcement and they could get away with this."
It was Johnson, now in private practice, who began emphasizing the issue, partly because he'd pursued many cases of violence against Native American women while a state prosecutor. When he realized sex trafficking was a significant problem, he says, he decided it was worthy of federal resources, knowing convictions would bring longer sentences than in state court. The federal mandatory minimum generally is 10 to 15 years.
Not everyone was enthusiastic. One prosecutor, he says, told him: "'You're acting like a vice cop. This is not something that you should be doing.'... I disagree. When you've got a really bad guy, he should be put away for a really long time, and sometimes the federal courts are the best avenue to do that."
To win a conviction, prosecutors need only show a minor was involved or there was force, fraud or coercion.
One of the first major cases started with a tip from a suspicious mother. Her daughter had revealed her friends were involved in a sex ring, a story that seemed so outlandish that her mother drove to the house where it was supposedly happening to conduct her own surveillance. Authorities were soon investigating.
The eventual result was the arrest of Brandon Thompson, described by the feds as a former Chicago gang leader who lured many recruits by hanging out at a gas station next to a local alternative high school. He controlled about 20 young women, advertising them online.
Thompson was sentenced in 2011 to life in prison after pleading guilty to sex trafficking and solicitation to murder a federal witness. He'd attempted to recruit a cellmate to murder two teenage girls who were part of the ring, Koliner says.
Thompson's approach, he adds, was typical for traffickers: Seek out troubled young women, many from broken homes and with histories of drug and alcohol abuse. Lavish them with gifts and attention, act as boyfriend or manager, promise them a way to earn a lot of money.
"I can tell you right now all these sorts of ploys that these men use wouldn't be effective on 99 percent of women I know," Koliner says. "These guys might be bad at a lot of things in life, but they are excellent at finding that girl in a crowd, spotting the Little Red Riding Hood."
Rosanna Schoneman, an advocate at My Sister Friend's House, a Sioux Falls shelter that serves trafficked women, says the men "play with your mind. They make you think you're helping them. They say, 'I love you. I'm your boyfriend. It's (the money from prostitution) going to pay for us to have somewhere nice to live.'"
The most notorious case involved Alaboudi, whose sentence was upheld this spring by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At his trial, four young women told graphic stories of how he prostituted and sexually abused them and threatened and physically assaulted them if they resisted.
All had chaotic childhoods. One, identified as SJ, then 14, was on her own because her mother worked long hours to pay the medical bills of her husband, who sustained brain damage from a bar fight. At sentencing, the girl described her descent.
"Did I want to prostitute my body away to strange men?" she said. "No. I wanted to be loved by someone. I wanted a male in my life to show me care ....This is how I thought I had to do it."
It's been a long recovery for her.
"Today I ask myself, do I regret everything that happened? No," she said, "because I am stronger.... I can help save others going through the same victimization. I can tell them and show them that through any darkness ... we will find happiness."
A 15-year-old runaway, a Native American identified as JW, testified that her time at Alaboudi's house "was tearing me from the inside out. ... It will take a while for me to heal from this traumatic experience, but I know I am worth the time and effort. I know with the help of everybody and God, I will heal."
Prosecutors also have focused on smaller cases and were among the first in the nation to use federal laws to pursue attempted traffickers who "shop" online, answering phony ads placed by undercover officers that offer adolescent girls. In the last 2½ years, state, local and federal law enforcement agents have arrested about 30 people in stings, roughly a third of them at Sturgis rallies, according to Attorney General Marty Jackley.
Shared Hope International, a faith-based anti-trafficking group, honored Johnson last year, but recently gave South Dakota state laws a poor grade on a national report card, saying they don't go far enough to protect minors.
Jackley says he supports measures to better protect juveniles and other victims, but also notes that prosecutors can use statutes such as kidnapping in the most extreme cases.
The spotlight on trafficking extends beyond prosecution.
A former motel being converted into a 14-bed shelter for trafficked women will soon open in the south-central part of the state. Pathfinder Center will be run by Wiconi Wawokiya, a non-profit on the Crow Creek reservation that helps abused children and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Lisa Heth, the group's executive director, says even though the public knows more about trafficking, there's still resistance to having victims as neighbors. "They don't like it," she says. "They say, 'Oh, my God, they're going to bring in prostitutes. Our crime rate is going to go up.' But it's right there in these small towns and they don't want to see it."
Heth says the women will receive therapy and remain at the shelter up to six months "We're looking to undo the brainwashing and some of the lies that have been put in their heads," she says. "Our mission is to help them find their purpose in life."
Pischel says getting trafficked teens back on track is a slow process with frequent setbacks.
"It's not a sprint, but a marathon," she says. The girls can stay for 18 months or more, but even that may not be enough because "they have emotional baggage, a lack of self-worth and sometimes, just lack the gumption to change."
SJ, the 14-year-old in the Alaboudi case, made much progress in her 1½ years there, Pischel says. "She found a sense of belonging ... there was promise," she adds. But when the young woman, now 18, stopped by recently, she was pregnant.
"I wish I could say she was better," Pischel says. "I worry about where that child will grow up, how that child will grow up. I know (SJ) has got the skills. I can only pray that she falls back on them."
Koliner, the prosecutor, says that news "breaks all our hearts. We had really high hopes for her."
But it's not surprising. He's encountered other young women who, after their trafficker is arrested, end up in another operation.
Still, the prosecutions have made a dent, he says, noting that recent victims and witnesses have talked about how easy it is to get caught and the stiff sentences being imposed.
"We're sending the message to the men who are doing this: 'Don't come to our state. Drive on. If you want to do this, drive on.'"
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/sharon-cohen