FOX 11 Investigates: Sex trafficking in Northeast Wisconsin

Police in Brown County on the scene after making an arrest as part of a sex trafficking sting, October 12, 2017. (WLUK)

(WLUK) -- FOX 11 Investigates has spent months digging into the issue of sex trafficking in Northeast Wisconsin. We've talked with law enforcement, community advocates and victims of the sex trafficking industry.

"It just feels like paid rape. I don't know how else to explain it," survivor Nicole Tynan told FOX 11. Tynan spent nearly a decade in what's often referred to as "the life."

"When I was 17, I was homeless and sold into prostitution," Tynan said.

She says it was so bad she didn't think she'd live to tell about it.

"At 17, I didn't think I was going to live past 22. I couldn't see my life past 21 or 22 years old," Tynan said. "I thought I'd be dead either by my own hands, killing myself, or from somebody killing me, the pimps or the johns killing me."

"It is such a huge problem that people do not want to look at," said Emmy Myers, who is also a victim of sex trafficking.

"People always say, 'well, how does this happen?' I had vulnerabilities, whether that is being homeless, being previously sexually abused as a child. Traffickers, pimps seek out these vulnerabilities in their victims and then they play off of those things," Myers said.

These are two of the survivors of an underground industry that has made its way to Northeast Wisconsin.

FOX 11 Investigates witnessed it firsthand. Our cameras were there as police arrested men who were meeting what they thought was a woman for sex. Instead, it was police.

Law enforcement in Brown County held a three-day sting in October. It was designed to tackle the issue on two fronts: First, by cracking down on people trying to buy sex from undercover officers and also by offering help to women caught trying to sell sex to undercover officers.

"Most of these girls are in this, not because they want to be. It's not their choice. It's they're being forced into it," said Sgt. Matt Wilson, who works on sex trafficking cases for the Brown County Sheriff's Department.

Sometimes, he can't believe the cases that come across his desk.

"Really, essentially, they're trafficking girls as young as 12 years old. That's just insane to think, whoever has a kid that's maybe 10 or 12, just think about your daughter disappearing one day and being on the streets having sex for money and you not knowing where she is or what she's doing. It's things like that that really get us," Wilson said.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, there have been 3,186 cases of sex trafficking reported in the U.S. this year. 34 of those cases were in Wisconsin.

Brown County is stepping up its efforts to fight sex trafficking.

"Our goal is to try to help these girls as much as possible," said Brown County Sheriff's Lt. Jim Valley. He says law enforcement is taking a different approach to situation and a different mindset.

When asked what he would say to people who just view the issue as prostitution, Valley replied, "Sometimes they can make a good argument on it but they do have to realize that these girls are victims. And we're finding that 90% are victims, being forced to do this and I don't think they would appreciate anybody in their family being forced to do something unwillingly, especially having a sexual encounter."

Police are teaming up with local organizations to offer help to women trapped in sex trafficking.

"We meet with these girls and we look and them and we say, what do you need?" said Season Russo, co-founder of Eye Heart World.

This summer, the group opened the Rose Home, a safe place where up to eight women can stay as they transition out of the life.

"These are not girls that are saying I want to do this with my life. Ultimately, what young girl if she's 16, 20, 30 as a young girl says when I get older I want to sell my body. I want to have sex with 10 men in a night. No young girl dreams of that," Russo said.

Dawn Spang is the outreach coordinator for Eye Heart World. She meets with women who have contact with police.

FOX 11 Investigates asked Spang how many of the women she meets with express a desire to get out of the life.

"I would say a good portion of them," Spang said. "The difficult part of getting out of it is it's very similar to domestic violence. Sometimes it can take someone seven times leaving before they stay gone."

Spang says in the last two years, police have referred 65 young women to the organization.

When asked how many of those women have successfully gotten out, she replied, "I would say we are going on seven that have stayed out. It's not a great majority but we also are slowly seeing a community response build so I anticipate those numbers to go up."

Myers and Tynan are both out of the life. Both have spent time trying to help other women.

Emmy founded Lacey's Hope Project and travels across the state to raise awareness about sex trafficking.

"It can happen to anybody," Myers said. "In high school, I was that all-around girl. I hear parents say over and over: Not my child. My child does X, Y and Z for extra-curricular activities and I do this and my husband does that. And that's not the case. It really can happen to anybody just like addiction."

"I can't even imagine, like, visualizing having to go back to the life would make me almost throw up because there was no way," Tynan said.

She spent a couple of years working as an advocate for other women in sex trafficking.

"I tried to recreate things that worked for me to get out for the girls and I don't feel I got enough support honestly to make those things happen," Tynan said.

She says she took a break from it to focus on her own healing.

"It takes a lot of strength, not even to be an advocate, but just to come out of that life because you have to start telling people if you want to heal which may come with people saying things that are very dehumanizing," Tynan said.

As the healing process continues, law enforcement plans to keep reaching out to offer victims hope.

"If we can save just one person, one daughter, one granddaughter, I think one save is worth it for everybody. It's worth it to that family," Valley said.

The issue of sex trafficking has also caught the attention of state leaders. Wisconsin attorney general Brad Schimel has created a special task force to deal with sex trafficking. Click on the video below to watch an interview with Schimel.

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