NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — It’s not just big cities and foreign countries where sex trafficking occurs, but also in communities like Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley.
The FBI’s Western Arkansas Child Exploitation Task Force was established to focus on getting traffickers off the streets in the western part of the state.
“One of the goals of our group is to make sure that people understand what trafficking looks like. And then, as we’ve been effective at that, we end up getting more reporting back to us,” said Special Agent Brenan Despain, the task force’s coordinator.
Despain said this includes working closely alongside law enforcement who regularly patrol communities and could be more inclined to notice when something, like sex trafficking, is occurring.
“The majority of our cases have come from referrals from local law enforcement. So I think that the proof is in the pudding,” Despain said.
In 2021, the task force conducted 67 child exploitation investigations and served more than 70 search warrants for crimes against children violations. That same year Arkansas lawmakers voted to harshen the penalties traffickers face if convicted in the state of Arkansas.
“When you’re trafficking a victim, it is now a Class Y felony, which is one of the more severe felonies in the state of Arkansas, it’s punishable up to life in prison,” said Washington County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Denis Dean.
Dean prosecuted the case against Fayetteville man Lexus Hobbs. “He ended up being the first human trafficking case filed in Washington County in some time.”
The 23-year-old was arrested in January 2021 and charged with three counts of trafficking of minor persons. In December he was sentenced to serve 40 years in prison.
Dean said, “we are absolutely going in to prosecute these people to the fullest extent of the law… we are going to hold these people accountable. We take these cases seriously, we’re listening to the victims.”
About a month before Hobbs learned his fate, a man named Cory Glenn was found guilty in a 2018 Rogers human trafficking case.
“That case, in particular, epitomized the way the FBI and local law enforcement collaborate together,” Special Agent Randy Jackson said.
The FBI was tipped off that Glenn was running a prostitution ring out of a Rogers home. Agents worked with rogers police to, “put together an operation that resulted in us raiding the home late one Friday night.”
Jackson said they swept the house, but couldn’t find the child who they’d been told was being prostituted. After a second thorough search, they found a 17-year-old girl hiding in a closet under a pile of clothes.
“We lifted up a pile of laundry in a closet and found the young girl hidden under the bottom of this pile of clothes in this closet. It was awful. You know, as a father who has a daughter… it’s disgusting.” Jackson continued, “she was angry with us. She epitomized the brainwashed young teen/child that has been trafficked who knows only what they’re experiencing.”
A Washington County Judge sentenced Glenn to 75 years in prison.
“I’m so proud that they are getting arrested, they are getting busted every day. Because that just proves that the police are taking it serious and they are trying to be proactive on it,” said Jessica, an Arkansas woman who said she was sex trafficked.
Jessica said she met her first trafficker online at 16 and was trafficked by three different men over a two-year period.
“The scars of it never really go away,” she said. “Even when I was physically out of it, mentally, I never left. For years, I was still so broken, and so hurt and so damaged. And I just felt so worthless and invaluable.”
She was adopted and said she spent much of her childhood feeling like she didn’t fit in with her adoptive family. Her abusers used these vulnerabilities against her. “Traffickers’ number one tactic against us is to say that you’re alone and that no one will ever value you and no one will ever understand you,” Jessica said.
According to Jessica, her traffickers got her addicted to drugs. “[Drugs] lower your inhibitions and makes you very easy to control. The withdrawals and dependency on drugs means that you have to keep coming back to them or you’re gonna get sick.”
While under the influence, she said they’d force her to do whatever they wanted, with whomever, for money.
Not only did she face sexual abuse, but also physical. She said one trafficker forced her to wear a dog collar that was padlocked to her neck so she couldn’t scream. Another handcuffed her to a bed at night so she couldn’t leave.
It wasn’t until one of her traffickers almost killed her that she was able to escape the violence.
“Even when I was physically out of it, mentally, it never left. For years, I was still so broken, and so hurt and so damaged. And I just felt so worthless and invaluable.”Jessica
It’s been about eight years since she was trafficked. She spend her first four years out battling her drug addiction.
“Because of the trauma that had been built up to that point, I had no other way to cope. They had created all this trauma in my life and they showed me the only solution is to drugs and the men.”
The now 26-year-old is sober and is a single mother of two who is pursuing a degree to become a licensed clinical social worker. “I specifically want to give women who have been sex trafficked free therapy.”
Jessica plans to use her trauma to help other survivors heal.
“My real purpose of going through it was to help other people.” Jessica continued, “I want to spend the rest of my life utilizing my pain and suffering to be able to help free other women.”
She also volunteers with a Northwest Arkansas-based organization called Hub of HOPE. The not-for-profit works to provide healing and opportunities for victims of human trafficking as well as prevention and education for the community.
Since 2017, Hub of HOPE has worked with 150 people affected by human trafficking and sexual exploitation. The victims ranged in age 18 to 64.
Another organization that serves Arkansas, Into the Light, has worked with more than 280 people since 2015. Some are as young as 11-years-old.
Jessica said it can be tough for people who’ve been trafficked to seek help because a lot of times they don’t even know they’ve been victims of a crime.
“I honestly just thought it was how life was normal,” she said.
For anyone who is being trafficked and is looking for a way out, Jessica said, “if you work with your local police and your local government, they can truly help you completely restart your life. There are ways to change your name, there’s programs that you can go to away from where you’re at.”
Because the population in Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, law enforcement and victim’s advocates are adamant sex trafficking will become more and more prevalent in the region.
They said they hope the tough sentences being handed down to convicted traffickers, like Hobbs and Glenn, will serve as a warning and deterrent for traffickers.