Sex trafficking problem entrenched in Montana, officials say

Penny Ronning, center, applauds trafficking survivor Savannah J. Sanders for inspiring the Billings organizers of the Red Sand Project at Peaks to Plains Park at MSU Billings on April 25, 2019, in Billings, Mont. Ronning says sex trafficking and related crimes have long been present in the state but there's more focus on fighting the problem. (Casey Page/The Billings Gazette via AP)
Penny Ronning, center, applauds trafficking survivor Savannah J. Sanders for inspiring the Billings organizers of the Red Sand Project at Peaks to Plains Park at MSU Billings on April 25, 2019, in Billings, Mont. Ronning says sex trafficking and related crimes have long been present in the state but there's more focus on fighting the problem. (Casey Page/The Billings Gazette via AP)

BILLINGS, Mont. -- A woman made a call from a Billings motel room sometime in 2016. She called her family, telling them that over the past several days a man had forced her to be raped for money by other men in Billings, Missoula and Salt Lake City.

The man controlling her was Terrance Tyrell Edwards. In 2018, he was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Billings to 30 years in prison. The women and girls snared in Edwards' sex trafficking scheme were from Montana, Washington and North Dakota. In bringing them to buyers across Montana, they passed through parking lots, hotels and other businesses. If anyone caught the signs that they were being trafficked and sold, nobody reported them.

In the years since Edwards' conviction, the state Division of Criminal Investigation has assigned two full-time agents to a statewide human trafficking task force. Data from DCI showed that the Montana Department of Justice investigated only seven reports of human trafficking in 2015. Through 2021, the department tracked 68, The Billings Gazette reported.

"Their data makes it appear as though the crime has increased, but I would argue that is not the case at all. It's always been here. What's increased is that we have more resources to investigate it," said Penny Ronning, co-founder of the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force and former city council member.

The United States Department of State estimates that as many as 24.5 million people worldwide are the victims of trafficking at any time. Although the victim's circumstance can vary from girls and woman forced to perform sex acts in Montana to children exploited as domestic servants in Peru, the dynamic remains the same: Someone is coerced by violence, threats or lies into doing something against their will. Between December 2007 and December 2020, the National Human Trafficking Hotline tracked nearly 74,000 trafficking reports.

While the Department of State reports that forced laborers make up roughly two-thirds of all human trafficking victims, any data collected on human trafficking will be skewed. The quality of that data is hampered by gaps in information on victims, buyers and traffickers, leaving experts with a consistently incomplete picture. In the past several decades, strides have been made at the federal and local level to make that picture a little clearer. The U.S. Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, a boon to the legal infrastructure to prosecute sex trafficking.

"As a volunteer, I would say that I've been invested in fighting trafficking my whole life, but we didn't have any legal language about human trafficking until about 20 years ago," said Ronning, who in 2014 started volunteering as a children's court advocate in Yellowstone County.

During her time as an advocate, she saw evidence of several disturbing episodes in the lives of some children she represented. They were trafficked for sex work while they were within the state's foster care system. She sought help from both the Billings Police Department and Child and Family Services, both of which she said lacked the training and resources at the time to respond to a report of sex trafficking.

"I struggled to find law enforcement or agencies that were meant to protect children to properly respond. It wasn't that they didn't want to, they just didn't have any training for it. ... What these kids were experiencing was so different from what I experienced growing up here," she said, adding it was eye opening for her to learn there were two sides to Billings.

Ronning said she was eventually put in touch with the FBI, and the information she gathered taught her that sex trafficking was a community problem that neither Billings nor any city could arrest its way out of. Unlike a robbery where a clear victim and perpetrator can be established through an investigation, she said, the crime of human trafficking has several layers involving the trafficker, the buyer and the victim.

Trafficking reports rising

The data published by DCI shows a stark increase in reports of human trafficking, but Ronning said the crime has always been present in Billings and Yellowstone County. She also believes that the latest figures are only a fraction of the real number of victims. The only time in recent history that cases of human trafficking have risen in the region, she said, was during the boom of the Bakken oil fields in 2008.

The energy boom brought thousands of men to western North Dakota, and their salaries fueled a rising demand in the human trafficking market in the surrounding region. In 2014 alone, according to a series by Forum News Service on the exploitation of women and girls in the towns outside the oil fields, more than a dozen men in North Dakota were convicted for trying to buy sex with underage girls.

The oil fields and money that flowed out of them created a massive customer base for traffickers, FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter said, and it also built a circuit for them to impose on those who they coerced. Walter, who has spent seven of his nearly 15 years with the bureau investigating human trafficking in Montana, echoed Ronning saying human trafficking, particularly those sold for sex, is not a crime on the rise, but an endemic crisis in the area.

"Before, when I grew up in Billings and I was in high school and through grade school, I can remember human trafficking victims, but we called them prostitutes at that point, standing on Montana Avenue," he said.

Around the year 2014, Walter said, federal and state authorities began to target human trafficking in Montana. Not long after, they realized that they had a major problem on their hands. Many had experience in prosecuting illicit massage parlors in Billings, which has since led to local legislation curtailing businesses that offer sex acts under the guise of cheap massages available 24 hours a day. However, investigators found a separate criminal industry targeting vulnerable young women and girls, who in the digital age have vanished from Montana Avenue and reappeared on ads posted to websites offering "escort services."

In contrast to the popular depiction of human trafficking in which a woman is physically kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, Walter said the cases that he's investigated involve a "psychological kidnapping." Traffickers wade through social media and dating websites like Tinder in search of those who can be coerced. They'll look for signs of prior abuse, issues with addiction or a woman who's raising a child alone and use that as leverage against them after presenting themselves as a potential partner.

"Was she in a domestic violence relationship? Is she a single mother? Does she have an addiction I can feed? The pimp assesses those vulnerabilities on the first date. ... Then, and often times it's on short notice, he says, 'We're going to go to this motel.' They're giving them five minutes, no time to really think about it. ... Now, he converts to maybe taking over her social media account and says, 'Now I've got all of your friends on Facebook. I can let them know what you did. Now you've got to keep working for me,'" he said.

Cases hard to build

Louis Gregory Venning pleaded guilty in November to coercing at least 15 women and girls into prostitution. All of the survivors were from Billings, and he trafficked them across the state and country over a period of eight years, according to documents filed in federal court. He faces a mandatory minimum of 15 years to life in prison. His sentencing is slated for March. Walter said there's no doubt in his mind that at any given time in Billings commercial sex can be bought from a human trafficking victim.

The investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases is labor-intensive and can span years. Along with testimony from victims, prosecutors need to gather phone and financial records, ads posted online and metadata to trace a potential circuit. In one recent case, which was spearheaded by DCI, a man living in New Mexico coerced a woman and a 17-year-old girl into prostitution in New Mexico, Texas, North Dakota and Montana. Lavondrick Terelle Hogues is awaiting sentencing for aggravated promotion of prostitution in Yellowstone County District Court. The investigation into Hogues through his conviction in June 2021 spanned about five years.

In 2016, Ronning partnered with local attorney Stephanie Baucus to found the Yellowstone County Area Human Trafficking Task Force, a nonprofit organization that combines data collection with advocacy to help prosecute human traffickers and assist their victims. During the course of the organization's foundation, Ronning said she called roughly 100 different agencies to see if they would get involved. She also received input from numerous health care providers who said they had treated possible trafficking survivors but did not have any information to confirm it.

"Many didn't know how to identify or report it. ... So we had all of these people, especially teachers and medical professionals, who either didn't know how to look for the signs of trafficking, didn't know what to do with that information or both," Ronning said.

Ronning estimates that she's hosted some 300 training sessions since the group launched, and hundreds of organizations and agencies have partnered with the task force. The task force has also distributed between 50,000 and 60,000 cards detailing the signs of human trafficking and local tip lines. The signs include a younger woman with an older man claiming to be a relative or a woman or girl who seems physically abused, avoids eye contact or waits for permission to speak.

Targeting the buyers

With Gov. Greg Gianforte and state Attorney General Austin Knudsen announcing January in Montana to be recognized as Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, both Ronning and Walter welcome more resources for law enforcement and victim services. However, key information is missing from DCI reports and indictments. The buyers, those fueling the human trafficking enterprise, are infrequently counted or named.

"Let's start putting a spotlight on those who are paying to rape someone in an illicit massage business or parking lot or hotel room, because the crime is the same. It's still a rape. There's no consent on the part of the victim, ever," Ronning said.

No consistent profile exists among the buyers that he's encountered, Walter said. They've included men still living in their parents' basement paying with five- and 10-dollar bills, line cooks at national food chains and businessmen driving $85,000 SUVs. All of them assumed that the woman who they paid for sex wanted to be there.

"In reality, she's got a human trafficker watching her every move threatening her, saying he's going to kill her and her family. ... You are engaged in raping someone, whether it be a child or adult when you are paying for commercial sex in Billings," Walter said.

  photo  FBI Special Agent Brandon Walter is seen in this undated photo from Billings, Mont. Walter investigates human trafficking in the state from the city, where prostitution has moved from the open streets to ads posted online offering sex. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

Upcoming Events