Modern day slavery - that’s what some are calling an unspoken reality that many may not be aware of in the Bay Area. The FBI ranks California as one of the worst states for the crime that includes sex trafficking, child labor, forced labor, and domestic servitude.
Kacie Klinnert and her mother, Vickie Zito, would not learn of human trafficking until March 2008, when Klinnert, a developmentally disabled young woman who was 17 at the time, was abducted by a man with whom she shared mutual friends outside a Safeway in the quiet suburb of El Dorado Hills, about half an hour east of Sacramento.
“He basically got a gun out from the center console and said, ‘If you try to run, I’ll kill you and your family,’” Klinnert recalled, her voice low. “Later that night, he raped me and then the next morning he took me to a hotel in Rocklin. That’s when he put an ad on Craigslist and told me that I had to do this.”
What her abductor, Rishi Sanwal, was referring to was selling herself for sex to random strangers who responded to Craiglist ads. That was before he drove her down to Fremont.
Klinnert said Sanwal sold her off to two “gorilla pimps,” a term used to describe more violent and aggressive pimps. Klinnert said they drugged and starved her for days, who admitted the same thought terrified her constantly, “You don’t know if you’re going to come out alive.”
Eight days later, the FBI tracked her to a Motel 6 in Fremont. Through tears, Zito said it’s difficult to shake off the nightmare of what felt like forever. “What I really clung to at that moment, because it was just too much, was that she was found alive and she was on her way home.”
Betty Ann Boeving is executive director of the Bay Area Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition. She said the Bay Area has a much bigger human trafficking problem than people realize.
“Often people would say this is like trying to document domestic abuse, it’s something that happens behind closed doors. In fact in a lot of cases of massage parlors and other places where we’re finding human trafficking victims there are so many locks on the doors and bars inside the windows to prevent people from getting out, that these really are places that are virtual prisons for these victims.”
One of the most alarming trends, said Boeving, is that victims have shifted in the last year from foreigners to Americans. It’s taking place in the big cities, but also the suburbs all around. “We’re talking about suspicious cases happening in the Atherton and Saratogas and Walnut Creeks of the Bay Area.”
Boeving mentioned a recent case involving Hillsborough twins contacting a man, having their mother drive them to the mall to meet him, and then disappearing. “They were found two years later on Craigslist being solicited for underage prostitution.”
Whether it’s forced labor with undocumented nannies and housekeepers to agricultural workers, to child labor when even parents pull their kids out of school to work, human trafficking has become second to only drug trafficking for the most profitable criminal enterprise. Experts value it as a $32 billion a year business.
The numbers for who is most exploited can be alarming. Boeving said up to 70percent of domestic trafficking victims are foster care youth, with more than 16,000 kids disappearing every year once they age out at 18 and their social security numbers vanish with them – many of them, runaways.
Boeving partnered with about 50 other local non-profits to found the largest anti-human trafficking conference in the country. This year, it was held for the third time at Fremont’s Harbor Light Church. “Since the last ‘Freedom Summit,’ we’ve had people write books, hold other conferences, move halfway around the world, join the FBI.”
Senior Pastor Terry Inman said he and his wife recently visited around India to see the newly built facilities housing and giving care to victims of human trafficking. “Our church began to really care about that – both locally and globally, and we funded I think up to $100,000.”
Back at home in El Dorado Hills, Zito has shifted her role from the side of victim to advocate for the most vulnerable out there. She worked on Proposition 35, the measure to increase prison sentences and fines for human trafficking convictions. Sanwal, Klinnert’s abductor, was convicted of using force and coercion to engage a 17-year-old in prostitution and sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison. That still hasn’t been comfort enough.
“Recovery isn’t a destination, it’s a journey, and for us, it’ll be a journey that we walk out for the rest of our lives,” explained Zito. “Some days are better than others, some days are easier than others, and there are definitely days that are more challenging. But you never forget about it and the pain just always seems to be right there under the surface. I always say my daughter’s home but there are daughters not home.”
As for her daughter, she admitted her perspective has been clouded and her mind constantly plagued by fear that other families may be blind to the danger of human trafficking in their own backyard.
“When I see little kids walking home from school, I hate seeing that cause parents trust their kids to walk home down the street. You know, it could happen, within seconds.”