A 17-year-old girl being trafficked throughout the country was able to escape her captor earlier this year thanks to an investigation by San Francisco police officers and the city's District Attorney's Office, prompted by a posting on a classified ads site.
The investigation eventually led to the arrest of 19-year-old Kriz Mike Nunez, arrested on April 19, District Attorney George Gascon announced Thursday.
Nunez had been charged with 27 felony counts, including human trafficking of a minor, pimping and pandering a minor over the age of 16, and narcotic sales.
Human trafficking is continuing to grow in San Francisco," Gascon said. "These cases are impacting the most vulnerable people in our community, usually young women; people who are here trying to find employment. It's organized crime and we have to recognize that this really is organized crime at its highest level."
The investigation began in February when a team made up of members from the Police Department's Special Victims Unit, the district attorney's office's Crime Strategies Unit and a federal agency conducted a human trafficking operation in the city.
As the group performed Internet searches on Backpage.com, one officer came across an ad with a picture of a girl who appeared to be underage. When an undercover inspector contacted the victim and asked for a "date," the victim asked for a $260 donation.
The inspector then went to a hotel in downtown San Francisco to meet the victim and confirmed that she was indeed underage.
The officer was able to conduct an analysis of her cellphone and determined that she was being trafficked. Additionally, a suspicious man, believed to be Nunez, was seen around the hotel during that time.
After identifying Nunez and assembling a case against him, the team was able to produce several search warrants. Nunez was arrested as one of the search warrants was being conducted. During the search warrants, officers seized drugs, cash, cellphones and a handgun, among other items.
"Human trafficking in both the sex and labor trade is often hidden right under our eyes in the community," police Cmdr. Greg McEachern said. "In order to bring this dehumanizing activity out of the shadows and to better serve our most vulnerable residents, collaborative partnerships between law enforcement partners and the community must occur and we saw that in this instance that's exactly what happened."
"Together with New York, San Francisco is probably one of the largest hubs for human trafficking in the U.S. Our numbers (of arrests and prosecutions) don't reflect that and the reason our numbers don't reflect that ... is that this is very much hidden," Assistant District Attorney Frank Carrubba said. "These victims are afraid to come forward, they're vulnerable, they're under duress at all times, they're truly trafficked victims."
According to Gascon, the case wouldn't have been uncovered if it wasn't for the collaborative effort between law enforcement and his office.
"This is not light-duty work, this is work that requires a lot of expertise, a lot of heavy lifting and we are completely overwhelmed. We do not have the resources to do the work today," he said.
Gascon said he has asked the mayor's office for a little over $1 million to fund more human trafficking investigations.
"It is a priority for us. We're doing everything that we can, but we have limitations," he said.
Backpage.com is no longer active, having been seized by federal authorities in April.
Anyone else who may have been trafficked or victimized by Nunez is being asked to come forward. Victims, or anyone with more information, can call San Francisco police at (415) 575-4444 or the district attorney's office at (415) 553-1674.