Alvarez heralds guilty pleas, 'new day' fighting sex trafficking

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The last of 10 Chicago-area defendants charged nearly three years ago in the nation’s first state-based wiretap investigation of sex trafficking pleaded guilty last week, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced Monday.

The latest plea agreement brings to 102 the number of years in prison they will serve.

Nine men and one woman were charged in August 2011 under “Operation Little Girl Lost,” the joint investigation that was the state’s first use of wiretap and other tools provided by the Illinois Safe Children’s Act, which Alvarez was responsible for drafting and getting passed in 2010. At the time, it put Illinois among only 10 states in the nation with laws targeting human trafficking. More states have since adopted such laws.

“Over the course of the last year, the remaining nine defendants also pled guilty,” Alvarez said at a news conference Monday. “With the strength of these new legal tools and our ground-breaking ‘Chicago Approach’ to attacking this crime, it is a new day here in Cook County for those defendants who would sell the sexual services of women and children in our streets.”

The 10 were charged with involuntary sexual servitude of a minor and human trafficking. The nine men eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated trafficking in persons, drawing sentences of seven to 20 years. The woman, who pleaded guilty to trafficking in persons, functioned as a supervisor of the girls for the pimps, and will serve six years.

When the arrests were made, authorities said thousands of cell and land line calls had been wiretapped during the investigation, which caught a number of conversations in which the defendants talked of hurting their victims, young girls and women 13 to 30 years old who were coerced into working as prostitutes.

Some were forced to sell their bodies for sex on a daily basis — sometimes working shifts as long as 24 hours — and then gave 100 percent of their earnings to their pimps.

“We developed unprecedented intelligence and evidence on the operations of these defendants,” Alvarez said. “The defendants in this criminal enterprise followed their own set of ‘pimp rules’ which regulated how they dealt with each other and how they were expected to deal with the girls under their control.”

All but one of the men have gang ties from the West and South Sides of Chicago.

In all, about 36 victims were identified during the investigation, but in the end, only 16 victims from 13 to 19 years old cooperated with authorities.

“In nearly every instance, the traffickers took all of the money collected in the transactions, and they used violence, threats and intimidation to control the young women and prevent them from leaving their custody,” Alvarez said. “The traffickers used physical and emotional abuse to control these young girls, including threatening to kill them or their families; beatings; branding them with tattoos; and trunking, an exceptionally cruel punishment that involves locking the victim in the trunk of a car and driving around for hours on end.”

Many of the victims have since received counseling and changed their lives, assistant state’s attorney Lou Longhitano said. The youngest victim, the 13-year-old, has finished high school and is now preparing to go to college.

“I consider that a victory,” Alvarez said. “While it took some time for us to arrive here today, we are extremely pleased. Under the ‘Chicago Approach,’ none of the victims had to testify.”

In metropolitan Chicago, 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls annually are involved in the illegal sex trade, according to the University of Illinois. A third of those were snared by age 15, and 62 percent by 18. Citing those and other alarming sexual assault statistics, Alvarez earlier this year created a new Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Division to handle sexual assault, domestic violence and sexual and Internet crimes against kids.

Besides Alvarez, Illinois politicians including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart have fought vigorously against sex trafficking, a crime once in the shadows but now exploding in the United States.

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