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Hostages of child prostitution

Las Vegas social worker Marisela Quintero tries to help girls who have all but sold their souls to pimps. Some run even when offered a way out. Others wind up dead.

October 06, 2011|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • A 17-year-old girl reads a Danielle Steel novel in her cell at the Clark County Detention Center for juveniles. "My quota -- I had to at least make between $500 and $800 dollars a day. If I didn't, I had to stay out until I did," she said.
A 17-year-old girl reads a Danielle Steel novel in her cell at the Clark County… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Las Vegas — Marisela Quintero read the headline. She winced, as if she'd been punched.

Emma had been killed.

Emma was 17. She had recently been arrested on prostitution-related charges in a Motel 6 parking lot, wearing a skin-hugging tank top, high heels and booty shorts. She'd flashed a fake driver's license and, in her purse, carried eight latex condoms and a bottle of vodka.

Photos: Teen prostitution in Las Vegas

Quintero, the county's only social worker assigned primarily to child prostitutes, couldn't get her to admit her real name at first. Emma had been too terrified, but not of what might happen in court. What would her pimp do if he thought she'd turned on him?

Eventually the court sent her back to her family in California. That was two weeks ago. Now, the news story said she had been shot to death, with no suspects named.

Had it been a mistake to send Emma away? Did her pimp think she had snitched?

The possibility was not far-fetched. These men were masters at manipulating and dominating the teenagers. They sweet-talked the girls in shopping malls and Greyhound terminals, bought them pedicures and wigs, plied them with drugs and gave them the attention they craved. Once ensnared and working as prostitutes, the girls could fall victim to pistol-whippings and gang rape — sometimes, even worse. It was all part of what Quintero and others bleakly called "the game."

Quintero feared for her next client, Maria, who was more tightly tied to her pimp than Emma had been.

Maria was 16.

Las Vegas is a major hub of child prostitution with an international reputation for depravity.

A recent study by the nonprofit Shared Hope International said 224 girls and two boys accused of prostitution-related offenses churned through the juvenile court system here during a nearly two-year period. About a third were from California. Almost a fifth were younger than 16, and many said between five and 15 men had purchased their sexual services each night they worked.

After their first arrest, girls were usually detained for about two weeks. Quintero met them then.

Success was measured by how long Quintero could keep them away from the pimps. The more time spent in group homes or with supportive relatives, the better the odds that they wouldn't sprint back to the streets. And maybe they could be persuaded to testify against the men who corrupted them, who demanded money and sex and sometimes the honorific "Daddy."

Still carrying the story of Emma's death, Quintero entered the interview room at the Clark County juvenile detention center. Maria — high cheekbones, blond highlights, toothpaste stain on her county-issued blue sweat shirt — began to vent. Her neglectful and abusive family. Her rape by a family friend. "My mom said I was lying," she told Quintero. "Whatever."

Maria was 12 when she "chose up" with her first pimp, who gave her marijuana and waved around $100 bills he promised she'd make. After that came a blur of drugs and vicious men and arrests.

Then she met the pimp she now considered her boyfriend. She giggled describing how he'd gently teased her. Later, he punched and raped her, she told Quintero, but apologized nearly every time. Two years ago they had a son.

Maria's latest arrest came as she trolled for men one morning at the Planet Hollywood casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Quintero mentioned Emma's killing. Maria picked at her eyebrows.

"I'm not scared to die anymore," she said.

It was surreal, Quintero thought. She's 16 and doesn't care.

"Do you still feel a bond with your son?" Quintero asked.

Maria's face softened. "Yeah, I love him so much."

It was an opening. Quintero suggested placing the boy with one of Maria's siblings. She also tried to gauge where Maria could stay without fleeing, as she had so many times.

"You're smart. You have all that potential," Quintero said.

Silence.

"I'd hate to read about you in the paper."

"If someone wants me dead, they want me dead," Maria shot back.

The next day, Quintero slipped into Courtroom 18, where Judge William O. Voy presided over the weekly juvenile prostitution calendar. Maria waited in a hallway.

Girls shuffled in, their hair in ponytails, their faces scrubbed of makeup, their fingers stripped of acrylic nails. The parents who showed up squirmed. When mothers and daughters hugged, their faces were woeful, as if both were apologizing.

In Las Vegas, the girls are treated as victims, not criminals, a relatively new tactic. Solicitation charges are usually dropped in favor of less severe offenses. Then Quintero will consult with prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, group homes and the girls' relatives to recommend to Voy where the girls should go next.

That can be tricky. The girls struggle with multiple problems: drug addiction, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder.

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