When a pillow is all that stands between you, your unborn baby and an angry, knife-wielding pimp, you know you're in a bad place.
For two students at Papillion-La Vista High School three years ago, and five other girls, that bad place was an apartment on Poppleton Street in Omaha. And the pimp was a 6-foot tall, 300-pound woman running a sex trafficking operation.
The story of “Haley” and “Megan” – the Papillion-La Vista students, but not their real names – was laid out by an FBI agent Sept. 19 during a presentation on underage sex trafficking at the Sarpy County Courthouse.
Special Agent Anna Brewer, who heads the FBI's Great Plains Innocence Lost Task Force, said the luring of Haley, 15, and Megan, 13, proves that Sarpy County is not immune from trafficking.
“Most people don't think that child prostitution happens in Papillion or in Sarpy County, or in Omaha for that matter,” she said. “It happens in New York and Chicago and the bigger cities.”
Brewer was there to dispel that illusion, and to urge people to help the battle against underage sex trafficking any way they can.
“If you want to help us, I don't know what resources you have, but you have a resource that can help our victims, help our survivors,” she said.
“If you are an accountant, these girls don't have the funds to pay an accountant to do their taxes, if you own a grocery store, and you have food at the end of the week that's about to spoil, donate that to a shelter where these ladies are staying, or whatever.
“Everyone in this room has something that they can do to help one of our survivors.”
The trafficking ring, which ran from 2007 to 2010, was eventually broken up by a task force consisting of the FBI, and police departments in Omaha and Council Bluffs.
It was operated by Merrideth “Mary” Crane-Horton, her husband, Nate Horton, Nate's nephew, Ramone Heredia, and Ramone's wife, Katherine Heredia.
All four avoided trial by plea bargaining but were convicted of sex trafficking.
Three of them were given lengthy prison terms ranging from 11 to 17 1/2 years and will emerge forever branded as sex offenders.
Katherine, or “Kat,” who was considered a hybrid perpetrator/victim by the FBI, was given three years and scheduled for release after 18 months.
The night before her release from a halfway house, Kat fled the facility and became a fugitive required to spend more time in confinement.
Brewer said the act was deliberate.
“She didn't feel she could survive on her own,” Brewer said.
The conviction of Crane-Horton and her co-traffickers in 2011 was a long time coming, Brewer said, and did not come soon enough to prevent four years of what amounted to slavery.
The Crane-Horton ring trafficked about seven girls, all of whom were recruited by Ramone, who knew them socially. Council Bluffs police had tried to jail Crane-Horton and her crew for years.
Crane-Horton herself had been charged with, but never convicted of, being a fugitive from justice, theft by unlawful taking, fraud by checks, terroristic threats, false imprisonment, robbery, possession of marijuana and failure to appear.
The acquittals rested on the refusal of neighbors and acquaintances to testify against her, Brewer said, so great was the fear of reprisal.
When news spread of the arrests, Brewer said, she received congratulatory phone calls from other law enforcement agencies. And the public began to tell of what they knew, in fact lined up to do so.
“They started coming out of the woodwork,” Brewer said. “They had been afraid. They'd say, 'Now that they're in federal custody we want to tell you stuff.' They literally had to take a number.”
Two of the numerous victims confined by the Crane-Horton ring at the 31st and Poppleton apartment spoke at Crane-Horton's sentencing.
Among them was Kat, the victim/perpetrator.
“When I was 7 months pregnant, she had threatened to cut my daughter out of me,” Kat said. “She came at me with a knife, and I blocked it with a pillow. She was tired of my attitude, and it was due to me being pregnant, so she was going to cut (her) out of me and then maybe I would behave more.”
Prior to that, Kat stated, “she had thrown me outside of the apartment, naked. She had thrown me outside in the middle of the winter and had thrown cold water on me, and told me I needed to stay out there and learn my lesson and freeze.”
Another victim spoke of the humiliation imposed on her by the Horton ring, and the difficulty she now has in establishing trusting relationships.
“I'm angry because they manipulated me, and made me feel worthless,” she said. “They did things to me that a girl would feel dirty about herself. I have nightmares constantly, and I'm afraid of trusting people again because I'm scared something like this would happen again.”
Kathy Thompson, a victim-witness coordinator with the FBI who works with Brewer, said fear of retaliation kept the girls in line.
“Fear of violence against themselves or against family members is the prime motivation for staying,” she said. “Fear of being jailed. Sometimes they have a lack of trust in the system, or law enforcement – a lot of them have been in the system when younger. Then there is shame and embarrassment.”
Brewer said the confinement of the girls in the Poppleton apartment, the fear of violence and the intimidation that kept them there, could be described in a single word.
“I argue to anyone who doesn't want to believe me that human trafficking is, in fact, slavery,” she said.
Brewer, 21 years with the FBI and a special agent for 18 years, arrived in the Omaha metropolitan area in 2009, tasked with fighting child prostitution.
The battle began by posting internet ads, worded in the disguised jargon of the sex trade, making it clear that men were looking for underage girls. The supposed John was, in fact, a law enforcement officer, and when Merredith Horton delivered two girls to the agreed address – an apartment complex in Council Bluffs – Brewer and her Task Force associates pounced.
What unfolded was a tale of brutality and betrayal that drew gasps from a packed Sarpy County Board meeting room.
Kat, the hybrid perpetrator/victim and wife of Ramone, had been subjected to numerous beatings as an example to the other girls. The fear of such violence kept them in line, as well as threats of violence to their family members. Johns, recorded on audiotape, demanded “services” that Brewer said she has ceased to play to audiences after complaints about their obscenity became numerous.
“I am torn about that,” she said. “I want you to understand what happens to these girls.”
Thompson said not all prostitutes are victims but that many are.
“We feel that some prostitutes can and should be viewed as victims,” she said. “Not all prostitutes are victims, they do not identify as a victim, but there are some that are.”
Responding to those who have escaped the trade is the work of society as a whole, she said.
“We rely very, very heavily on our non-governmental organizations, our NGOs, for help and assistance,” Thompson said. “Some of these will be domestic violence shelters, safe houses, assistance with state programs, getting these girls individual jobs, every basic necessity you can think of.”
Brewer said some girls trapped in the web of trafficking come from good families and simply make bad decisions. Others, she said, have few options.
A difficult home situation, or mental disability, makes them easy prey for pimps who promise them an apartment, food, a decent life, and who will whisk them off to their supposed new life in the middle of the night if necessary.
Megan, Brewer said, like the other girls, knew Ramone personally, and turned to him when she needed a place to stay.
He promised her an apartment, which happened to be located at 31st and Poppleton, and confiscated her cellphone before locking the door and welcoming her to the sex trade.
Brewer said persons interested in helping survivors can begin by calling Project Harmony at 402-595-1326.
Persons who suspect a sex trafficking operation can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline to give tips that will then be relayed to local areas. The number is 1-888 373-7888 or text BeFree (233733).