MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- It is known to happen in other countries, but in the United States? Oh, yes. Human sex trafficking not only happens in the U.S. -- but it seems to be on the rise. It is trapping young victims and clogging the court system.
Martha Kuhlman was 14 when she was kidnapped and brought into the sex trade.
Kuhlman had run away from home to downtown Minneapolis and befriended a man who was very kind to her.
"And to have somebody care, care about me and love me and protect me and take care of me and give me things was what I was looking for -- that's what drew me in," Kulhman said.
Kuhlman came from a middle class, religious family. Her mother insisted on violin lessons, and there were piano and ballet lessons as well.
Victims of sex trafficking come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and races, but many have histories of neglect, trauma, violence or sexual abuse. Kuhlman did eventually fit that mold.
"The bus drivers at our school were college students and they partied and so I was in an experimental phase. I went to the bus driver's house to go party after school before we left, and I ended up getting raped by my bus driver, and things kind of went south from there," Kuhlman said.
James Santelle, U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Wisconsin knows all too well how traffickers hook their victims.
"(They make) promises to them, bringing them into an environment that's promised to be good and better and invariably it is not," Santelle said.
Santelle says the case load of human trafficking is large.
It is estimated that 100,000 American children are trafficked each year, with Wisconsin considered among the top 10 states.
"Investigators tell me on a regular basis that all roads lead back to Wisconsin. Perhaps to Milwaukee, to Madison, perhaps off to Minneapolis, again as you traffick through the state and go on to other places. It is a problem. We haven't quite figured out the reason why, but we are attacking the problem on a regular basis", Santelle said.
A recent FBI sex trafficking multi-agency operation spanning more than 70 cities across the country led to 150 arrests -- 100 in Wisconsin, and the recovery of 105 children, 10 of which were in Wisconsin, and seven were in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee tied with Detroit for the second-highest number of incidents in the nation.
"Wisconsin is perceived, I think, as a place where -- perhaps as a place you can get away with it -- and the answer is of course, you can't and you won't," Santelle said.
Kuhlman's journey in the trade led to Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, D.C., New York, Atlantic City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. She says eventually drugs helped numb the pain.
"There was a lot of, a lot of beatings. a lot of rapes. I've been cut up three times. One time I almost died in someone's vehicle. I got choked," Kuhlman said.
Santelle says today's trafficker looks less like the stereotypical pimp and more like a business man or woman. He says the internet has expanded the sex trade.
"It has become much easier literally to sell them as human property in a way that we never could even 10, 15 years ago," Santelle said.
Kuhlman finally got out of the sex trade at age 40. She's going to college, has been sober for almost a year, is engaged and wants to help others get out of the trade to.
"Everything that helped me to get to where I'm at today was given freely to me. My job is to turn around and give it to somebody else free. Pay it forward," Kuhlman said.
The U.S. Attorneys and the District Attorneys are not only putting a dent in the problem by prosecuting traffickers, they're also working with agencies to help the victims of trafficking as well.
Some sobering statistics about human sex trafficking:
- The average age of entry into prostitution for a child victim in the United States is 13-14 years old.
- 90% of runaways become part of the sex trade business and most are coerced within 72 hours of running away.
- Human trafficking generates $9.5 billion yearly in the United States.