Elle Snow sits with a straight back and squared shoulders. Her long blonde hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Her muscular arms are framed with matching black tattoos: an angel and a devil. At some point soon she hopes to get the name of her new nonprofit Game Over, Inc. inked on her knuckles. Her former pimp, she says, hated tattoos. Snow testified against the man, David Bernard Anderson II, in 2014, which resulted in his conviction and a nine-year prison sentence. Now Snow is channeling her experience into helping other victims.
On Aug. 19, the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services was scheduled to present to the Law Enforcement Chiefs Association of Humboldt County on recent changes to sex trafficking legislation. Proposition 35, approved in 2012, increases prison time for those convicted of human trafficking and mandates training for law enforcement. Assembly Bill 1585, signed into law in September of 2014, allows someone who has been convicted of prostitution to have that conviction dismissed if the defendant can prove he or she was a victim of human trafficking. Snow says that AB 1585 is a crucial change that will allow victims to come out from the shadows.
"I didn't know I was a sex trafficking victim until a year and a half ago. I didn't know there was a name for it," says Snow. "I thought I was just a prostitute."
Snow was 19 when she met Anderson in Eureka. She fit the profile of the type of young girl so-called "Romeo pimps" target: young, vulnerable, with a history of abuse. She was flattered by the attention he offered. When he invited her to spend the weekend in Sacramento, she went, thinking he was motivated by romance. Instead he beat her, raped her and tried to force her to walk the street. When she went into shock, he brought her to a brothel. He sold her body for almost a year before she escaped. She survived the experience by withdrawing, a tactic she developed in childhood.
"I said goodbye to myself, said, 'I can't be here right now.'" After escaping, she retreated again, into alcohol abuse. Now 31, Snow says testifying against Anderson was terrifying but also "liberating."
"I spent 10 years thinking I was weak. It's not true. I grew up a tough, crazy girl. I have to remember who I am or believe I'm a piece of crap."
Human trafficking is often thought of as a problem that applies to other places, other countries. But in 2014 the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 685 calls related to sex trafficking in California alone. In 2013, California's anti-trafficking task force initiated 2,552 investigations, discovered 1,277 victims and arrested 1,798 suspected traffickers. Like Snow, many victims don't know their experience is defined as trafficking.
"If it's somebody under 18, then they're a trafficked person simply by virtue of their age," says Paula Arrowsmith-Jones of the North Coast Rape Crisis Team, adding that adults forced into the trade or giving their money to someone else also meet the definition.
Snow puts it more bluntly: "If you have a pimp, then you're being trafficked."
There are no statistics available to gauge the scale of the problem in Humboldt County. Locally, there have been several stings targeting prostitutes, but none appear to go up the ladder to their potential pimps. Snow says she initially wanted to bring training into the region, but couldn't find a curriculum that met the unique needs of Humboldt County, where there is both a high level of poverty and a great deal of seasonal, disposable income. Unlike urban areas, trafficked people in Humboldt may be sold out of motel rooms and private homes instead of on the street. Easy access to the interstate allows pimps to transport their victims and "break them in" at truckstops, says Snow. Poverty and widespread drug abuse help create a population of vulnerable young people who might be enticed by a trafficker's promises.
Chief Probation Officer William Damiano says that to many, the idea of people being trafficked out of Humboldt County may "sound fantastical" but he does have cases come across his desk. Working with young people who have been trafficked poses special challenges.
"My perspective as a correctional officer is that we have youth on probation that have been sucked out of the area, they have been enticed by people offering them free access to drugs, sex, whatever it may be, then they get trapped in this lifestyle and exploited," says Damiano. "We don't treat them differently because they've been involved in the sex trade. These youth have been culled off from the herd and isolated. They have issues of trust. ... From a psychological standpoint they've been basically told they're a worthless piece of trash. Our society doesn't look highly on prostitution; forgiving themselves and moving on can be difficult."
Patti Thomas, a local therapist who worked with Snow after the trial and helped found Game Over, says traffickers are "more sophisticated than any perpetrator that [she's] ever worked with." Thomas works with sex offenders locally. Pimps, she said, share information, share techniques about how to break and brainwash their victims, and use social media and technology to expand their empires.
Both Thomas and Snow point to listings on Backpage.com, a Craigslist-type website that offers escort ads, as evidence that women are being trafficked into Humboldt County. Many anti-trafficking activists have accused Backpage of abetting the crime and Visa and Mastercard both recently stopped allowing the site to use their payment services. The site responded by making it free for users to post ads if they used the promo code FREESPEECH. The women advertised on the Humboldt section — around 10 unique listings a day — are displayed in bits and parts: the curve of a buttock, the scoop of a breast, a face peering over a shoulder. They are predominantly women of color, and often warn that they're only in town for a limited time. Snow says their pimps are playing to the market by offering a racially diverse selection to a racially homogenous region. Moving women around, she says, is all part of the game, a way to keep victims away from their support networks and familiar surroundings. When asked if it's possible if the women are free agents — not trafficked, not pimped — Snow scoffs. She says that the number of women she has met in the industry who joined of their own free will is negligible.
Kyla Baxley, an investigator with the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office, says that it's entirely possible that some of the women advertised as escorts are "exploring that venue of work on their own." Baxley helped break open the Anderson case, which went on to be the first of its kind prosecuted in Humboldt County. She agrees that it is difficult to quantify the number of victims, and that there may be many traffickers such as Anderson targeting and exploiting local youth.
"From my perspective, victims often don't feel that they've got a safe place to report. Just because a law enforcement officer speaks to them doesn't mean they're going to trust them. ... They're finding more solace in their pimp," says Baxley, adding that there may be many cases originally reported as domestic violence or prostitution which are actually human trafficking. For a case to be prosecuted successfully, "it takes a victim, a cooperative victim, someone willing to testify against him."
Victims with that kind of courage are rare, says Baxley, making Snow's accomplishments all the more remarkable. Only four of the eight women Baxley contacted in the Anderson case were willing to testify against their former pimp. Snow says that during the trial she predicted Anderson's legal strategies with uncanny accuracy.
"I live in a trafficker's head now," she says. "That's where I had to go to survive."
Snow is in the process of developing a curriculum that addresses sex trafficking in Humboldt County and hopes to present it at future workshops and form a task force specifically focused on the issue.
Having remained anonymous in the past, Snow says she is now ready to step out of the shadows, to "go big or go home." Although she still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says testifying against Anderson and starting her nonprofit have helped. She has started kickboxing. She is ready to fight.
"I owe my allegiance to Humboldt," she says. "This place is my healing. I can't leave here without fixing this."