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Finding the captives


WORLD Radio - Finding the captives

An investigator in Northern California tracks down and rescues girls trapped in the sex trade

Investigator Vic Lacey in Southern California Courtesy of Vic Lacey

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, September 6th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Rescuing children from traffickers.

A quick word to parents here: This story deals with some heavy themes. If you have young kids around, you might want to hit pause and come back later.

The unexpected success of the movie Sound of Freedom brought increased awareness and concern about child trafficking. The film is based on the founder of Operation Underground Railroad, Tim Ballard. In the movie, Ballard goes on a rogue mission to save children from sex traffickers in the South American country of Colombia.

REICHARD: But rescuing children on U.S. soil presents very different challenges.

WORLD senior writer Mary Jackson recently met with a veteran anti-trafficking expert in the San Francisco Bay Area. She reported and wrote this story, and WORLD’s Anna Johansen Brown brings it to us now.

GPS VOICE: Head southeast on International Boulevard toward 21st Avenue.

LACEY: There they are.

SOUND: [Camera snapping]

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, REPORTER: It’s late afternoon on a Saturday. Vic Lacey is cruising down “the blade” in Oakland, California. With him are two intelligence experts and another investigator. They’re snapping photos while they go.

The blade refers to streets known for prostitution.

LACEY: This is the pimp corner. Wanna drive through here? Act like we’re looking at this taco truck.

Lacey is a private investigator with Special Operations Finding Kids. It’s a nonprofit that helps locate and recover missing and exploited children in the San Francisco Bay Area. His team is looking for a 16-year-old runaway. They suspect she’s being sex trafficked. On this mission, Lacey’s using covert camera systems to get close-up photos.

But sometimes, he poses as a sex buyer looking for a fictitious girl.

LACEY: May I ask you a quick question?




LACEY: Are you Judy?

PROSTITUTE: Judy? No, I’m Tiffany.

LACEY: Tiffany? Have you heard of Judy?

PROSTITUTE: I’m sure there’s a Judy down that way.

That brief interaction allowed Lacey to take photos and learn the girl’s street name and other identifying details, such as whether she has any tattoos. Many times, he can link a tattoo to a particular pimp or gang.

Aside from undercover investigations, Lacey and other Special Operations investigators rely on missing persons reports, cyber intelligence, and informants on the street. Oftentimes, Lacey collects enough evidence to elevate a case to a crime, prompting police intervention. Under state and federal law, any child engaged in a commercial sex act is a trafficking victim.

LACEY: The trouble is this, this crime of sex trafficking is so psychological. It's the most psychologically intense crime of anything I've ever seen––more than murder, kidnapping, or any of those hard crimes; sex trafficking, it’s just psychologically, it's twisted.

Successful rescues must address that psychological damage. Special Operations works with local law enforcement and social services to facilitate the child’s rescue and also their aftercare, which includes counseling. The group also seeks to ensure that sex traffickers are prosecuted.

Lacey spent 23 years in law enforcement in California. He held investigative and consulting roles with the state and federal government. In 2007, he planned to retire from the Department of Justice. That’s when a representative called from the anti-trafficking group International Justice Mission.

LACEY: And he said, I've looked at your online, I created an online profile. He said, I've looked at it, I noticed you, you've done extensive background and undercover drug investigations. And I said, Yeah, that's right. He said, How would you like to take that experience, and use it to find trafficked slaves, young girls and boys, trafficked in other countries? And I said, Well, I'm listening.

Lacey and his wife moved to Calcutta, India. In three years, his team rescued more than 160 young girls from sex trafficking. Lacey has been involved in anti-trafficking work ever since. In 2021, he joined Special Operations, focusing on the rescues in the Bay Area.

In some ways, his work here is more complex than it was overseas.

LACEY: They say the biggest thing to solving a problem is first admitting you have one. That’s exactly where California is. Until we admit that our youth are no longer important to us, we're never going to treat them like they are.

As Lacey sees it, that dynamic is playing out in a recent state law that took effect in January. It barred police from arresting people who loiter with the intent to engage in prostitution. California is the second state to pass such a law.

Police previously relied on prostitution loitering arrests to detain girls they suspected were underage or being trafficked. Oftentimes, that led to investigations or it allowed authorities to connect the victim with nonprofits that provide exit resources.

LACEY: What it creates is now if I do see a young girl, that I think she's a minor, and she's clearly prostituting herself. As a cop I can stop and talk to her. But if she decides to turn around and leave, I can't stop her. Because there's no law that she's broken.

The law had an immediate effect on the streets. Police intervention has lessened. Prostitution is more open and prevalent. And Lacey says pimps and traffickers are more bold. They’re always watching their prostitutes, and oftentimes they’re armed.

LACEY: Is it two blocks down or three?

COLLEAGUE: I’d give us another five, ten minutes before the word’s out.

LACEY: [engine revs] Three blocks. We’ll head out after one more pass and this other girl in the high heels.

Back in Oakland, Lacey is still looking for the missing 16-year-old girl. The next day, he and his team find her. A trafficker was indeed selling her for sex. The Oakland police rescued her. And Special Operations provided a trained mentor to meet with her.

At 65, Lacey says he’s nearing the end of his capacity for this type of work.

LACEY: One life is worth it. But there is a cost to the work. There is an emotional cost, a psychological cost. It's draining. Now I believe God calls you to it and gives you what you need to do it for a certain amount of time. There's also a time where I think that he says, you know, sit back and help in other ways. That's kind of what I'm focused on trying to figure out.

Earlier this year, Lacey transitioned from his role as Special Operations’ director of investigations to overseeing special projects.

Still, he says he’s burdened over California’s steps toward legalizing prostitution and the toll that will take on rescuing trafficked children.

LACEY: Everywhere you have prostitution, you have exploitation everywhere, legal or not. The whole movement that legalized prostitution is just a big fallacy. What little girl wakes up and says I want to be a prostitute? None.

For WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown.

EICHER: There’s much more about this than what we included here, so we’ve placed a link to Mary Jackson’s print piece in the episode notes and in today’s transcript.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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