“Hey baby, where are you at?”
John Rode, a 62-year-old private investigator, answers the phone while driving down the Florida coast with the breezy response he perfected working as a Miami Vice officer for 24 years.
But he doesn’t answer as “John.” He gives his name as “Rick”—one of the pseudonyms he uses when he responds to an ad for sex. A prostitute is on the other end of the line, and Rode is pretending to be a potential client.
It’s one of the tried-and-true techniques that Rode and his partner, Justin Payton, 38, a former U.S. Marshal, use in their search for sex trafficking victims, who can be mistaken for consenting prostitutes, in Florida.
The two find the women on sex-for-sale websites that opened up when Backpage.com was shut down by the federal government last Spring. Their casual approach usually produces an address from the prostitute, and they spring into action. When Rode hangs up the phone, he and Payton head to the location.
Rode, wearing a small, hidden bluetooth camera, goes inside while Payton waits outside the door. Payton confided that his presence provides needed backup just in case a pimp is nearby and getting suspicious—but the two investigators have not encountered a violent situation in the year they have been operating.
Inside, after talking with the woman, Rode has to make a quick judgment about whether or not she is being held against her will (which would make her a victim, rather than a prostitute, under Florida law.) He credits this quick judgment to a “gut feeling” that he developed working in law enforcement.
After the conversation is over, he tells her he forgot to bring cash, walks out, and if he thinks she’s in danger he makes a call on his cell phone to police so they can further investigate.
If the woman is recovered by authorities, Rode and Payton can chalk up a small victory in their battle against the seamy underworld players who have driven south Florida’s growing sex trafficking crisis.
This is a typical afternoon for Rode and Payton, who work from their cars rather than behind a desk— in fact, the two don’t have an office, and work from their phones. We drove down I-95, a popular highway for transporting sex trafficking victims, in an undercover operation in pursuit of pimps and underage girls.
Rode uses a fake phone number on an app called “burner” to hide his identity. And, they switch rental cars frequently to avoid being followed.
When Rode and Payton aren’t patrolling the internet for underage or exploited women, they’re working individual missing-children cases. According to Rode, the two go hand-in-hand, because missing children often become victims of sex trafficking within the first 48 hours that they disappear.
However, most of the “missing” children are actually runaway cases, rather than actual kidnappings.
The two private investigators are co-founders of Global Children’s Rescue (GCR), a small non-profit based in Fort Lauderdale whose clients are usually the families of runaway girls. They are fully funded by fundraisers, private donors and businesses.
They use their law enforcement training and street experience to look for clues to the girls’ whereabouts—in bars, runaway shelters, hotels or brothels—often stepping in when desperate families say that local police have given up, or never took the case seriously in the first place.
But they are not the only ones.
In Part Two of an investigation of human trafficking, The Crime Report found what amounts to a niche industry of non-profit organizations comprised of former law enforcement operatives which have sprung up in Florida and across the county in response to the sex trafficking crisis that many say has outpaced the ability of local police to cope.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In Part One of our three-part investigation, The Crime Report spoke to the mothers of three young girls who were trafficking victims in Florida, and one victim herself, all of whom claimed they received little or no help from local law enforcement.
Roots of the Trafficking Crisis
According to Payton, Florida’s sex-trafficking trade has flourished in part because of the lack of sufficient police personnel to address it, and in part because of the lack of appropriate policies or guidelines in local police agencies that could help law enforcement identify and assist trafficking victims.
“To be honest, every department can’t run around looking at every case and put up helicopters looking for missing kids,” Payton told TCR. “It’s not (for lack of interest) by the officers, or even by the chief of police. It’s the way the system is set up.”
GCR’s Rode and Payton believe they fill a critical gap in the battle against traffickers.
Since they began operating last year, the investigators devote a large portion of their time to finding children whose parents or caregivers report as missing or runaways—situations which often lead them to sex-trafficking operations. Of the 30 missing-children cases they have worked to date, they claim to have found about 25 kids. Some cases are closed when a runaway returns home on her own, but others have led Rode and Payton to young girls who have been recruited by traffickers.
They credit their success to their ability to step in quickly as soon as they hear a child is missing—pointing out that such a quick response is crucial before the victim is swept up in the shadowy sex-for-sale underground, and disappears.
One of the techniques that works for them is their ability to “saturate” an area, which can scare the runaway child into coming forward.
“We’re effective just by being out there,” said Payton. “We’re dealing with family. Talking to business owners. Talking to Uber drivers. Bartenders. You name it. We put the pressure on, and that gives us hope that this system could work.”
As it turns out, they aren’t alone. In a month-long investigation, TCR found at least five anti-trafficking organizations in Florida and elsewhere in the country (including Global Children’s Rescue), similarly staffed by former law enforcement or military personnel—and it is by no means an exhaustive list. Our sources suggest others are moving into the field.
They include the following:
- Global Children’s Rescue (Fort Lauderdale, Fl.)
- Phantom Rescue (Hollywood, Fl.)
- Saved in America (Southern California)
- Operation Underground Railroad (Anaheim, Ca.)
- Human Trafficking Investigations and Training Institute (Washington, D.C.)
Phantom Rescue, a non-profit based in Hollywood, Fl., staffed by former special operations military officers, helps local authorities rescue children who have been bought, sold and traded for sex.
This group specializes in patrolling the “Dark Web”—an area of cyberspace that has flourished as the home for illicit dealers in everything from drugs and guns to sex. Increasingly, it has become an underground place where children can be bought and sold.
And the tools used to find them are just as secretive.
“We do not disclose any information on the recovery of a missing child,” Tony Sparks, the founder and director, told TCR.
“Your readers could potentially be anyone, even human traffickers.”
Sparks, a former military special operations officer, claims that trained ex-law enforcement professionals are among the most effective operatives in the world of human trafficking.
Free to operate outside the restraints of police bureaucracy, Phantom Rescue (like GCR) claims its operatives can often spend time and resources that financially strapped police agencies do not have.
Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) is even more explicit, claiming on its website that its worldwide activities “enhance” law enforcement when budget shortfalls otherwise prevent authorities from aggressively pursuing “child pornography, child exploitation or human trafficking operation.”
In its four years of operation, O.U.R. claims to have rescued 1,500 children and assisted in the arrest of 570 traffickers.
Other organizations claim similar success.
For example, Saved in America, a non-profit located in California which numbers ex-law enforcement agents as well as former Navy Seals among its operatives, claims to have rescued 82 children since 2014.
According to its website, Saved in America deploys four teams of special ops, five retired police investigators, 16 retired special operators, two social networking investigators, and two state firearms instructors.
But are they really necessary?
According to former FBI agent Greg Bristol, they are. Bristol maintains that if the groups now operating outside law enforcement didn’t exist, the picture would be a lot grimmer.
Bristol recalled that when he left the FBI in Washington, D.C, he was the only one working human trafficking cases.
“Police departments have resources,” said Bristol, who now runs the Human Trafficking & Investigations Training Institute. “They’re just choosing not to use them.”
Bristol’s organization develops human trafficking awareness and investigative training programs for former law enforcement agencies across the country. His courses focus on helping officers detect the telltale signs of human trafficking through skillful interviews of victims—much like the techniques Rode and Payton use.
But he argues police have always been a step behind traffickers.
Most police departments, he contended, seem too often more interested in training their officers about radar guns then educating them on sex trafficking.
“If they need to get an officer certified on a radar gun, they’ll spend five days to do it,” he said in an interview. “But certifying them to be human trafficking investigators… they aren’t doing it.”
Some states are more progressive than others in addressing the problem, Bristol said, adding that Florida is not one of them.
Payton and Rode would agree.
The two private investigators say they regularly butt heads with law enforcement agencies in their area (they cite Fort Lauderdale as one example), claiming that local cops are often reluctant to follow up on leads they provide about underage or endangered young women.
The Crime Report contacted the Fort Lauderdale police department and invited them to comment on Rode and Payton’s claims.
In an email statement prepared for TCR, detective Tracy Figone responded that the department is “open” to working with outside organizations “to enhance our resources for Missing Children / Human Trafficking investigations.”
“Fort Lauderdale Detectives investigating this type of incident will accept any information provided by an individual or outside organization, but will not provide specific details on an active investigation to non-law enforcement entities, [since] this may interfere with their investigation.”
They did not, however, respond to TCR’s questions about the specific allegations by Rode and Payton about how police handle such investigations.
Global Children’s Rescue and other groups argue that trafficking investigations led by law-enforcement could benefit from the street knowledge and fast-response strategy employed by experienced private investigators and other former law enforcement operatives.
Private investigators also don’t face the same red tape that police officers do.
Jessica Vera, founder of ELITE Foundation, a non-profit combating human trafficking in Fort Lauderdale, explained that if a PI wants to bust down the door, he can.
“They don’t have the same constraints as law enforcement,” she said. “They don’t have judicial process and so forth, so they can find out a lot more and pass information to law enforcement.”
Vera, predicting that Florida will be the number-one sex trafficking hotspot in 2020, when Miami hosts the Super Bowl, said Florida needs a lot more trained personnel like Rode and Payton to fight the crisis.
“I was impressed Rode and Payton have taken on this uphill battle,” she said, adding that law enforcement could benefit from their help. “They need an army.”
Rode’s persistence and instincts, honed during his years as a veteran cop, have been critical to his success in rescuing young girls from traffickers.
In the summer of 2016, a man posted a sex-for-sale advertisement on Backpage.com offering the services of a 19-year-old girl (who was actually 17 at the time), and advertising her availability at a major hotel in Plantation, Fl.
Young, and Frightened
Rode found the ad online and, in accordance with his technique, showed up at the hotel room he was given, wearing his hidden Bluetooth camera, and posing as a paying customer. It didn’t take him long to register how young the girl was, along with the scared look on her face.
It was also clear that she wasn’t “working” for herself. An older man waited outside the elevator, watching the room.
After leaving with his standard apologies of having no cash, he called detectives whom he knew at the Plantation police department. At first, they were reluctant to come out, Rode said—but when they did, detectives discovered the girl had been raped by eight different men who had paid the older man for her “services.” The man was arrested.
The City of Plantation Police Department did not respond to The Crime Report’s request for a comment.
According to a subsequent police report of the case, reported by the local ABC news affiliate, the girl screamed for help at one point and said she was prepared to jump out of the fourth-floor window in an attempt to escape.
The man, who was charged with human trafficking and sexual battery of a minor, is currently in jail awaiting trial—scheduled in September.
Rode claims that if he had not insisted that detectives come to the scene, the young girl might not have been rescued.
Not everyone, however, buys their argument.
Tony Sparks of Phantom Rescue said he was “shocked” at the claim by Rode and Payton that they received a cold shoulder from local law enforcement.
“They probably just haven’t established themselves yet,” he said. “Law enforcement wants our help.”
Opinions remain divided however about how law enforcement responds to outside help.
Jumorrow Terra Johnson, president of the non-profit Broward (County) Human Trafficking Coalition, said that while her organization has great relations with the Fort Lauderdale police department, officers’ mentality about human trafficking needs to change.
She told TCR she believes the Fort Lauderdale police are “making strides” in this area, but she added law enforcement often views trafficking victims through a narrow lens, noting that police often have misleading preconceptions of what a trafficking victim “looks like.”
“You can’t distinguish between good victims and bad victims,” she said, noting that the trauma experienced by trafficked girls sometimes leads them to conceal what they have gone through—and thus lead officers to think they have been willing participants.
“When you don’t know what it is and you’re not interested in learning what a victim might look like, you can punish a victim for being trafficked.”
Johnson’s organization is one of many human trafficking coalitions established in Florida. Now, there is one for almost every county in the state.
Florida also developed the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking, created by state Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2014, which comprises law enforcement officers, prosecutors, legislators, as well as experts in the fields of health, education and social services.
The council, whose responsibilities range from recommending enhanced coordination between prosecutors and law enforcement in apprehending traffickers, to developing safe houses and safe foster homes for victims, is one of many state-sponsored organizations in Florida that have emerged to cope with Florida’s trafficking crisis.
But according to Rode, these official responses still fall short of what’s needed.
The different coalitions and task forces “don’t get involved in cases unless it’s a high profile actual abduction or kidnapping,” he claimed. “They don’t go out and deal with the families. They don’t deal with every runaway girl who has the potential of being a human trafficking victim.”
“I wish they would.”
Sex Workers are Skeptical
The methods of private investigators have also come under fire from the sex-worker community.
Turning over sex trafficking victims to the police can often do more harm than good, according to Terra Burns, researcher and founding member of the Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), a group of former and current Alaska sex workers allied with sex trafficking victims.
Burns argued that when Payton and Rode alert law enforcement to trafficking victims, many end up facing criminal charges for prostitution.
She explained that sex trafficking laws are often used against victims, who can be charged with something like “aiding or facilitating their own prostitution” or “conspiracy to traffic themselves.”
“Generally, it would not be helpful for them (Rode and Payton) to turn victims over to the police,” said Burns.
Christa Daring, Executive Director of SWOP USA , a sex-worker advocacy group, agreed.
“These young girls can be trafficking victims and still charged with illegal prostitution. In most situations, police are trying to get their arrest stats up, and picking people up for prostitution is an easy way to do that,” she said.
Especially trans people and people of color, she added.
According to Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium, the emergence of private investigators in the sex trafficking industry only underlines the failure of law enforcement and other authorities to take the problem seriously enough to develop ways to prevent trafficking in the first place.
GCR and similar organizations shouldn’t be necessary, she told us.
“My preference is for law enforcement to be trained and given resources on how to effectively rescue victims and follow them through to conviction,” she said.
“If they are receiving information and not acting on it, I would rather find ways to hold law enforcement accountable.”
Payton and Rode don’t necessarily disagree, but they argue that in the absence of systematic approaches to the problem, organizations like theirs are needed to provide 24/7 assistance to victims and their families.
But in a perfect world, this crime wouldn’t exist, and nobody would become a victim, Rode said.
“Unfortunately we live in a very dangerous society where people become victims. And it’s not going to stop. And we’re not going to stop either.”
“We never stop searching.”
Megan Hadley is a senior staff reporter for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.