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Surviving 'The Life': Maine a 'source state' for sex traffickers

The story you're about to read was, quite frankly, hard for us to write. It's going to be harder for you to read.

MAINE, USA — They're taken from Houlton … Biddeford … Scarborough … Bangor … and Portland. EVERYWHERE IN MAINE.

Women and girls, a neighbor's daughter, the babysitter... sometimes as young as 12 … lured by promises of modeling contracts, a handful of painkillers … maybe even just a warm bed …and a way out.

What happens next? They discover a horrible truth... that men ... and sometimes women ...  are selling them for sex. Not in some faraway country. Right down the street from you and me ...in Maine.

The story you're about to read was, quite frankly, hard for us to write.

It's going to be harder for you to read.

Maine has an addiction ... to sex trafficking.

"Massachusetts labels us a source state," says Pam Flick, who retired in 2018 from the FBI as a special agent in charge of sex trafficking. "We have the girls who are addicted to drugs and Massachusetts has the individuals that are eager to traffic them."

Traffickers come to Maine to capture girls and women with a variety of unmet needs. They target those who struggle with poverty, family turmoil, sexual abuse, drug addiction, runaways or young women newly out of the foster care system. Women at risk can be found everywhere in Maine.

2015 Maine Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment

Credit: Hornby Zeller Associates Inc.

RELATED: Feds: Maine is a 'source state' for sex traffickers

"There is not a city or town in this state where I couldn't go set up shop for five minutes, put an ad on a social website and start sucking people in," says Det. Steve Webster, who retired from the South Portland Police Department after 30 years with a badge. 

And if you think these girls are from overseas, think again.

"No. Nope," says Flick. "It's the girl next door."

A half-mile stretch of Congress Street between the Greyhound bus station and Neal Street is known in the sex trafficking world as "the track."

Along those sidewalks, residents of Portland's most exclusive neighborhoods walk to work each day, right in the shadow of Maine's largest hospital.

Most never realize they're sharing the sidewalk with girls being sold for sex.

"There are no women who enjoy selling their bodies," Webster says. "They fake it. They put on a smile. And they're just dying inside when they're doing it."

"I saw 'Taken' like 10 years ago. This is not multi-million-dollar yachts and pretty dresses and you're sold for a million dollars," says Molly Fox, a survivor of sex trafficking. "That is not what this is."

Molly had been with her boyfriend for just a few months when he left her a message to meet him after work.

"I literally met up with the epitome of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because this person that I thought I knew was not," she says. "Now they're beating me, now they're force-feeding me drugs. Next thing I know I'm getting sold to the highest bidder."

Flick, formerly of the FBI, says men are calculated when they target women -- particularly younger women.

"They say, ‘Meet me here. I know that you have future aspirations to be a model, to be a singer, to be a concert promoter. I’m a rapper and I could use someone just like you. You’d be perfect for this. Met me here and we can start off on this great career,'" Flick says. "Sure, that sounds great. And then they’ll go to a hotel room, he’ll rape her, give her drugs. I’ve often seen times too where they’ll just get them into drugs…. He’ll rape her. So, what does that do to a woman … now he kind of owns a piece of her, and he just keeps working on that to break her down to make her part of his stable."

Kasie Robbins was 16 years old and had just run away from her home in Maine. Her new roommate in Florida offered her a way to make a quick buck.

"She says, 'So our rent's due, right, and the landlord said if you sleep with him, that'll pay our rent for the month,'" Kasie says. "And so, for me, I'm thinking, 'Ok, I'm contributing,' right?"

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"Then she says, 'Well, do you want to make some quick money?' And I said, 'Yeah, definitely.' And she was like, 'OK, well, here, I’ll teach you how to walk down the strip and catch dates. I thought she was doing me a favor, I thought that she was looking out for me, right?"

Fifteen-year-old Tricia Grant was approached at an Auburn restaurant. She was telling a friend that she feared losing custody of her infant son.

"These two men approached our table and said, 'Hey, we have something you might be interested in. Just come to this apartment building around the corner the next day and we'll explain it to you,'" Tricia says. "They raped us and when they were done, they had us put our clothes back on, they gave us pagers, and what they said to me was, 'When this pager goes off, you better show up where we tell you to show up or we're going to have your son taken away from you.'"

The men put Tricia in a van with other girls she didn't know. They stopped at hotels and strip clubs all over New England. She was forced to have sex with multiple men, every night.

"Everybody has this picture in their mind of what a trafficking victim looks like," Webster says. "There is no picture. They come from good families, bad families, great childhoods, poor childhoods. Just like drugs can suck anybody in, so can trafficking. Some are forced into it. Some are groomed into it and then they can’t get out."

"And so here I'm in this hotel room and there's 20 men lined up at $20 a piece and I'm sniffing cocaine and I'm crying, knowing that like what I'm doing's not right, but not knowing what I'm doing's not right because nobody had taught me how to put up boundaries and nobody had taught me my self-worth and nobody had told me how important and special I was," Kasie says.

The more extreme the demands, the more the men paid.

"'Oh, he wants to pay $1,000 but he wants me to do this.' 'Oh, this guy's going to pay $5,000 but he wants to cut me,'" she continues. 

"I had tons of pimps and they never once said, 'Give me all your money or I'm going to beat you,'" Kasie continues, and then begins to cry. "They said, 'Ok baby, I got a gram for you when you get back.' They said, 'Are you hungry?'"

Dee Clarke was trafficked as a child from her home outside Boston.

"They liked that I was young," Clarke says. "They had men coming in having sex with this 12-year-old. Today I know they liked it."

Kasie says she finally got out of "the life" when she was 30. She'd had two children, one while in jail, and she had overdosed several times.

"Nobody knew about human trafficking," she says. "Nobody knew, nobody told me, like, what that looked like, so I was automatically labeled a prostitute. 'She's just a prostitute. She does it on her own. She wants to do this. She makes quick money.'"

Webster says most people think of "low-rent motels" when thinking of trafficking, but businessmen pay big money to bring women into more expensive hotels. 

While some women work the hotels, others work the street. Lunchtime is popular, and even in February, the noon hour was busy on recent days along "the track."

Since breaking free from the life, some survivors have started organizations to support others. Dee Clarke founded Survivor Speak USA in Portland. Tricia Grant is program coordinator at Sophia's House, a residence for survivors in Lewiston. The people who trafficked her continue to advertise locally.

Kasie Robbins graduated from a faith-based recovery program. Molly Fox moved on from CourageLives, a residential safe house and holistic program for survivors in Penobscot County. The two attend college and are thriving. Kasie hopes to someday open a recovery home. Molly plans to work in criminal justice.

But for every survivor who thrives, new girls are seduced and sold into sex slavery on our streets ... and tragically, not all of them make it out.

"I just got a text two days ago from an attorney friend of mine," Webster says. "He had a client that we tried to help. She was a victim. She had a lot of issues. She's one that didn't make it ... She died a couple days ago from an overdose despite the team she had around her trying to help her, she just couldn't overcome the demons.”

Data from a study commissioned by the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA) estimated 200 to 300 people are trafficked for sex in Maine each year.

To reach the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline, call 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to befree (233733). The free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine and is a direct link to local services in Maine.

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