Maine is known for being "Vacationland," each year luring an estimated 33 million people to the area.
What you may not know is that Maine is also becoming an attractive destination for a different kind of visitor: human traffickers.
Every year, it's estimated that hundreds of people are exploited for sex here in Maine. From local police to the FBI and Homeland Security, anti-trafficking efforts are underway to stop pimps who are operating in clear sight.
Jasmine Marino was 19 when she was first targeted as a sex slave. "I was like set up on this broken path really. You know, lacked self-esteem, not really confident but wanted to do something with my life."
Vulnerable, from a home offering little supervision or support, Jasmine seemed to find a perfect support system in a man she met while out with friends. "And I was at this nightclub drinking with my friends, having a good time, met him and we exchanged phone numbers. He's 20, 21, he was driving a Mercedes-Benz, he had a pocket full of money, nice clothes, shoes, jewelry, started to groom me."
Jasmine's new boyfriend was grooming her to become a high-end call girl, promising her a life of love and riches – a common tactic. "He did promise that we could have a home, a business, a family, all these things if I just worked at this massage parlor."
But it wasn't massages Jasmine was giving. She was being trafficked for sex.
"I had to make at least $100 each session, so it was like a half hour to an hour that these sessions would come in, so these men – I remember the first time I had to exchange myself, it was – it was horrifying because the guy could have been my grandfather."
Jasmine's pimp trafficked her in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine, where she worked at the ill-reputed Danish Health Club in Kittery. The FBI later shut down the prostitution ring operating out of it. "It was nicer, higher clientele, more money, fancier couches – you know, we had a big screen TV to watch. You felt like you were upgraded."
She made up to $1,200 a day, but never saw a dime of it. Her pimp took it all.
"Human trafficking is a modern-day slavery," FBI special agent Russell Brown remarked in his Boston office at FBI headquarters.
Brown is a supervisory special agent at the FBI. He oversees human trafficking and child exploitation in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine.
"Everywhere across the nation, the human trafficking trend has been increasing." Maine notwithstanding.
The FBI handles case after case – many with Maine ties. The headlines from various newspapers covering a variety of Maine cases read: "Three men sentenced for sex trafficking a minor;" "Boston man pleads guilty to sex trafficking;" and "Two women sentenced for roles in sex trafficking organization."
Special Agent Brown said one thing has changed the sex trade industry dramatically: "The internet opens up the world so somebody, say in the Boston area, can identify a potential person to exploit up in Maine just because they get in the same chat room. They see somebody on Facebook, they post an advertisement, 'Do you want to become a model?'"
Or, an exotic dancer, or working for an escort service? Ads found on adult websites, the FBI tells us, like backpage.com, seen by the very people Brown is working to stop in their tracks. "It's going to be somebody that is a predator that wants to exploit another person for financial means or some other benefit. And they know how to do it, they know how to manipulate, and they're just looking for another individual that they can manipulate for their benefit."
Which means parents, friends and the public need to learn the signs of trafficking:
► Teenagers, usually girls, suddenly hanging out with a new group — she disappears a lot and returns home wearing expensive clothes, jewelry, shoes, a new phone, etc.
► Tattoos with the pimp's name, a dollar sign, a crown and/or the words "daddy's girl" on an arm, leg, neck and/or face
► Being controlled, always watched, guarded and not allowed to contact family or friends – not allowed to leave
Jasmine Marino found the courage and the support to leave her pimp, finally getting away from him after more than nine years as a sex slave. A newly published book, titled "The Diary of Jasmine Grace: Trafficked, Recovered, Redeemed," chronicles those years, as well as her release.
She reads an excerpt. "I found Jesus in the back seat of a car with a few older women who told me about Him after Sunday morning church service. This is not only awesome, but it's also redeeming because I've done a lot of unholy things in the backseat."
Jasmine got married and recently had her fifth child. The book covers those years she was trafficked, how she recovered and is now feeling redeemed through a project she started: Bags of Hope. She hands out gift bags to women on the street who are addicted, homeless, prostituting.
"I just started going to the dollar store and making these bags filled with soap, shampoo, toothpaste, socks, nail polish – sticking in a note from me telling them there's a better way, there are resources. If I can make it off the street, so can't you."
And so the mom in the minivan makes her deliveries — in her words, using her pain for a purpose. And through the Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston, she also makes money mentoring at-risk girls. Her job more important now than ever.
"Typically the youngest we've seen is 14, 15. We have heard of others that are younger," Brown explains. He admits it's heartbreaking, but ending the scourge of human trafficking? Not impossible.
"The more public awareness there is about human trafficking, the more likely it is that people can report when they see that trafficking happening, a person being exploited."
Brown said he works closely with motel and hotel owners, who alert him when they see suspicious activities at their businesses.
And here in Maine, legislation has been introduced to create training programs for truck drivers to spot human trafficking. The hope is, added eyes and ears on the road will help authorities track down and stop predators.
According to the FBI, anyone who wishes to report incidents of human trafficking or suspected human trafficking are encouraged to call their local FBI office, local police department or 911, if it’s an emergency.