This article appeared in the October 2012 edition of Ottawa Magazine.
by Judy Trinh
At the first home, a woman unleashes a barrage of profanities at me while chasing me off her garbage-strewn front yard. At the second, I encounter another woman sitting on her back stoop, staring vacantly at a parking lot. She simply sits in silence, refusing to acknowledge my presence. By the time I visit the third place, a simple walk-up brick apartment building in the city’s south end, I’m not sure what to expect. The main entrance consists of a creaky screen door that opens up to a set of steep, narrow stairs. My shoes echo with each step as I climb the dozen or so stairs to the top-floor unit, a not so subtle announcement of my arrival. A knock on the door of Unit 2 prompts a singsongy voice to inquire, “Who is it?”
A petite woman opens the door, smiling politely. Dark curls frame her makeup-free face, and she’s dressed in a long floral skirt with a crocheted shawl draped over her shoulders. When I introduce myself as a reporter, her breath catches and her smile fades. She knows the reason for the visit is her 15-year-old daughter, C.B.* [all names changed to protect the identity of the teens] “I don’t know what happened. I’m still trying to figure it out.” Her words trail off. Her voice is tinged with defeat.
@Twitter: fuck the police
That quote comes from C.B.’s Twitter profile. It was posted after the Ottawa police SWAT team stormed the social-housing complex on Walkley Road over the supper hour. Officers armed with sniper rifles knocked down doors with a battering ram in search of three teenage girls — two white, one black — all accused of running a prostitution ring.
One girl, 15-year-old L.N.*, was arrested on June 8. C.B. was arrested a day later at her mother’s home. And after being on the lam for a week, a third girl, 16-year-old H.K.*, was found by police in Gatineau. The suspects are facing dozens of charges — among them human trafficking, kidnapping, forcible confinement, and sexual assault. Police say the teenage pimps used social media to lure three victims, one only 13, to the Walkley projects, then took them to other places in the city where they were forced to have sex with men who paid. It’s alleged the victims were beaten and, in one case, drugged. None of the allegations have been proven in court, but in the press conferences and interviews that followed the arrests, even the police seemed shocked by the case, calling it unprecedented.
For many, the case was alarming not so much because of the ages of the victims but because of the ages of the alleged perpetrators, two of whom aren’t even old enough to drive. Police said there was no gang involvement, nor did it appear that any adults were pulling strings behind the scenes. It was a Canadian first — teenage girls pimping other girls. Because the suspects and the victims are all minors, they cannot be identified. But in this age of Facebook and Twitter, the names of the suspects are an open secret among hundreds of teens around the city.
On a sweltering day, I stop by the Alta Vista Public Library, a few kilometres from the neighbourhood where two of the girls were arrested. Four high school students sit at the very back of the room, listening to iPods while seeking refuge from the late-summer heat. How often are they on social media, I ask. The answer is unanimous: a lot. A couple mention that they’re lucky their parents have wireless. After some small talk about the number of Facebook friends each has, I bring up the subject of the teen pimping case that has been making headlines. They snicker and nod before one boy, in Grade 10, pipes up: “One of them goes to our school.” He mentions her name and pulls up C.B.’s Facebook profile.
“She shared some of the things she was watching and reading on the Internet, but she wanted to keep her conversations with her friends private,” says C.B.’s mom. It was a wish she considered reasonable. She respected those boundaries and didn’t pry into messages and texts sent between C.B. and her friends. But social media activity was a flashpoint for arguments between them. “We argued over how much time she spent on the Internet.”
All three of the accused teens were active social media users. (Investigators are currently sifting through all of their accounts, looking for other victims and, perhaps, other perpetrators.) All three girls set up accounts under gangster-sounding aliases. But C.B. appears to be the most prolific. She had Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. At last count, she had more than 1,600 Facebook friends, kids who attended more than a dozen local high schools. Like many teenagers, she chronicled her daily life through tweets and status updates. Perhaps she was posting her real thoughts and activities. Or she could have been just posin’.
@Twitter: Livin hood rich
Her online profile depicts a girl who looks much older than a 15-year-old should. Her tweets celebrate the “thug life.” There are numerous photos of her posing in skin-tight, low-cut tops, her lips pursed in a seductive pout. Along with the cleavage shots, she posts photos of herself smoking joints with her co-accused and flashing a lot of bling on her well-manicured hands. Then there are the photos, incongruous with the tough-girl image, of her beloved cat. But in the stream of photos, one in particular grabs my attention: a close-up of hands holding two pistols, fingers on the triggers. The accompanying caption reads:
@Twitter: I pulled the burner shawty changed her mind
A quick trip to urbandictionary.com confirms that a “burner” is a gun and a “shawty” is a hot girl. But it is the date of the posting that makes this tweet so disturbing. It corresponds to an incident under investigation — an incident in which one victim was allegedly kidnapped, beaten, and sexually exploited. The photo may also explain why Ottawa police would choose to use the staggering force of their SWAT team to arrest teenage girls. But in their sweep of Walkley, police did not find any guns, nor were the girls charged with any weapons-related offences.
“The average Canadian doesn’t believe this could happen to their daughter, their niece, or their neighbour’s kid,” says Christina Harrison Baird, an international human rights lawyer and chair of PACT-Ottawa (Persons Against the Crime of Trafficking in Humans). She laments that much of the general public is completely naive when it comes to the sexual exploitation of women and rails against the image of Ottawa as a “sleepy capital,” because she’s acutely aware of what goes on in its shadows.
Since January, Harrison Baird says, her organization has come across at least five cases of minors forced into prostitution right here in the capital. And that number doesn’t include the victims of the alleged teen pimps. Even more frightening, Harrison Baird says human trafficking is a much bigger problem than the numbers reflect. “It’s clandestine, so it’s difficult to identify victims unless they come to you and say they’ve been coerced.”
Constable Wendy Lee knows first-hand how difficult it is to convince a victim to come forward. After working in group homes in the past, Lee is now the lone human trafficking coordinator for the Ottawa Police Service. Her responsibilities include visiting high schools and teaching girls how to safeguard themselves from predators. To make herself more approachable, Lee doesn’t wear the standard-issue uniform, preferring jeans and, on this day, a T-shirt that exposes part of a tattoo sleeve on her right arm. Though she’s not involved in the teen pimping case, Lee agrees to do a rare interview because, like Harrison Baird, she wants to make parents and guardians aware of just how vulnerable their children can be.
When asked who the pimps are looking for, Lee’s answer is blunt. “Anyone they can make a dollar off of.” In Ottawa, Lee has met girls who are being forced by their pimps to bring in quotas of $400 to $1,100 dollars a day. It’s an extremely lucrative business, and Lee says the predators intuitively know who is vulnerable. Like heat-seeking missiles, the pimps hone in on girls who are struggling with self-esteem and who desperately want to be accepted. Girls who have social media accounts with no privacy settings make their hunt even easier. These pimps are online — perusing the scores of sexy photos that teens are posting of themselves and reading their tweets, looking to befriend that perfect victim to trick and trap.
Lee also points to the city’s schools as hunting grounds for predators. The pimps, who are usually adults, will often pay their younger brothers, sisters, or cousins to introduce them to insecure girls. After befriending these girls, they transition into the role of understanding boyfriend and lavish gifts and attention on the girls. As their victims get more dependent on them, the pimps are able to isolate them gradually from their families or support systems. The girls think they’re in love, when in reality they’re being groomed for prostitution. Then suddenly it’s payback time. The pimp boyfriend will demand that debts be settled, and the only collateral the girl has is her body.
“We’ve seen instances where a 14- or 15-year-old girl is taken to a party with older guys. There are unlimited quantities of drugs and alcohol, and we’ve seen gang rapes occur.” Lee says the victims are often videotaped or photographed — evidence that can then be used to blackmail them into becoming prostitutes or to make them do whatever is wanted for the pimps to make money. “The best pimps don’t even have to lay a hand on their girls.”
@Twitter: wake up, got paid, smoke up
It is another hot summer day when I randomly approach a group of teenage girls at Mooney’s Bay. Lounging in their bikinis, they’re chatting with one another while texting on their phones. They are entering Grades 10 and 11. Just like the teens in the library, these girls immediately admit to knowing the alleged pimps and help fill in more gaps in the story.
The suspects attended different south-end schools, but their online social network extended from Orleans to Kanata. The girls rarely attended class; two of them may even have dropped out, but everyone knew who they were. They were the exhibitionists who wore flashy jewellery and brand-name clothing. H.K., for one, was often seen walking to school with her skirt hiked so high that you could glimpse her underwear.
Of the 12 teenage girls I spoke to at the beach that day, eight were Facebook friends with at least one of the suspects. Five said they had been invited to their parties. Among those was Anna*, a Grade 9 girl with long dark hair pulled back in a messy braid. She said she had known L.N. since Grade 1. Every Wednesday for a period of about two months, she would get several texts from L.N., inviting her to hang out on the weekend. “I actually really wanted to go, but my mom wouldn’t let me.” Then Anna started to hear the terrible stories. She told me about one friend, K.*, who partied at the Walkley projects. Anna said her friend told her she smoked a lot of pot and drank a lot of alcohol. K. recalled passing out in the bathtub and waking up while her clothes were being stripped off. She saw someone taking pictures of her. K. struggled to escape and was hit repeatedly across the face. She managed to get away only because another friend rushed to her rescue and pushed back her attackers. Anna remembers seeing K. a few days later. “She had a cut lip and bruises on her cheek.”
Police say they’re aware of only three victims but believe there may be more. In mid-June, I listened to the charges against the suspects being read out in court, along with the victims’ names. K. was not on the list.
Other girls told me they were “inboxed” on Facebook and invited to hang out and get high. Some were approached in person outside the Rideau Centre. The suspects even offered to pay for taxis to get the girls to their destination. One girl told me she had heard that while the parties were in full swing, one of the suspects would pretend to be the “Mom” when concerned parents called inquiring about their daughters.
Sometimes the recruiting approach was more direct. One of the teens I interviewed sent me a cellphone screen grab showing a social media email exchange between a suspect and one of her friends. In the exchange, the teen makes the following offer:
You’ll work & get payd but its not a regular job
Wuld u be down
Friend: For what?
Do shit & get payd. I’m just giving yu an
opertunity. If ur not down with making easy
money tell me now
Constable Lee confirms that while pimps will take out classified ads in the newspapers, police are seeing numerous cases of women being bought and sold through online escort websites. A bit of web research quickly leads me to Backpage. As easy to use as Kijiji, it costs just $6 to post an ad, and each day about 30 new ads are placed for Ottawa. I note that several escort ads say the girls are 18 or 19 but seem to be written in a deliberately juvenile manner — lots of capitals and exclamation marks — perhaps to make the girls seem even younger. Many ads also advertise that the escorts are in town for “three days only.” But the creepiest ads contain photos of girls with blurred faces. Hearts and happy faces dot the page, and the promise of “no restrictions” is prominently displayed. That phrase, along with the hidden faces, sets off alarm bells. Police say those girls could be trafficked, forced to sell their bodies. Staring at the faceless girls, I can’t help wondering just how young they are.
Throughout her professional experiences, Harrison Baird has met dozens of young girls who have been trafficked. Her experiences are mirrored by PACT-Ottawa, which co-founded the Ottawa Coalition to End Human Trafficking, a network of service providers. That network has seen girls who recruited others for gang members. But until this case, Harrison Baird says she had not heard of girls actually running an operation, though she says it doesn’t surprise her that teenage girls may be capable of such a thing. “Young women are smart and creative and innovative, but they can also be cruel, and in a social context, there is precedent of girls being mean to each other.”
As disturbing as the case is, Harrison Baird takes some consolation in the fact that the alleged perpetrators were not as strategic or cruel as the adults who traffic girls by shaming and blackmailing them into submission. “What we saw here was the perpetrators recruiting but not necessarily having a fully thought-out plan as to how to keep the recruits.” She is also heartened by the courage of the three victims who came forward. “Hopefully it will embolden other victims currently trapped in prostitution to try and break the ties.”
But a teenager doesn’t just wake up one day and decide to become a pimp. What and who are they learning from? In the absence of an adult behind the scenes of this operation, Harrison Baird says it’s possible that they were influenced by a variety of mass media sources. She points to a book, Pimpology: The 48 Laws of the Game, that could have been used as a guide for their operation. Or perhaps they drew warped inspiration from the lyrics of gangsta rap. Maybe even the television show 90210. A recent plotline involved a female character who became a prostitute to solve her money problems.
The teens may also have learned their behaviour from past experiences. Harrison Baird says it’s possible that these girls were at one point victims themselves. They may have been sexually exploited by a family member or another close adult in the past and are now exploiting others.
@Twitter: married to the money
Friends of C.B. will tell you that she changed after Grade 6, that she was once a class valedictorian and the go-to babysitter on her street. Back then, the family home was the hot spot for treats. Kids from the neighbourhood and the nearby social-housing complex would often gather in front of her house, where C.B. and her mom would welcome them with juice and cookies. She loved hosting sleepovers in their cozy basement. “I tried to teach her the right things to do,” says C.B.’s mom. “I didn’t want her to look down on people just because they didn’t have what we have.”
We are still talking half an hour after I first knocked on her door. From the doorway, I can see sunlight spilling into her apartment. There seems to be too much furniture for its small space. I ask about their relationship, and she tells me that she and C.B. were trying to work out their differences but their relationship had become difficult. “It got worse maybe three years ago, when her father and I separated.”
Since then, it has been a struggle to stay above water financially. She tried to find a second job so that she could make the mortgage payments and keep their single-family home. In the end, she couldn’t do it, and mother and daughter were forced to downsize into an apartment about a year ago. “Did she see how hard I was struggling? Did it affect her? I just don’t know.”
I see the guilt and anguish on her face and am suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to rush home and wrap my arms around my own daughter. And stop time. As I turn to leave, there is one last question to be asked. Does she think her daughter is innocent? “She tells me it was all a misunder-standing. I have to believe her. I’m her mom.”
At the time of publication (October 2012), all three teens in the case were in custody and awaiting trial. The trial began on April 8, 2013.