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SALT LAKE CITY — When many people hear the term "sex trafficking," there is often an image associated with it of young girls from outside of the country forced into the world of prostitution. But many people may not realize that sex trafficking is also prevalent in Utah.
KSL investigators watched as car after car, “John” after “John,” stopped to pick up women walking along the streets of Salt Lake. There definitely seems to be a demand for it.
“Saturdays are good days. Friday nights are good nights,” said Donna Steele. “I used to like to come out at 4:15 in the morning and get the guys that are going to work.”
Steele is a known prostitute on State Street. She is 54 years old, is hooked on heroin by her own admission, and has been selling sex for the better part of a decade. Steele has clients, but the reality is, more and more Johns aren’t looking for women, they want girls.
“Girls are usually being enticed into this line of work as young as age 13,” said an undercover detective with Salt Lake City Police Department.
And young girls aren’t just enticed into prostitution, they’re often forced into it.
In roughly the last year in Utah, there have been arrests from St. George to Riverdale involving underage prostitution and sex trafficking. There is an obvious demand for these young girls in the state.
KSL went undercover with the Salt Lake police organized crime unit to investigate sex trafficking on the streets and discovered most of the underage trafficking is rarely found at night, under the street lamps, in the seedy parts of town. It is primarily solicited online.
“The number of girls we have out walking up and down State Street or North Temple is nothing compared to the number who are posting ads on the Internet,” said the detective. “I think it’s probably as big as it ever was.”
Police say the women being advertised online are more likely to be the victims of sex trafficking. Sites like Craigslist and Backpage.com reveal hundreds of ads for services like “body rubs,” alluding to a lot more. Women, who sometimes look very young, advertise private locations available both day and night.
Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank he says putting prostitutes in jail will not solve the problem. Instead, he believes they need to go after the Johns and track down the pimps.
A recent sex trafficking case involves Ontario Lowery. He’s accused of holding four women against their will through violence. Court documents say Lowery transported his alleged victims from state to state, prostituting them through Internet ads. When they got to Salt Lake, one of the women secretly texted her sister, who then called police.
“I remember being very, very hopeless,” said Gina Salazar, a former victim of sex trafficking. “If I didn’t do what he wanted me to do, he would beat me really, really bad.”
At the age of 14, Salazar’s father died. She says a 35-year-old friend of the family took control of her life, forcing her to have sex with clients while he would be paid with drugs. In essence, Salazar says she became his currency.
“He was very, very violent. He’d hold me at gunpoint. He’d take pictures of me naked when I was asleep. He’s probably broken every single bone in my body,” remembers Salazar.
She says she didn’t know there was a different way of life. In fact, when the man allegedly trafficking her went to prison, Salazar spent the next 15 years on her own as a prostitute.
“It is a mistake for law enforcement to simply go out and write a bunch of tickets for Class B misdemeanors for someone engaging in prostitution,” said Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank.
He says putting prostitutes in jail will not solve the problem. Instead, he believes they need to go after the Johns and track down the pimps. Unfortunately, underage victims are often too afraid to “rat out” the people trafficking them.
In the meantime, more than 10 years out of prostitution, Gina Salazar is living proof there is a way out. She now spends her time with Volunteers of America, helping women get out of the life she once lived.
It’s a tough battle to win as long as the customers are lining up.
When KSL asked if the problem will ever be solved, Burbank responded, “Oh boy, I’d like to say yes, but again, the demand side is so enormous that it is very difficult. Until society says we’re not going to accept this, absolutely we’re not going to accept this, it will continue.”
Local police and the FBI say many young girls who get involved in sex trafficking are often runaways with a history of being abused. They also say most of the girls being trafficked here in Utah are not from Utah, but they’re brought here because they get a lot of business.
In fact, Burbank says the sex trafficking route often follows the same route as drug trafficking, hitting cities along major interstates like Interstate 70, I-80 and I-15.