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PARK CITY — Carissa Phelps was forced into the sex-trafficking business at 12 years old.
She was able to get out, thanks to encouraging words from a friend who told her she had the potential to turn her life around. Phelps went through law school and business school, and today she partners with other former victims to help those caught in sex- and labor-trafficking operations.
"My job is sharing my story in a way to make it OK for others to share their story and to get services and help and to respond to the issue," she said. "When you've been a victim of a crime, it doesn't define you forever. That's a key part of this."
Phelps was the keynote speaker at the Intelligence Liaison Officer Conference in Park City on Thursday. Law enforcers from across the state gathered for informational workshops on trafficking, cyber crimes and terrorism.
On the heels of a couple of human trafficking cases in Utah, Utah Department of Public Safety Maj. Brian Redd said it is important for patrol officers to know what to look for.
Redd recalled a traffic stop he made in southern Utah where he found two adult men and a 14-year-old boy in the back seat. He eventually determined that the boy was a runaway who had been picked up by the two men and that there was evidence of sexual abuse.
When you've been a victim of a crime, it doesn't define you forever. That's a key part of this.
In February, Victor Manuel Rax, 42, was arrested and eventually charged with 63 counts ranging from racketeering to sodomy of a child, sex abuse of a child, child endangerment and forcible sodomy. Rax, who was considered the mastermind behind a sex- and drug-trafficking operation involving young boys, was found dead of an apparent suicide in the Salt Lake County Jail last month.
In March, two people were arrested in Salt Lake City after allegedly kidnapping a woman in New York and forcing her into prostitution in a human trafficking operation.
Redd said that if patrol officers know what to look for, they will hopefully be able to help crack down on human trafficking.
Phelps agreed that awareness among everyone — police, victims and the community — is needed.
"Awareness is the first step we can make toward change," she said. "We need to network to get this job done. … Everybody needs to be at the table to combat this issue. It's not a one-person job."
Phelps said she was forced into trafficking for 10 days.
"I probably didn't care at that time whether I lived or died," she said.
Once she escaped, a friend's father tried to put her back in, Phelps said. One of the problems victims of human trafficking face is that they become labeled and feel guilt and shame, and are afraid to seek help. That's in addition to the constant threats human trafficking victims receive, she said.
"I had to come to terms with my own past in order to grow and be doing the things I was supposed to be doing in the future," Phelps said.