The statistics in Hays and northwest Kansas will not show a high number.
Part of that might be due to the matter not having the awareness of other issues.
But the overall fact of human or sex trafficking is it does happen in the northwest part of Kansas — and everywhere in the state. It probably won’t show up right in front of someone, but the growing concern is there.
“I think the concern for all law enforcement any place is that it is potentially going on where someone is being forced to do something against their will. I think that is definitely a concern for law enforcement,” said Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler. “You can mention it going on along (Interstate) 70, but I think the potential for it going on here is a concern.”
According to Jennifer Montgomery, public information officer and director of human trafficking education and outreach in the office of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, data on such numbers as to victims or other matters related to sex trafficking are elusive. Most of it — as to why the numbers are hard to come by — is due to the underground nature of the crime.
What Montgomery and her office do go by and resort to for help in identifying the matter is through victim service agencies in Kansas. The office administers the Crime Victim Assistance Fund, Crime Victim Assistance Fund-Child Abuse, Protections from Abuse Fund, Child Exchange and Visitation Center Fund, Child Advocacy Center Fund and the Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Fund. In those, collected efforts in the previous three years has shown fiscal year numbers indicate a rise in victims: 352 in 2014, 428 in 2015 and 463 in 2016.
Officials are doing their best to halt trafficking in the region.
“Kansas has been identified as what is referred to as a source state,” Hays Police Investigator Jeff Ridgway said. “Meaning Kansas has probably a better chance of victims being originating from coming out of the state then being taken to other states where they’re actually put into the different roles.
“So, since we’re classified more as a source state as opposed to a destination state, I think it then becomes we have to adjust the issues of what brings those people that want to target those victims, and why does Hays — or not necessarily just Hays — have those victims?”
The reasons for a place to be susceptible to trafficking can be many. It is not so much about population or popularity, as what just might be located in a specified place.
What Hays does have that could make it a possible target is a college — Fort Hays State University.
“Being a college community, that increases the potential of being a target,” Ridgway said. “I think it’s fair to say, I don’t know that we’re specifically aware of specific instances, but I think just when you look at the context of the trafficking and the U.S. Department of Justice saying Kansas is a source state, we’re a college town. That’s those ages they may be targeting. We also know there’s targeting as young as 12, 13. So all of that comes into play while trying to identify what do we try to do to combat that.”
The fight to prevent trafficking is difficult. It can be made even more difficult in a state such as Kansas, with the label of a source state.
“You don’t have the transaction conduct,” Ridgway said of the state being considered where the victim is taken from in many cases. “You don’t have the actual solicitation and all that other stuff. You’re not going to the same degree as to what it would be in a destination state where they’re seeing the victims on the street — where they’re actually out walking. Where as in many situations, probably, with having the source classification would tend to indicate that when we find out about a victim, it’s after they’re gone.”
Not always is it a matter of a missed trafficking situation through the northwest part of the state. In 2015, Ridgway was part of an investigation involving a matter that was in the early stages of a possible transaction. It included two men, Michael Bressler from Red Oak, Iowa, and an Ellis County resident, Lester Crayton. While it ultimately never involved any children being taken, its intent — as proof of Bressler being in Hays and what was discovered about him — was enough for concern. There were known conversations, Scheibler said, about children being trafficked across state lines.
“What was scary for me was that we had people living inside this community who were having fantasies and discussions with people on the internet about having sex with children,” Scheibler said. “People across the state were conversing back and forth about bringing the children.
“Probably the biggest thing for me as chief of police is that it became a priority for us.”
The police department received tips from community members who in one way or another had heard about the potential of the two men being part of a sex trafficking deal. Much of the information individuals were alerting the police about were coming from conversations they had come across on the internet. The incident occurred during the week of the Wild West Festival that takes place in Hays every year near the Fourth of July.
Ridgway was part of the investigation as a member of the High Tech Crime Unit, made up of individuals from the Hays Police Department, Ellis County Sheriff’s Office and FHSU Police. The unit was started in 2000 at the request of Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees.
Along with the unit, help in the case came from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Plainville Police Department and as far away as the Iowa Highway Patrol.
It was a little more than a year since Bressler had been charged, but he was ultimately sentenced to 155 months in prison for aggravated human sex trafficking, attempted aggravated indecent liberties with a child and criminal threat.
Crayton pleaded guilty a few months before Bressler’s sentencing to attempted rape, sexual exploitation of a child, electronic solicitation and aggravated indecent liberties with a child. He was sentenced to 94 months in prison on the attempted rape charge, 38 months for the indecent liberties charge and 55 months for the solicitation charge. All of them are to be served consecutively.
“As we interacted with our suspects in this matter, my thoughts were, ‘Is this just internet talk or is this legitimate?,’ ” Ridgway said. “You have to error on the side that this is true, and we did. … The moment we located the gentleman from Iowa, we located his vehicle, that was the high-gear shifting point for us. It’s not that we were operating in low gear to begin with, because it was very significant.”
The case was just one that was called in to authorities where the matter was able to be handled. According to the National Human Trafficking website (www.humantraffickinghotline.org), a reported 1,108 calls of trafficking have been placed since 2007 in Kansas. In 2016, 192 calls were made and 51 cases reported. The trend of calls made to the hotline had dropped from 2013 and 2014 when 230 and 336 calls were made.
In most cases of trafficking, the perpetrator likely will be an individual who sees the victims as property. It is a matter people like Curt and Christie Brungardt — both professors of leadership studies at FHSU — have seen through years of study on abuse issues. In 2009, the Brungardts started the non-profit organization Jana’s Campaign, which is a program based on prevention and education at reducing gender-based violence.
“I think oftentimes, people think there’s human trafficking, and that’s in one silo; there’s domestic violence, and it’s in another silo; and there’s sexual violence, and it’s in a silo. And that is absolutely not true,” Christie Brungardt said. “They are all interconnected. And when you throw in the piece about the human trafficking … the key component of why that happens isn’t always about, ‘I have to find a woman. I have this sexual desire going on.’ It is about power and control.”
To prevent such issues, the Brungardt’s say it’s a matter of education. It starts with the teaching of prevention, and if people will talk about the issues surrounding domestic violence and other matters that have a connection to trafficking.
On the law enforcement side, it also has become more about education and training. It’s a growing effort that members of all law agencies go through the training of how to stop the trafficking efforts.
“We’ve taken an oath to protect the people of this community, and the children of this community are the most defenseless,” Scheibler said. “Often in these situations, they’re being victimized by the people who are responsible for them. I don’t think we have any more important job than to protect those children. We do take that very personal. It is a priority for us. I think having kids and grandkids, it does make it more stressful because you know what a value that is.”