Sex trafficking in L.A.; ‘It happens way too often.’

People believe that sex trafficking happens only in poor countries, where children are pimped to tourists or brought to the U.S.  as slaves because families cannot care for them.  But it happens here too.  Los Angeles is one of the second busiest for sex traffickers behind Las Vegas.  The LAPD’s Innocence Lost Task Force works with several local agencies to arrest pimps. One such man was 70-years-old when he was caught pandering a 13-year-old he met on Hollywood Boulevard.  He was one of the few who was sued in a civil trial.  The photo above is by David Crane.  Here’s part of my story:

BURBANK- He plied her with pot and promises.

I’ll give you a car, he told her, an apartment of your own. I’ll protect you from the streets.

She was 16. He was 70.

For Matilda Evans (a pseudonym to protect the identity of a sexual assault victim) those two weeks spent in Michael Mersola’s Burbank home, manipulated into having sex with him, left a scar on her heart. Instead of learning algebra in a high school classroom, she was taught that acts of kindness only came at a cost.

“I developed a terrible distrust of people,” Evans, now 22, said. “I felt alone, because no one believed me.”

Evans told her story to the Burbank Police Department in 2007, but it was a Los Angeles Police Department detective who linked Mersola to an ongoing investigation into a larger problem in Los Angeles: sex trafficking.

Mersola was arrested for pimping and pandering runaway girls in Hollywood. One was 13 years old. He was imprisoned for those and other offenses.

“He was lending out one of the girls,” said LAPD Detective Dana Harris, the acting officer in charge of the department’s Human Trafficking Unit. “These guys use the child as property.”

Harris is also one of the supervisors at the Los Angeles branch of the Innocence Lost Task Force, a national program formed in 2003 with the FBI, Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The program has 44 initiatives throughout the country that work with local law enforcement such as LAPD and groups such as Children of the Night, a Van Nuys nonprofit that rescues children from prostitution.

While most of the public believes that child prostitution and sex trafficking are endemic to poor countries, it also occurs in areas throughout the United States.

Since it began, the Innocence Lost Task Force has rescued more than 1,800 children and arrested more than 800 pimps, madams, and associates nationwide who exploit children through prostitution, according to the FBI.

In Los Angeles, at least 33 people are arrested annually for pimping and pandering underage youth, Harris said. Among those arrests last year, four were women.

“There really is no difference between pimping and pandering and human trafficking,” Harris said. “All involve the force, fear and coercion of their respective victim.”  Here’s the rest of my story: (Daily News,  May 6, 2012):

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