A sign in the front window of a N'West Iowa convenience store offers information regarding the dangers of human trafficking. Photo by Josh Harrell

SHELDON—An ordinary trip to Target in West Des Moines took an alarming turn for a former Sheldon resident, who said she was targeted by suspected human traffickers.

The 25-year-old former resident requested anonymity for this article, and will be referred to as “Jane.”

Following the incident, which occurred in early May, Jane was jumpy and fearful of being alone. She still is nervous about going to Des Moines without her husband, but said she wants to tell the story so young women can be made aware.

Jane was in Des Moines for a four-day work conference. One evening, after the conference had ended for the day, she went to the Target across from the Valley West Mall. Jane was in the store for about 20-25 minutes, browsing Mother’s Day cards when she was approached by a young woman in her 20s.

“She looked normal. It looked like she was going to look at the cards, too,” she said. “She complimented me on my shoes, but said they were too expensive for her. I told her they were worth it.”

This is when things started to get weird. Jane said the woman began to ask her personal questions — where she lived, where she worked, what she was doing in Des Moines and more.

“I started to scan my surroundings, and about five to 10 feet behind us, there were two men who were standing in the aisle, but were not shopping. They appeared to be talking to each other,” Jane said.

Feeling uneasy, she told the other woman that she had be on her way. The woman said OK, and quickly walked away.

The men began walking in front of Jane, and she said they kept her in their peripheral vision, as one man always had his head toward the other.

When Jane got to the cashier, she told the employee what was going on. The cashier pretended to have some technical difficulties, which allowed the manager to come over. Jane told the manager that she felt like the two men and the woman were watching her.

‘They agreed it was weird’

At this time, both men and the woman left the store without making any purchases. Jane saw that the men went to a car parked directly across from hers, and the woman went to a car parked right beside hers. Jane asked for someone to escort her outside to her car, saying that it was a dumb request.

“The manager told me they do this more often than people think they do,” Jane said. “They were obviously trained how to handle such a situation. The clerk did not freak out, the manager came over to fix the ‘problem,’ two employees escorted me out and stayed there until I was safely away.”

The entire time, the vehicles with the men and the woman had not moved. Shaken, Jane called her husband and then phoned the police.

“They agreed it was weird and that I did the right thing by contacting them,” she said. “I told them I thought I was in a safe part of Des Moines and the officer in charge said there is no safe part of Des Moines, that crime is in every neighborhood.”

The officers told Jane she did exactly what she was supposed to do — take her surroundings into account, and get an escort to her vehicle.

Target spokesperson Erika Winkels of Minneapolis agreed with the officers. Winkels could not discuss the details of the incident, but said the overall safety and security of their customers are top priority.

“We have a number of measures in place to keep people safe,” she said.

While Jane did exactly what she was supposed to do, the West Des Moines Police Department cannot take it any further. Sgt. Ryan Anderson, who did not respond to Jane’s call, said since she was unable to provide a license plate or descriptions of the suspects, there is nothing they can do.

He also was hesitant to say whether or not he thought the behavior was in connection with human trafficking or if there had been an increase in the amount of human trafficking in West Des Moines.

‘Were they grooming her?’

Longtime Sheldon Police Department officer Todd Wood had no hesitation in saying that the suspects were testing Jane to find out whether or not she could be easily manipulated.

“Were they grooming her, testing her? You bet, but that is not a crime,” he said. “I would definitely call it attempted human trafficking, but attempted is not a crime.”

Wood attended a seminar called “Human Trafficking: Train the Trainer” in April at Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon. With presenters such as Celine Villongco, the human trafficking statewide coordinator in the Crime Victim Assistance Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Wood gained knowledge about preventing and intervening in trafficking.

While Wood said he does not know of any human trafficking cases in O’Brien County, he thinks it is out there.

“I think it is grossly underreported here and everywhere,” Wood said. “There are a lot of reasons for that. It is shameful to the victim and sometimes they have fear of harm being done to them or their family. There is a lot of intimidation and assault in trafficking.

“Victims are also told the cops will not believe them because they are just whores,” he said. “There is a lot of psychological manipulation. The victim could feel that it is their fault.

“This is also something new for law enforcement. A prostitution ring can get broken, but how many of them were trafficked? We have done a poor job of looking behind the crime of prostitution,” Wood continued. “I have been doing this 25 years, and this trafficking training has opened my eyes. I look back on different domestic abuse cases I worked on and I wonder what I missed behind the scenes.”

The reluctance of trafficking victims to come forward and inform law enforcement about what is going on is one of the most troubling and disturbing aspects for Wood.

‘People need to know’

Another troubling aspect is the fact that human trafficking does occur in family environments, where children or spouses are taken advantage of and forced to do things. Wood said he does not know what the percentage of parent or guardian participation is, but he has read cases of fathers prostituting daughters, and the mothers doling out punishments.

Wood said there might be situations in which the mother will get beaten if she does not keep the daughters in line.

Many times when people think of human trafficking, the movie “Taken” will come to mind. Wood said that particular movie does a huge disservice to what the reality is as the snatch-and-grab scenarios are rare.

“It is much bigger. Relationships are formed,” Wood said. “The neighbor could be grooming a neighbor kid. A group of high school girls could go to a party and older guys they like could promise them great stuff.”

The relationships formed, the established trust and the promises of favors or gifts are huge factors of human trafficking. Wood said it could be a boyfriend manipulating the girlfriend into giving his friends a striptease or someone a person knows trying to get nude photographs.

“If I was to come to you and promise to buy you a dress, take you out to supper, but I would need you to pose for provocative photos, that is a hook,” Wood said. “I am coercing you with something of value. That is human trafficking.”

Due to those relationships and the hidden aspects, human trafficking can be difficult to identify. Wood said some indicators are dirty or thin children, the frequent absence of parents, a lack of loving relationships and a prevalence of controlling relationships.

If people do suspect human trafficking, Wood urged calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

“Give them as much information as you can,” he said. “That goes into a database and then investigators can run with what they got.”

Since human trafficking signals can be vague, Wood also said word of the activity needs to get out so people can start educating themselves. To help with that education, Wood said the police department is thinking about putting on a local human trafficking presentation.

“People need to know what is out there and how people are groomed,” he said. “They need to recognize the grooming techniques and when they see them, that should raise red flags. Jane got a creepy feeling and she got out and that was the right thing to do.

“We all need to be conscientious of a safety plan and what to do if something happens,” Wood said. “That can be something as simple as calling 911.”

‘Smart to become aware’

Jen Sandbulte of Sioux Center is a self-educated expert on the subject of human trafficking. She agreed with Wood, saying that Jane was approached by recruiters.

“They know by the response whether or not that is a good person to target,” Sandbulte said. “She was very smart to become aware of her surroundings and report it to the authorities. Honestly, she did a great job and she protected herself. It sounds like the situation could have been much worse.”

Unfortunately, she said trafficking is a difficult crime to prosecute. The victims are either too afraid or might even have Stockholm syndrome in which they fall in love with their captors.

Also, traffickers move frequently. Chances are, the recruiters who approached Jane are in another city, as they tend to go where the demand is. For this reason, Sandbulte also steers people who suspect trafficking to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Out in the field, she does not participate in rescue operations, but approaches situations from a prayer perspective. Sandbulte travels to the Super Bowl every year with the Protect Me Project, an organization committed to stopping trafficking. There, she monitors advertising and sees an increased amount of escort services provided. Her role is to pray for those involved.

Closer to home, Sandbulte said she has seen an increase in trafficking cases in Sioux Center, but could not divulge further information, saying that the clients needed protection.

In order to combat trafficking, Sandbulte also stressed the importance of education.

“If you feel like it does happen because you live in the Midwest, if you feel like it is a big city problem, do not be naive,” she said. “Jane became aware of her surroundings. You need to become aware it is happening in our area. Have conversations with your children. Education is important.”