Two investigators from the Hays Police Department talked to students at Hays High School on Wednesday about attempted human trafficking in Ellis County.
The speakers were a part of a weeklong awareness project sponsored by the HHS DECA club.
HPD Investigator Jeffery Ridgway told the students about two cases of attempted human trafficking he investigated in 2015.
In April 2015, a 13-year-old girl was contacted through Facebook by a man she did not know. She accepted his friend request. Out of the blue, the man asked her if she wanted to go to Wichita with him.
“I give credit to the 13-year-old. She said, ‘You are a creeper, leave me alone,’ and contacted the police,” Ridgway said.
In June 2015, the police department was contacted by someone who had seen an advertisement on Craig’s List that offered to bring a young girl to Hays for sex. Ridgway said there was a picture with the ad of the alleged girl, who he suspected might be about 13. The person who reported the ad allowed law enforcement to use their account to investigate the case.
Local law enforcement received two more similar complaints by July 2015.
A suspect was identified in Iowa, and another suspect was identified in Ellis County.
On July 2, 2015, law enforcement found the Iowa suspect’s vehicle in the parking lot of a local hotel.
At this point, the investigation learned the suspect thought that two girls — ages 10 and 13 — were being brought from Texas to Hays for the purpose of having sex.
Ultimately, both parties were duped by a third party in another state, and the children never existed.
Ridgway said police could not take a chance there were two children being trafficked into Hays for sex.
Both suspects were charged with crimes — one attempted sex trafficking. Both suspects made plea agreements and will be serving sentences.
“My point is that, yes, we are Hays, America, but we are not immune. It can, and to some degree has, touched our community,” he said. “Are you prepared so that you are not duped into the illusion of what the human traffickers are going to make you think is on the other side? Don’t engage in the risky behavior, please, please.”
Kansas is considered a source state for human trafficking. With its central location and major highways, such as Interstate 70 and I-135, traffickers can use the Internet to target youth, sweep into the state and have a youth out of the state in hours or days.
Ridgway and Investigator Aaron Larson both said they are especially concerned with youth sexting.
Ridgway said he could not give specifics, but knows of two local active sexting cases.
His concern is youth will send pictures to a predator, and they might use those photos as leverage to get the children to do more dangerous or inappropriate things.
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of teenagers who will accept the friendship on the sole basis that it was a friend request,” he said. “It wasn’t someone they actually knew. Yep, click, I agree. It is almost if we are trying to get a tally count and the highest tally wins. But that sets you up for so much risky potential. Do you really know who is on your friend list?”
The person who is requesting the photos might not be the person who he or she says they are. They could be in another state, or they might not be the person in the picture that was sent. Pictures of youth have been used to blackmail victims. Even photos sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend could be used in unintended ways, they warned.
“Those relationships might last for weeks or months, but if you are trading photos, where do those photos go?” Larson said. “They may exchange them with someone else and now they are all over school.”
Ridgway said, “In the child pornography world, these pictures become trading cards — like you would trade Babe Ruth for Eric Hosmer. Don’t stoop yourself to the level that you become trading cards. You are better than that.”
Both officers encouraged the public if they see something suspicious online or in person to report it to police. The case in 2015 was investigated because of the tips.
Principal Martin Straub spoke to online criticism that the high school should focus on other issues, saying that if talking about trafficking keeps students safe, he is all for it. Ridgway noted high school students and even children as young as 12 are the target age for traffickers.
The DECA club is having a fundraiser for ICT SOS, which is an agency in Wichita that assists human trafficking victims. Students can purchase pieces of tape through the end of the week that will be used to tape either Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler or Straub to the gym wall during an assembly Friday. The person with the least money raised will be taped to the wall.