How 2 St. Paul cops helped crack alleged sex-trafficking ring
ST. PAUL Heather Weyker is a St. Paul police officer who investigates human trafficking, but she's also a mom. "The girls that are 10 and 9 that have their moms pimp them out, or the teenagers -- you just want to give them a big hug and take them...
Heather Weyker is a St. Paul police officer who investigates human trafficking, but she's also a mom.
"The girls that are 10 and 9 that have their moms pimp them out, or the teenagers -- you just want to give them a big hug and take them home with you," Weyker said.
When federal indictments were unsealed last week charging 29 people in an underage-sex-trafficking case that stretched from the Twin Cities to Nashville, Tenn., Weyker was not at the news conferences. But behind the scenes, she and another St. Paul police officer were essential to the case.
Weyker started the investigation and was the lead investigator, said Sgt. John Bandemer, who is the lead sergeant for the department's vice unit and heads the Gerald D. Vick Human Trafficking Task Force. Bandemer supervised Weyker and worked with her on the investigation, particularly in the past year.
They've spent thousands of hours on the case. Weyker has traveled to Nashville more than 20 times in the past year or so, and Bandemer has gone about a dozen times.
Weyker and Bandemer said the time away from their families was difficult but worth it.
"It's rewarding because when you look at it as a parent, you think of the harm that has been done to these kids," Weyker said. "We're also holding people accountable for their actions, working to put them behind bars so they can't hurt little girls anymore, or anyone else, for that matter."
Weyker started the investigation in 2008. "We were
contacted by a family that had asked us for help," Bandemer said.
The federal prosecutor in the case said the officers couldn't say more about that. The officers, who spoke in an interview last week, are limited in what they can discuss publicly, because the case is active.
Weyker said she realized the scope of the case from the beginning "because it was gang-related, and gangs aren't small."
The charges say three Somali gangs trafficked underage girls among the Twin Cities, Columbus, Ohio, and Nashville. The gangs recruited and obtained girls -- the youngest of the four victims described in the charges was 12 -- to participate in sex acts in exchange for money and other items, the indictment said.
Sex trafficking within street gangs is generally "part of the (gang) culture," regardless of the ethnicity of the gang's members, Bandemer said.
"It may not be the moneymaker or may not be the prime criminal activity that the gang's involved with," he said, "but as a status symbol within the gang and within the gang structure, I think sex trafficking always plays a part in that."
Weyker and Bandemer work in the police department's vice unit, which runs the trafficking task force. Though they weren't working undercover in the current case, they couldn't be photographed for this report because they do take undercover roles -- during prostitution and "john" sweeps.
Weyker started her career as a cop in Los Angeles, where she worked for three years. She's been a St. Paul officer for 13 years and in the vice unit since 2007.
Bandemer, a St. Paul cop for 21 years, has led the trafficking task force since it began with federal funding in 2005.
The task force is named for officer Gerald Vick, who was working on a federal grant application for such a force when he was murdered in the line of duty in 2005.
Bandemer and Weyker are the only St. Paul officers who work full time on the task force. Local, state and federal officers also are part of the group.
The latest indictments are the task force's biggest case, Bandemer said. Task force members have investigated more than 50 cases of sex or labor trafficking, with about 70 people charged, Bandemer said.
When Weyker began the current investigation, two task force officers worked closely with her -- one from the FBI and one from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those agents were rotated out of the force and others took their place, Bandemer said.
"It became clear ... that it was larger than something we had worked in the past," Bandemer said.
"We realized it wasn't something that we could do, just the four of us," Weyker said of her, Bandemer and the two agents. "It was something that required a lot more resources, and hence the dual-state effort."
EARNING TRUST OF 'MY GIRLS'
The indictment said the gangs used "abuse, threats, force and coercion" against the victims.
In any trafficking case, getting a victim to trust law enforcement "takes time and effort," Bandemer said.
Police do it by "being a constant in their life," Weyker said.
How? "Sometimes you show up, saying: 'Hey, how are you? What have you been doing? How's your day?' and then talking about the case," Weyker said. "Just truly seeing how they are, what their needs are in life, being a face that they know they can call when they need something."
Weyker gives her cell phone number to victims, who sometimes call her in the middle of the night just to talk. She refers to victims in her cases as "my girls."
Trafficking is a "hidden crime," Bandemer said. "It needs to stay hidden to be prosperous and for it to continue."
Human-trafficking cases are difficult to investigate because "very seldom do you actually have physical evidence that you can use," Bandemer said.
Most of the time, police find out about trafficking after a victim has been discovered.
"So we have to backtrack and historically attack the case that way," Bandemer said. "Then there isn't any chance to get any typical surveillance or photographs or recordings. You don't have dope on the table to say we purchased this narcotic or this handgun (undercover). You're going by what other people say and trying to corroborate their account of what happened through independent sources and build it that way. That's difficult to do, and that's what's time-consuming."
In this case, all the timeconsuming trips to Nashville affected Weyker's and Bandemer's families, the officers said.
"I couldn't have done it without the support of my family," Weyker said. "It's been challenging."
"My situation's a little different," Bandemer said. "I have older children, and two of them are in college. My wife has been supportive and independent to get through this."
And the officers' work isn't done. They'll be needed as the court cases move forward.
MORE VICTIMS THIS YEAR
A state report to the Legislature in September said human-trafficking "victims often go unidentified, misidentified or undiscovered." Of "service providers" surveyed this year, 67 percent had "served a victim of human trafficking in Minnesota," the report said, up from 48 percent in 2008.
Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been informally working with the Vick task force and learned recently that they'd been approved for a federal grant, said Mary Ann Sullivan, director of family services.
Their role is to coordinate services for trafficking victims and provide community outreach and education, Sullivan said. Services would include housing, food, clothing, medical care, psychological services and attorneys' services, she said.
"Trafficking victims come from all walks of life, and all races and ethnicities," Sullivan said. "It's an enormous problem and we're just beginning to tap the tip of the iceberg here. Without a market, there wouldn't be a problem, but there's a market here."
Beyond trafficking investigations, the task force works to increase awareness about human trafficking and provide training to law enforcement and people who work for social service agencies or medical fields who might encounter victims, Bandemer said.
Weyker has a message for parents of trafficking victims and the victims themselves: "Don't be afraid to come forward and talk to us. It's empowering to know that someone is going to listen and try to help."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.