Career Criminal

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  Galatians 6:2

I recall a presentation I did recently at a fundraiser for the Source in Minneapolis—a wonderful and faithful organization with a tremendous mission for service and spreading the love of Christ to those in the community. After I spoke, a man approached me, his wind worn face stretched around a gripping smile, a tangle of gray hair set atop his head.  We shared an engaged handshake and he introduced himself in the most striking way, “I’m a career criminal.”  He said.

He offered nothing by way of justification or explanation, but held my gaze as if he knew I’d wrestle with it.  He had gentle eyes, the kind you remember your grandfather had.  His warming smile betrayed a missing tooth, or two, and he chuckled as if to say, “It’s alright.  I am who I am.”

Now, understand that I’ve spent a career in the company of “career criminals.”  I’ve tracked them, watched them, hunted them.  I’ve built extensive cases around nicknames, and tattoos, and grainy video clips where the nuances in how they moved, how they lived, and how they thought were known to me long before I knew their name.  Most had no idea I existed until after I arrested them, and I had assembled a startlingly complete idea of who they were.

People offend.  They do horrible and unthinkable things to one another.  Some stumble along the way through life and run afoul of the law without much forethought or intent.  Others seek the vulnerable among us:  They work their own secret calculus each day to spot vulnerability, and posture themselves to exploit it for their own gain.  I’ve seen how they carefully strip the identity and resistance of a victim.  How a charismatic elixir of kindness, distraction, and of course, violence is applied with such skill so as to empty the last resolve of the victim, and make them fully, and hopelessly slaves to criminal ambitions.

I’ve known many of them.

Two lives changed yesterday, and I witnessed them both. Actually, to be truthful, God put me on a path to influence both of them—to play a role in a very big process that would change forever the direction of these two lives.  This morning, as my family sleeps and a warm sun breaks, my hands are both dirty and clean.

In one case, we worked to recover a missing girl who was being exploited. But the term, “Exploited”, though it’s the preferred term of the anti sex trafficking movement doesn’t come close to describing her experiences.  Choose any of the words reserved for the most painful experiences life can bring and they would apply:  enslaved, raped, abused, abandoned, shamed…used.  You get the idea.

I found her on backpage.com in the morning.  Prayers were quickly said, and then quickly answered as everything fell into place:  Phones were tracked, undercover communication was established, and surveillance assets were set in place.  All with startling urgency and effectiveness.  I’ve looked for her before, you see.  I pursued her across five states, and multiple traffickers. The path to recover her has been impeded along the way by a crushing workload of new cases, a bureaucracy that has forgotten why we seek the vulnerable and injured in the first place, and the indifference of people who wear a title obliging them to help and serve.  Things don’t always work the way they should; and neither do we.

She was always one step ahead of where I was.  In her wake was left a series of hotel rooms with soiled sheets and condom wrappers, and a chronicle of escort ads with degrading photos of this young girl.  Her state of undress, pose, and strained smile all aimed at the nameless man sitting at his computer, or on his smartphone.  His eyes don’t see a child.  He doesn’t see past the lingerie to the carefully masked scars—some physical and some not.  He can’t see a history of child abuse at the hands of someone who watched her birth, witnessed her first steps, and even called her his “Angel.”  He won’t know that she will vomit after he leaves—she thinks it’s a hangover, but it could be because the taste of semen has always made her do that.  None of that matters, because it’s invisible and unadvertised.  It makes me wonder if the ad bore those facts in a “small print” disclaimer if he would still call the number, send a text, go to the hotel room, and rape her.

When I recovered her yesterday, she told me about that man.  She didn’t know his name, but she remembered that he was rough.  “He hurt me,” she said.  “I told him, but he kept going.”  Then he paid, $120.00 in folded bills dropped on a desk and he left.  And there were others like him.  I asked her how many and her only response was, “a lot.”

And so, I hunt him:  The man who hurt her, and the others.  I love this kid, you see.  I don’t like her, but I love her.  She swore at me, called me names, she tried to hit me in the hotel, but a 53 I’ve still got some moves.  I can’t even imagine what it would like to parent this kid.  She lied to me, and even told me I’m making things worse for her.  She doesn’t want to go home.  Home sucks.  But she doesn’t want to be in placement.  Kids are crazy there.  She’s not crazy, she tells me. She likes to run away, and this is just what she has to do.  I, didn’t address it at the time, what’s the point.  Argue with your child and see how that goes.

I can’t solve her many problems. I can’t predict her future.  I can’t stop her self-destructive behavior, and convince her that the world is not her enemy.  She knows all too well that the world is her enemy.  The world hurts people. It hurt her, and it will do so again.  It’s filled with people that want to make her do things.  Sometimes she says “no”.  Sometimes she says “no” and she has to do them anyway.  Today she’s safe.  It’s a consolation, though a small one. Today her face and body won’t be seen by the nameless man on backpage.  Today she won’t be raped.  She’ll sleep, eat, cry, and sleep some more.

And so, I hunt him:  The nameless man with the computer, or the smart phone that saw her picture, called a number, and hurt her.

Many times, I’ve found him.  His life is the other one that changed yesterday.  You see, a while ago, I met a man.  First I hunted him.  I knew he was out there, though I had no idea who or where he was.  So I case wide my net; I stepped into the world where the predator stalks young girls. It is a world where money literally buys bodies, or at least rents them.  “It’s so easy.”  Many have told me that.  “You pick a girl, call a number and she’ll do what you want.  No consequences.  No lasting impositions.  No effort.”  This, friends, is the bloody thumbprint of consumerism on the lives of the vulnerable in our society today, and its killing all of us.  You want, you buy.  No waiting.  But that’s a discussion for another day.

I hired models, I took photos, and I made ads.  I carefully crafted just the right wording to let him know that this young woman was “ready and available”—willing has nothing to do with it, but I knew that he didn’t care.  She just needs to do “it”, whatever that means.  I’ve read thousands of ads over my career, and talked to hundreds of victims.  I know how they write, and that’s my particular expertise:  I know what attracts.  I know what tempts.  But I’m also a man–though I tell myself I’m nothing like the man I’m hunting.  I know what he wants to see and hear.

He never had a chance, really. You see, I played on his vulnerability.  His desire betrayed his weakness, and my words, the photos, the possibilities and nuances of what is left unsaid were too much to resist and he texted the number.  “I love your photos.  I’d love to see you.”

Hello.  I’ve been looking for you.

After enough small talk, he got down to business.

How much, where, when.  “Is this full service?”

“Of course, though I’m brand new at this.  I’m a little nervous.”

I can imagine him shudder and giggle with delight.  “You know ‘full service’ means sex, right?”  He asked.

“Yeah.  I know.”  I really do know.  I’ve responded to so many of these ads over the years, looking for missing girls that this is nearly automatic.

When he talks about meeting during the day, I protest.  “I’m in school until three.  Then I play volleyball.”  I can see you on spring break next week.”

“College?”  He asks.

“Not yet.”

He pauses.

“How old are you.”

“Please don’t tell anyone, but I’m 16.”  He can walk away right now if he wants to.  I even hope he does.  Actually, I do and I don’t.  That’s the conflict here:  I want someone, but not just anyone. I’m hunting the man who says, “Yes, I know you’re a child.  I don’t care.  I’m coming.”  I’m hunting the predator that hides among us, that gives sideways glances to our daughters at the mall.

On this day, from this ad, whoever and wherever he is, I’ve found him.

“That’s sexy.”

I have him.  He’s coming.  He will bring with him all the vile expectations and fantasies and proclivities that have caused the pain, and suffering, and abuse of the young girl I’ve just recovered.  He is her enemy, and at least for now, that makes him mine.  I will meet him.  Eventually.

We communicated for two weeks.   Actually, he and Cass—a 16 year old high school junior, volley ball player, typical girl next door—communicated.  But I’m her.

He told me what he wanted, how he wanted it, and said he was kind, generous and experienced.  I told him that Cass was scared, inexperienced, apprehensive, but “ready.”  He talked about things he wanted to do to me.  Things I told him I’d never done.  But if he paid me, and he was nice, I’d do them.  But he would have to show me how.  I can imagine his grip instantly tightening on the mouse, him shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

We talked about money.  Not a problem, he indicated.  After all, he had plenty, and would give me some.

Weeks later we met:  At a hotel, in Bloomington, I approached a 60 something male in the lobby, and said his name as he expected.  He wore a brown knee length coat.  His hair was neatly kept, and he’d put on cologne.  But I wasn’t Cass.  I put him in handcuffs and walked him out to where my partners waited.

Hours later, in a sterile interview room in City Hall, he lamented his decision to come to the hotel.  He had offered all manner of excuses, explanations, and challenges.  “I knew this was set up.”  Really?  And you still came.  That one never goes very far.

“I knew she wasn’t 16.”

“I wasn’t really going to do anything…probably.”

Over the course of a number of hours I learned a lot about him, this nameless man, finally named, exposed and called to account.  He represented for me embodiment of every man, faceless and unknown that has bought the body of any of the young girls I’ve interviewed.  He raped her.  He raped them all.  Abused them without remorse, repentance, or concern. And then left them to the next man.  His semen is dried to her sheets, his stench is on her hair.  His vile desire will forever scar her memory, and the world will forever see her in the context of him, with all his sickness and depravity.  In an instant, all the men from so many stories, men I’ve sought, but never met suddenly bear his face.  His arrogance offends me.

I don’t raise my voice.  I don’t get angry.  A history of great bosses have taught me that interrogation is a subtle art, one where the many dimensions blend softly and creatively to generate an unexpected rapport, however out of place.  Exposing this man is a process which demands a scalpel, not a sledge hammer.

He confesses, to most of it.  Some things he refuses to admit, but they are irrelevant because of the mountain of evidence I’ve built against him.  But he admits to the most important:  “Yes, I knew she was 16; yes, I came here to meet her and pay her for sex.” His burden is now laid bare, in front of me.  And it’s just beginning.

I’m worried about him, though.  He seems agitated.

As I walked him into the front door of Hennepin County Jail, it didn’t escape my notice that this man has never been to jail, never heard the Miranda warning.  Never been in handcuffs.  I don’t dwell on it, but I acknowledge it:  He’s not ready for what’s ahead.  This is going to be a burden he can’t yet imagine.

I’m glad I got him, and I’m sorry at the same time.  That’s the neurotic, paradoxical, crazy-making life of a detective who seeks the predators hiding among us and in us, but I can’t imagine doing this job any other way.  What we do has an impact.  A big one.  For some it’s positive, for some it’s negative.  It’s clear to me that for him it will be negative.  Accountability hurts–however well deserved, however inevitable, however just…it still does, and often we can’t make it softer.  I’m the beginning of an official process that doesn’t care who he is, just what he did.  It’s a process that’s not friendly, not concerned about collateral damage to families, friends, and lives.  But the process is often times inevitable and unstoppable.

He called me the next day.  He felt terrible about what had happened.  This was not who he was. He was an executive.  He served the community.  He had a family, and a wife of so many years.  This would kill her.  His child would stop talking to him.  He would lose everything.  He wanted to know if I was going to charge him.

I told him I could promise nothing.  I explained that I regretted his uneasiness, and uncertainty, but that there was a trajectory in this process that I could not forestall.  It had to run its course.  I offered to connect him with a pastor, with a counselor, and encouraged him to seek support.  I told him that he could get through it, though he would likely need help.  I assured him I thought he was a good man in every other area of his life.  I really didn’t know, but I felt that’s what he needed to hear.

I talked to him about Jesus and he admitted that he hadn’t been to church in a long time.  He thought he needed to go back.  I offered to pray for him, and I meant it.  I offered to help carry this burden as much as I could.  I don’t think either of us knew fully what that meant at the time.

Before we hung up, I told him I was worried about him, and I didn’t want him to hurt himself.  I felt, like he did, unsettled, and I invited him to call me if it ever got close to that.  He assured me he wouldn’t hurt himself, but agreed to call if he needed help.  It was the last time I would talk to him.  As we hung up the phone, I remember feeling very uneasy, and I meant to pray for him.  Honestly, I don’t recall if I did, but I meant to.

He died by his own hand yesterday.  It took a year to charge him, over questions about venue and the appropriate statute.  I never called him again, though I thought about him often.  He had an attorney, and it would have been imprudent for me to call.  I think I prayed for him.

In the end, he was right:  He lost everything.  Somethings were taken from him; some he threw away himself.  When we found out he was missing, and the worst expected, many people joined me in praying for him.

Over the past 20 hours, I’ve fought tears for him.  And for his family.  I feel that I owe his wife and child something, though I don’t know what that is.  I pray that God will direct me in that regard, but right now it feels very unsettled.  I was part of a process that destroyed a man, and denied him to his family.  He was too, but he wasn’t alone in it.  The world is a lesser place without him.

Sex trafficking sucks.  It leaves behind it human carnage and suffering that should be unimaginable.  But it’s not.  Some people are affected by it everyday. The victims whose bodies are sold and abused, and the men who trade their lives, freedom and soul for most degrading experiences all live the horror, even if they remain unaware.

And my job sucks, though I thank God for it.  The lengths to which we must go to identify and catch predators involves deception, trickery, and exploitation of weakness—all things that I abhor and fight.  I can’t get it out of my head that on that day over a year ago when I put handcuffs on this man, there was no victim.  There was only me.  And I can’t get Matthew 18:7 out of my head:

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin!  For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”

On a cold day in February 2014, I brought the temptation to this man.  What do I do with that?

And I remember what I said to the person who introduced himself to me as a “career criminal” on that day not so long ago.  He was right, I didn’t know what to say.  My only response was:  “In the eyes of our Father, we were all career criminals.”