Editor’s Note: Human sex trafficking has become a major focus of officials and law enforcement in Southern California. This is the first of a three-part series examining the issue in Long Beach.
In the spring of 2012, a Long Beach 16-year-old stepped out on the street, her first attempt at trying her hand at becoming a prostitute. She was arrested almost immediately.
In this particular case, that would be the last time either of those situations happened, much to the relief of the police officers and detectives who worked her case.
It is not always this way, Long Beach Police Department officials said, but there has been a spike in good stories amongst the horror show that is the human sex trafficking trade in the city, county, state and country.
In March 2012, the LBPD Juvenile Investigations Section conducted a follow-up investigation in regards to a female juvenile (the 16-year-old) who was reported missing. Eventually, it was found out she was arrested the very first day she went out on the streets to prostitute, said Satwan Johnson, detective in the LBPD Juvenile Investigations Section’s Missing Persons Detail.
“Once we realized what we had, we geared it toward a human trafficking case,” he said.
Talking to the 16-year-old, it was revealed that there was a second victim who was the same age. They both were under the same pimp. A conversation with that second victim led detectives to a third victim, who had been with the three girls’ pimp since she was 14. Her story was the darkest, Johnson said. The third girl had tried to get out, but was essentially sold back to the pimp by her own mother.
The third girl, when she was 16, began a sexual relationship with the pimp. The pimp was known as Suawvey (i.e. suave). She began turning tricks on the street for him and she became pregnant. Suawvey beat her so brutally, officials said, that she miscarried.
As police talked to the three survivors, they continued the investigation forward. A search warrant was issued for the residence of James Junior Conley, 37, of Compton — the aforementioned Suawvey. When they arrived at the house in June 2012, he was not home, but officers collected a bunch of evidence connected to sex trafficking including:
• Videos that showed training on how to become a pimp.
• Photographs of the first victim and others.
• A lot of jewelry bought “through the fruits of her labor,” Johnson said.
On June 22, 2012, officers arrested Conley while he was “supervising” a prostitute. The investigation determined he was part of a multimillion-dollar pimping operation that controlled a prostitution track (geographical area) along Long Beach Boulevard from Victoria Avenue into Compton.
“There are a number of hotels along Long Beach Boulevard starting at Victoria and going toward Compton,” Johnson said. “And along there are several hotels commonly used by pimps.”
Conley was arrested for crimes occurring during a three-year period involving the three female juveniles at ages 15-17.
Two years later, on April 17, 2014, jurors took less than a day to find him guilty of three counts of pandering by procuring a minor over age 16; three counts of lewd acts upon a child; one count of pimping a minor under age 16; one count of pimping a minor over age 16; and one count of human trafficking of a child. The jury also found true a special allegation that the defendant was previously convicted of intent to commit rape in 2001.
At the beginning of June, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Tomson Ong sentenced Conley to 36 years and six months in state prison.
Johnson said he has kept up a little with the three victims since they first helped make this case happen.
“(The first victim is) going to work and going to school and doing really well,” he said. “The second girl is staying out of trouble. And the third girl is doing very well — with two jobs and a place (to live). This is actually one of the biggest success stories that we’ve had, with these young girls not going back to that life.”
This is a major goal of the Long Beach Police Department as a whole, Vice Lt. Dan Pratt said, weeks before this most recent sentencing news. It hasn’t always been this way.
“We would go out and arrest as many (prostitutes) as possible to make the point to them that they are not welcome in this neighborhood,” he said of vice stings. “They would go to jail. That would kind of be the end of it — the end of our investigation — years ago.”
Prostitution is a misdemeanor crime. Most of the girls were serving less than six months in jail.
“Oftentimes it was the weekend in jail and probation, and to this day, it isn’t that much,” Pratt said. “We only thought of it (back then) as — girls will work for their pimp, and they wouldn’t roll over on their boss, or give up their boss.”
Slowly, that thinking has changed, he said.
“They are not prostitutes who have chosen this as a trade,” he said. “As a whole, it’s been changing the last 10 years, and it’s just gone more into the light now. People are talking about it more. Survivors are telling their stories. Police officers are beginning to understand.
“We weren’t looking at them as victims before. We looked at them as girls who have chosen that lifestyle. Now, we are realizing these girls are forced into the lifestyle and they are victims. They’re not suspects.”
The tools have changed, which has helped immensely to keep track of everything, Pratt said. Just a few years ago, the state penal code rules were overhauled and upgraded, which pertain directly to human sex trafficking.
“That became a bigger crime,” he said. “It carries more weight than pimping and pandering.”
Pimping and pandering was just a low-level felony. Human trafficking with enhancements (gang involvement, sexual crimes) — “Now you are starting to get into some serious crime,” he added
Today, the James Junior Conleys of the world can receive 15 years-to-life. Some cases go federal with a minimum of 15 years, which also has helped in the fight, Pratt said, with many cases receiving U.S. Homeland Security support, especially for pimps traveling across state borders.
“Once we paired with them, that really gave us some teeth,” Pratt said.
The department is tracking this type of crime more closely. In 2012, when it came to human sex trafficking, the LBPD only was able to say there were four arrests. In 2013, they investigated 12 human trafficking cases, made 14 arrests and rescued 19 minors.
This year, the awareness and concentration has paid off further. Through June 18, the department already has almost equaled last year’s numbers in their entirety: 16 cases, 14 arrests and 16 minors taken off the streets.
“This year, literally, we are focusing a lot more efforts on human trafficking than we ever have in the history of the department,” Pratt said. “That’s why you see the numbers spike. There’s going to be a point where it has to plateau.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who has been a very outspoken advocate against human sex trafficking, lauded the LBPD earlier this year, after a 15-year-old victim was rescued in a different case.
“Sex trafficking is a horrific and cowardly industry thriving in communities across the county, and fortunately, Long Beach has been an incredible partner in our efforts to crack down on it,” he said.
Pratt said he and his peers hope to continue to show better numbers as awareness and training meet the oncoming problem.
“We’re getting better at getting through to (survivors) and getting their trust,” Pratt said, noting that leads to more pimp arrests. “Once we gain that trust and get them to understand we are there to help, then maybe we can be the people to get through and tell them what is really going on.
“Every victim that comes in, we learn more about the operation and how to investigate them. With each bit of learning that we’ve gotten, we’ve been able to take more people off the street. We have to be able to convince them that we can help.”
Jonathan Van Dyke can be reached at email@example.com.