Police form coalition to stop traffickers, raise awareness

By Peter Madsen, The Bulletin, @OutdoorsyInBend

Laws regarding human trafficking

Oregon: In 2013, the Oregon House passed Senate Bill 673, which enhances penalties for crime of human trafficking in persons if victim the was under 15 years of age or force was used and trafficking was for the purpose of commercial sex acts.

Federal: The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act. It has since then been revised in 2009 and also in 2015 to include the production of child pornography, and that the defense of “I didn’t know how old the victim was” will no longer hold up in a court of law.

When David Romeil Cobbs was arrested April 8 on suspicion of promoting prostitution and human trafficking, it wasn’t the Californian’s first time visiting Bend.

He spent late February here, where he had met an 18-year-old woman while walking down NE Third Street near a strip club, according to an April 18 search warrant affidavit. In subsequent days, Cobbs, who introduced himself as “King David” and propositioned the 18-year-old and her sister, who was residing in a sober living house, to work as escorts for him, making $200 per date without having sex.

They would go on trips together, and Cobbs would arrange to send them on dates with men. He gave one of the sisters heroin, the search warrant affidavit alleges, which she used in a motel room. Days later, Cobbs, another man wearing a cowboy hat, and two women who appeared to work for Cobbs, drove the 18-year-old Bend resident to Santa Monica, California. There, under Cobb’s supervision, she allegedly performed commercial sex work on March 2 — nine days after she met Cobbs on NE Third Street.

Since January 2015, nine people in Deschutes County have been arrested on charges related to prostitution and human trafficking, according to the Deschutes County District Attorney’s office. District Attorney John Hummel told The Bulletin earlier this month that promoting prostitution and human trafficking are “extremely uncommon” cases for his office to file.

Four women charged with prostitution have addresses outside of Bend, including Medford, Springfield, Portland, and Vancouver, Washington. Cobbs is from Los Angeles; another man charged with promoting prostitution has a Beaverton address.

Now, Bend Police have formed a countywide coalition to try to deal with the problem, and two anti-human-trafficking groups are putting on a forum today to educate the public on the subject. The migratory nature of prostitution operations, which police officers describe as a roving bazaar, may be the unintended consequence of metropolitan police departments cracking down on prostitution, pushing sex trafficking operations to smaller communities where police might not have human trafficking units or other necessary resources.

This is the picture that Bend Police Sgt. Devin Lewis paints.

It’s a problem in Bend because sex traffickers have spread the word that this city is a place where they can make money and not get in trouble, according to Lewis. “We’re going to see an increase in the problem here,” he said.

There are commonalities among some of the recent sex trafficking arrests. Lewis breaks them down like this: Sex traffickers post advertisements on Backpage.com under the escort section. Would-be customers click through salacious yet carefully worded listings that advertise “full service” or “100-rose special.” Phone numbers are listed and plans are made over a quick phone call or a series of texts. Many of the escorts mention they’re “new in town” or it’s their “last night in Bend” — a status attractive to sex buyers who live in a town lacking larger cities’ anonymity. Traffickers typically make arrangements to meet sex buyers at local motels.

To combat human trafficking, Lewis said the Bend Police have recently formed a countywide coalition that connects them with the District Attorney’s office and its Victims’ Assistance program; the local Department of Human Services Child Welfare office; KIDS Center, a child-abuse intervention center; and Saving Grace, a domestic-abuse prevention nonprofit.

“We recognize (sex trafficking) is a growing problem and we’re doing what we can to get it taken care of,” Lewis said.

Charles Lovell, a Portland Police sergeant in a human trafficking detail, agrees that the marketplace for sex is often on the move. He mentioned the recent arrest his department made of a man who was allegedly taking prostitutes from Portland to Bend.

Lovell said lack of competition in Bend may be an attraction to sex traffickers. Additionally, sex traffickers know that prostitutes are more dependent on them for their needs when they’re in a new area without friends or family to reach out to for help.

David Romeil Cobbs

The local interagency anti-human-trafficking program, which has yet to carry an official name, is responsible for Cobbs’ arrest, Lewis said.

According to a search warrant affidavit filed April 18, Cobbs was visiting Bend and staying in motels.

On March 2, Detective Chris Morin received a tip about a possible missing person . Unknown to Bend Police and her mother, she was in Santa Monica with Cobbs, who would direct her in her first commercial sex act, she later told Bend Police. The next day, Morin received a formal report from Cascade Youth and Family Services, filed by the 18-year-old’s mother.

On March 5, the mother informed Bend Police that her daughter had contacted her and she was flying her home. Bend Police later spoke with her; she has not been charged with any crime related to Cobbs. Morin could not comment for this story.

According to the search warrant affidavit, by April 8 Cobbs had also returned to Bend, where he brought a rental vehicle to an AAMCO service garage. Its staff suspected the car was stolen and contacted Bend Police. Cobbs’ sister rented the car; no one was to drive it but her, and the car was outside its rental jurisdiction of California and Nevada, which the rental company knew because of a GPS tracking device. Working with information the 18-year-old woman provided to Bend Police, the AAMCO staff, and the car rental company, Officer Thomas Lilienthal reached Cobbs by cellphone and arranged to meet him in the Arco gas station parking lot on NE Greenwood Avenue and Third Street, according to the affidavit. Lilienthal told Cobbs he wanted him to make a written statement about the rental vehicle after presenting his identification. After confirming his identity, Lilienthal arrested Cobbs. He has been charged with two counts of human trafficking and one count of promoting prostitution, all felonies, and is being held in the Deschutes County jail in lieu of $50,000 bail. Casey Baxter, Cobb’s attorney, did not return a call for comment. Cobbs is due in court for a plea hearing on May 10.

“These pimps aren’t dumb,” Lewis said. “They’re targeting girls that have had problems, they’re going to be weak, going through a drug and alcohol rehab, already coming from abusive situations,” Lewis said. “Obviously it’s a lot easier to entice someone who has been victimized, someone who may not have a lot of self-worth, self-confidence or a lot of education. They’re definitely good at what they do, which is unfortunate.”

Sara Hunt, a Bend native and prostitution survivor who promotes human trafficking awareness, agrees.

“People don’t understand that these pimps are masterminds. This is their job, this is how they make money,” Hunt said. Then 17 and studying at Portland State University, she said she was working at a department store where she met the pimp who would lure her into prostitution for 2½ years. His technique involved a mix of seduction, drugs and entrapment.

Hunt said traffickers considered U.S. Highway 97 a safer, lower-risk corridor than the parallel I-5, which they considered more heavily patrolled. The Highway 97 communities are often considered worthwhile places to connect with sex purchasers when traffickers return to Portland from an out-of-state trip.

The stepdaughter of a former Bend Police captain and daughter of a once-successful real estate broker, Hunt, now 28, says girls and young women are susceptible to human trafficking — regardless of social strata.

The public is invited to attend The Forum Against Human Trafficking from 6-8 p.m. today at St. Charles Bend meeting rooms A and B. Forum speakers will include Tom Perez, founder of the EPIK Project, and Nita Belles, the executive director of In Our Backyard. Both are Northwest anti-human-trafficking nonprofits. The free event is presented by Soroptimist International of Bend.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

If you go

What: The Forum Against Human Trafficking

When: 6-8 p.m. today

Where: St. Charles Medical Center Bend meeting rooms A and B

Cost: Free

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