The making of a documentary
The unthinkable happens to hundreds of thousands of children daily -- young victims exploited in their own communities, including right here in Southern Arizona.
Law enforcement has tried to turn the tide on child sex trafficking -- yet it remains prevalent.
Now a documentary is being made about the lost children and the mission of a former Navy Seal -- who lives in Pima County -- to free them from sex slavery.
Each precious face — each heart-wrenching story — will stick in one’s mind -- as it has with Craig "Sawman" Sawyer.
His story begins in the middle of the Arizona desert, where Sawyer engaged in an intelligence operation with his camera crew for his documentary titled “Contraland”.
Sawyer was a Marine sniper and a member of the elite Navy SEAL Team Six. He's a 54-year-old highly decorated veteran who's been to Hell and back - fighting international terrorists. Now he's entered a different Hell -- on American soil.
Sawyer said, “I started feeling someone was kicking me in the heart to see what's being done to the kids and how pervasive it is.”
Sex Trafficking in Arizona
Among the crew -- another former Navy Seal. Sawyer formed Veterans 4 Child Rescue Foundation and recruited an elite force with world class skill sets — FBI, CIA, Delta Force and Seal Team 6 — to extract victims and thin the herd of sex traffickers.
The crew traversed one of the most heavily trafficked corridors in the U.S. — Vekol Valley in Pinal County — where many go undetected as they make their way north of Pima County.
“There's pimps, there's bulldogs that watch anybody that's coming in and alert them and hide the children,” said Sawyer. Conceal the children while on their way, sometimes, to staging areas. The crew locate an abandoned house, where traffickers sell children to gangs for sex slavery.
Sawyer said, “Sickeningly enough the child is considered an asset for how much it's worth in revenue when they sell the child over and over again. You can sell a narcotic once and it's consumed. Sadly enough you can sell a child victim repeatedly,” Each child often priced between $100,000 to $150,000.
“There are a lot of staging points, a lot of in grass and then staging, and then distribution from Arizona. That's part of what we're facing here,” he said.
Child sex trafficking victim
Another part -- Sawyer says sex trafficking happens in plain sight -- in our own backyard. Literally, in "Julie's" case.
"Julie" does not want her identity known, but shares with us how she became a child victim in her suburban Phoenix home. She says an immediate family member groomed her for sex trafficking starting at age 6 and then sold her for sex after she turned 11.
“The first time it happened, my trafficker took me into my backyard and had gentlemen lined up in the backyard and basically was how much would you pay for her and then I was one by one taken into my room,” said “Julie”.
It continued over and over until "Julie" turned 18. She then ran away from home.
She remained a deep dark secret in her neighborhood -- never on the radar for a rescue.
Sawyer says his team's unique background in military intelligence could be crucial to cases like Julie's -- ending with children snatched out of their never-ending nightmare.
Joint sting in Connecticut
His team is working in tandem with local and federal law enforcement agencies from California to Connecticut. “They are allowing us the authority in the area to run these operations,” said Sawyer.
Last month in Guilford, Ct., he ran a joint sting with police. Sawman says the team targeted potential sex predators they made contact with through social media. Five hundred responded in less than 24 hours. Five showed up, including 44-year-old Kevin Millen.
The documentary crew captured him entering a two-story home. He's met by a decoy, an investigator on Sawyer's team, posing as the mother of a 13-year-old girl, who was another adult decoy.
The team waited in the garage until given the go-ahead to move in and make arrests.
During Millen's arrest, the room went silent after Millen announced that he's a Fed -- an IRS criminal investigator. Sawyer said Millen had his federal badge and credentials with him.
Police made five arrests though Sawyer wishes there had been more. “It's an emotional roller-coaster to deal with, but it's important we understand as a nation. And we're going to show the extractions, we're going to show the arrests,” he said.
Child sex victim recovery
“When they are recovered, they're some fantastic aftercare programs that really nurture the children and help them recover through a list of different ways. Thank God for some caring people,” he said.
Such as Tucson Police officer, Sarah Hought, who's building an equine ranch, Beauty From Ashes, to provide a sanctuary for recovery.
“They don't have a solid home where there's family members to go back to and so if we as law enforcement don't have anywhere to send them, they end up right back in that life,” said Hought.
Sawyer shudders to think that would happen. He said this dark disturbing story of child sex trafficking must be told because it will take collaboration from all communities to eradicate it.
“Denying the fact that this problem exists is why it's gotten so big we have to admit it We have to address it so we can clean it up. It's like cancer. You can't look away from cancer and have it go away you have to face it. You have to deal with it. It's painful. It's difficult. But it must be done and that's what what we're trying to do here,” said Sawyer.
The documentary “Contraland” is slated to be complete this summer or early fall. Meantime, we'll continue to follow the making of this documentary and the impact of sex trafficking in Southern Arizona.