PITTSBURG >> On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Pittsburg police civilian service specialist Louise Reeves sat down at her computer and pulled up an online page advertising prostitution services.
“This one’s a minor,” said Reeves, as she pointed to a partially nude photo on the screen. “So is she…and her…” Within a few more seconds, Reeves had identified several more underage females being advertised in the Bay Area, including some she knew by name. She shook her head.
“There is nothing worse than having to tell a parent that his or her daughter is on Backpage,” Reeves said, referencing a website that has become the target of the state Attorney General’s office over allegations that it facilitates underage pandering. “It is literally the worst part of my job, and it never gets easier.”
In a society where human trafficking hides in plain sight, Reeves sees its victims, and she knows them well. She remembers their faces, their stories, and even their tattoos. Though she’s a civilian employee, not a detective, she is widely considered one of the county’s leading investigators in human-trafficking cases, and bringing missing teens back home.
Her efforts have gained the recognition of seasoned investigators and county leaders, who have singled out Reeves for awards and recognitions several times. She’s often brought into outside investigations on cases that don’t directly affect Pittsburg, and authorities say she’s helped hundreds of at-risk youths over the years.
“Louise is one of a kind; she has dedicated herself to this genre of law enforcement,” Pittsburg police Det. Kyle Baker said. “Her compassion and ability to investigate are really amazing. She’s the county go-to for human trafficking.”
Reeves joined Pittsburg police in 2005, and mainly handled missing-children cases, as well as regulating the city’s sex offenders. Six years ago, though, she took on a runaway teen case that changed her focus entirely. It was a young girl who left for three weeks but stayed in touch with her family, and was found in a motel several counties away.
“The next day, her mom called me and said she went through her belongings and found high-heeled shoes, thong underwear, condoms and a hotel room key,” Reeves said. “The (law enforcement) trainings on this were very new back then, but that was an obvious red flag to me.”
It turned out, the girl had been picked up by two adult acquaintances who told her they were going to a party. Within a few hours, she was being raped by strangers in Alameda County, Reeves said. When Reeves took her findings to investigators, they were able to file a human-trafficking case against the men.
“That’s when I learned how multi-jurisdictional this is,” Reeves said, later adding, “Now that I know what to look for, I can’t help but see signs of it everywhere I go.”
Reeves has made fighting human trafficking her main mission ever since that case. An average work day includes about 12 hours cycling through her alias accounts on social media, looking for faces that resemble listed missing children, as well as scanning for obvious signs of human trafficking, including pimps who solicit girls through commonly used dating and social media apps. Reeves spoke to this newspaper on the condition it not name any of the websites, out of concern for active human-trafficking investigations.
“(Reeves) goes above and beyond, and she puts herself into her work … she uses all the intelligence that’s out there and is able to put the pieces together,” said Aron DeFerrari, a county deputy district attorney who this year prosecuted a nationwide human-trafficking case based in San Ramon. “It’s something that honestly we need a lot more of; I wish there were 10 Louises out there.”
The term “human trafficking” conjures up images of unpaid laborers being smuggled by tunnel through a border, but it more generally applies to situations where an adult or teen is forced to sell sex. Because they cannot legally consent, any underage sex worker is automatically considered a human-trafficking victim.
Reeves said it is common for sexually exploited youths to have had some serious physical or emotional trauma in their background, and teen runaways often end up being trafficked. In some cases, victims are given addictive drugs or sedatives for when they’re forced to have sex with strangers; other times they’re brainwashed, she said. She has removed the word “pimp” from her vernacular, and replaced it with the word “exploiter.”
“These girls are sold over, and over, and over again,” Reeves said. “The average is about 15 times per day.”
Those who study human trafficking say it is difficult to get a good gauge on the prevalence of the problem because pimps often go to great lengths to hide their work, even as they publicly advertise what they’re doing online.
But with that caveat, it is widely accepted that human trafficking is everywhere; a Fresno police investigator recently made the shocking public claim that every 16-year-old girl in the city had been solicited by sex traffickers. Last week, a human-trafficking sting in Compton netted 39 arrests and the recovery a 13-year-old victim.
“I had a police chief from one city tell me, ‘We don’t have that problem here,’” Reeves said, refusing to name the department but describing it as a suburban part of the county. The next week, Reeves said, the same chief called her for help, after they’d discovered a girl was being solicited online there.
As traffickers increase their use of social media, the problem gets wider in scope and harder to solve. Those involved in human trafficking commonly use faux aliases online, but Reeves has found ways around that; once, when a video of a sexual assault was recovered by police and distributed to law enforcement throughout the Bay Area, she noticed a tattoo on the girl, and within minutes had found her page and identified her.
“Louise is really fluid in (social media), and she’s helped in training other police departments around the county,” said Alex Madsen, a coordinator with the Contra Costa Alliance to End Abuse. “Understanding social media can be really helpful when you’re dealing with human trafficking, or tracking a survivor.”