The truth is there are many unknowns.
On one hand, several people can provide anecdotes. The Rev. Glen Morden, pastor of Patterson Covenant Church, recounted during a break in the church’s recent Freedom Forum how a member of his congregation said that someone tried to sell a girl to him near one of the taverns in Patterson a couple of years ago.
“It’s very real,” Morden said of the problem.
Still, it’s hard to grasp the extent to which the issue impacts the West Side.
Experts have noted that Interstate 5 is a major route for both human and drug trafficking, used by traffickers from San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area to move victims throughout California and nationwide.
Yet few people discuss the stretch of Interstate 5 that runs through Stanislaus County. Though truck stops are well known as places for prostitutes to solicit clients, workers at several of the businesses at the Westley I-5 exit, a major truck stop area, said they have few problems.
Michelle Carson, who works at Joe’s Travel Plaza in Westley, did recall a time late last year when a drunken woman appeared in the store naked below the waist. It turned out the woman had been working the parking lot and flashing drivers at the truck stop, she said. Store staff quickly covered her and called the sheriff’s department, Carson said. One deputy initially released the woman, and she continued to loiter, but another deputy promised to arrest her if she stuck around, and she eventually left, Carson said.
Still, such incidents are rare, and the travel center is vigilant about dealing with them, she said.
“I think we keep a tight lid on that kind of activity going on over here,” she said.
Similarly, a woman who worked at the nearby Econo Lodge at the I-5 exit said all the hotel owners know each other and tend to communicate when there is a problem. Though a few young women appeared to be causing a ruckus last summer, there have been no problems lately, she said.
On the other hand, prostitution was a blatant problem in downtown Patterson six or seven years ago, recalled Village Yarns Etc. owner Samantha Taylor, who lives and works on the first block of South Third Street.
She recalled that two prostitutes used to work out of an upstairs apartment across the street from her store. They would regularly cruise the bars, from La Copa de Oro on El Circulo and Highway 33 to the former Red Lion on South Third Street and Plaza Circle, she said.
She told then-Mayor David Keller, who contacted former police Chief Tyrone Spencer, and the issue eventually seemed to die down, she said.
Still, she suspects prostitution continues in the area — merely not as obviously as in the past.
“If you pay attention to people around you, you get a sense,” she said.
While Craigslist.com has taken down its erotic services ads and Backpage.com has suspended parts of its services, other websites offer hundreds of sexually alluring ads in the Modesto-Stockton area, including forums with tips on ways prostitutes and johns can avoid police.
It’s difficult to know how prevalent sex trafficking is in the Central Valley.
Detective Ken Hedrick of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department used to head up the department’s Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force, in which he would snag potential sex offenders by posing online as an underage girl. That ended, he said, after he was assigned to homicide cases seven years ago, and no one at the sheriff’s department is charged with that task nowadays.
Patterson Police Services Chief Tori Hughes said she receives bulletins on human trafficking from time to time, but it is not something her department regularly handles.
Officials with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office who work in the Central Valley mostly discussed efforts taking place in the Sacramento area last week.
However, related cases are prosecuted at times. On April 30, U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner sentenced 66-year-old Patterson resident William Hal Baldwin to nearly 22 years in prison after he admitted to persuading a minor to participate in sexually explicit acts for the purpose of filming the acts. The court released few details about the case, so it’s unclear whether any actual trafficking was involved.
If sex trafficking appears to be a hush-hush matter, it is at least as difficult to ascertain how much forced labor occurs in the greater Patterson area.
Arsenio Mataka, a West Side native who works as an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, said the legal group is starting to focus more efforts on trafficking, though he said has heard about more problems in coastal areas.
“It’s something we’re just barely starting to scratch the surface on,” he said.
He recalled working in the past in Los Angeles and being shocked as he overheard a conversation about people stashed on a boat that arrived at that city’s port.
Complicating matters is that many victims of enslaved labor are afraid to speak up, because of their status as illegal immigrants.
“Often, they don’t want to go to law enforcement, but they really should, because they’re being abused,” said Laurel White, an executive assistant for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento.
The attorney’s office is trying to reach out to police to educate them about those issues, she said.
Efforts are under way to combat human trafficking statewide via a North and Central California Anti-Trafficking Task Force that was set up last year, White said. The task force aims to link police agencies with labor officials and other federal agencies to fight trafficking crimes. It also has training for first responders, such as the California Highway Patrol and street officers, she said. In January, the task force had its first day-long training session, in which 120 officers received a primer on trafficking cases and signs to look for in Sacramento. Fresno hosted a similar session, she said.
Authorities also want members of the community to be aware of growing trafficking concerns, she said, even as the Department of Justice seeks to put more culprits behind bars.
“Certainly, we’re making efforts to investigate these issues and prosecute them,” White said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187 or email@example.com.