It’s not often that good news comes out of the sickening world of sex trafficking, where tens of thousands of children and young women are sold for sex each night in North Texas and across the country. But there’s a new strategy employed by law enforcement, and pioneered right here in North Texas, that is shutting down lucrative websites that advertise prostitution and sex trafficking, prosecuting their owners and providing much-needed restitution to their victims.
In early July, following Metro columnist Sharon Grigsby’s heartbreaking yet hopeful column about federal agents rescuing a 13-year-old girl being sold for sex in an Irving hotel, we wrote an editorial praising U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox for not only indicting the men directly trafficking this child, but also for shutting down CityXGuide.com, the website that advertised the girl’s sale for sex, and arresting the site’s owner, 46-year-old Wilhan Martono of Freemont, Calif.
According to Nealy Cox’s office, CityXGuide.com was seized and its owner charged in a 28-count federal indictment, including “one count of promotion of prostitution and reckless disregard of sex trafficking, one count of interstate racketeering conspiracy (facilitating prostitution), nine counts of interstate transportation in aid of racketeering (facilitating prostitution), and 17 counts of money laundering.” If convicted, Martono faces up to 25 years in federal prison.
Like all defendants in a criminal indictment, Martono is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In this case, federal authorities say it’s a fact that he launched CityXGuide just one day after they shut down the notorious Backpage.com online sex marketplace in April 2018. Indeed, Nealy Cox’s office says Martono was charged in part under the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA, a law passed in the wake of the Backpage seizure that allows the federal government to prosecute websites that facilitate sex trafficking.
We, of course, applaud the U.S. attorney’s office for indicting Martono and pulling the plug on CityXGuide and its vile advertisements pedaling often under-age girls and young women trafficked in the multibillion-dollar sex industry. But we’re writing this editorial specifically to shed light on another positive development in the prosecution of those who would enslave children and sell them for sex.
Restitution, long awarded in civil actions and other criminal convictions, is increasingly being sought and awarded by judges hearing sex-trafficking cases like the one brought against Martono. In June 2019, for example, Dallas-area sex trafficker Gregory Bowden was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison and ordered to pay his victim nearly $330,000 in restitution for, as Nealy Cox’s office said at the time, trafficking her across Texas, “from Odessa to Euless to Corpus Christi, using violence to force her to engage in commercial sex acts while he kept the proceeds.”
What most readers won’t know is that unless prosecutors like Nealy Cox work with the U.S. Probation Office and the victims and tally up and specifically ask for monetary restitution, none will be awarded. So, a trafficker, even after being convicted of a crime, is often allowed to keep the proceeds of enslaving and prostituting young adults and minors.
As we’ve said in the past, there is no making up for the harm inflicted on trafficking victims, but subjecting traffickers to financial restitution claims may be the most effective way to shut down their operations. And now, thanks in part to the pioneering work of Nealy Cox and her team at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas, it’s being sought and awarded more often than ever in human-trafficking and sex-trafficking cases nationwide.
According to the 2019 Federal Human Trafficking Report, published annually by the Human Trafficking Institute, the number of federal human-trafficking defendants ordered to pay restitution increased from 25% in 2016 to 39.9% in 2019. Further, according to HTI’s calculations, the average restitution in sex-trafficking cases was about $185,000 but went as high as $2 million.
We know that paying out amounts like that hits traffickers where it hurts the most, their pocket books. But what does it do for their victims and the shattered lives they must rebuild after being trafficked for sex?
“Restitution is critical to the restoration of trafficking survivors because financial abuse and control keep survivors tied to their traffickers,” explained Jessica Brazeal, chief programs officer at New Friends New Life, a Dallas-based nonprofit that empowers formerly trafficked and sexually exploited women, teens and children. “And, if they do manage to escape,” Brazeal said, “lack of financial support increases the likelihood that they will return to the trafficker or to ‘the life’ in order to provide for themselves and their children.”
Natalie Nanasi, an assistant professor of law and the director of the Judge Elmo B. Hunter Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women at Southern Methodist University, echoed Brazeal, saying, “Trafficking survivors have had so much taken away from them, and the trauma of their past is often a significant impediment to healing and moving on with their lives. Restitution can serve an important purpose in helping make someone whole again, for example, providing them the resources to find safe housing, secure child care, or obtain transportation, all of which can be precursors to employment and long-term stability.”
One of the sad facts in all this is many trafficking victims are too traumatized to revisit the horrors their traffickers have subjected them to so they forgo working with prosecutors and the U.S. Probation Office to calculate a financial restitution figure, even if it amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Nevertheless, Nealy Cox says she and the rest of her team at the U.S. attorney’s office is committed to seeking restitution in every one of their human trafficking cases. It is, of course, up to the judge to actually order it. But, she says, it’s nearly always justified.
“Trafficking victims suffer incredible hardship — physically, mentally and financially,” she told us. “We understand that escaping a trafficking situation does not come easy and support is critical. While restitution can never make survivors whole, we hope it can ease their path to a better life.”