Missouri attorney general announces news anti-sex trafficking unit

ST. LOUIS (KTVI) – Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced a new effort to end what he called sex slavery in the state.

Hawley made the announcement Monday morning at a St. Louis shelter for young women and girls who had been victims of sex trafficking.

In spite of past efforts from public awareness campaigns and ads at St. Louis-Lambert Airport, to nationwide FBI stings, the crime continues. There were more than 2,000 calls from Missouri to the National Trafficking Hotline since 2007, he said, and the St. Louis region was still among the highest in the nation for sex trafficking.

Hawley announced a new anti-sex trafficking unit in his office, along with a task force of police, prosecutors, and former victims, to go after sex traffickers under consumer protection laws.

“They hide behind what appear to be legitimate businesses, like nail salons or bars or massage parlors, all the while conducting a criminal enterprise in the shadows,” Hawley said.

“It’s humiliating and degrading. There’s very little hope. It is difficult to get out,” said victim Katie Rhoades.

She stood beside Hawley during the announcement.

After three years in the trade, from the ages of 18 to 21, Rhoades escaped. She eventually got her master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and founded the Healing Action Agency for victims of human trafficking.

“We have heard politicians talk about this issue. There has been task force after task force; it’s missed the ‘action’ piece,” she said.

“We will find you. We will come after you. We will prosecute you and shut you down … because what they’re doing is commercial exploitation,” Hawley said. “It’s actually easier to prove, we believe, than a traditional criminal case would be.”

The attorney general said he's also set up a new Missouri sex trafficking hotline at 844-487-0492.