Nationwide child prostitution bust: 105 children rescued, 3 in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS, MO. (KTVI) – Nationwide, 105 children were recovered within the past three days from underage prostitution.  This is thanks to the FBI’s Operation Cross Country, which took place in 76 cities.Among them, three girls were rescued in the St. Louis area.  Two 17 year-olds and one 16 year-old were recovered from an undisclosed location in St. Louis County.

It’s part of an ongoing effort, dating back to 2003, to rescue these innocent victims.  Since then, 2,700 underage prostitutes have been saved.

In total, 159 pimps were also arrested, one of them in St. Louis.

Kimberly Ritter is a hotel meeting planner who has made it her mission to help underage girls involved in sex trafficking.  She scours the escort website backpage.com, and sees if she can recognize the hotels where the provocative photos were taken.

Ritter feels this FBI operation is good progress, but it’s hard to know how many victims are still out there.  She explains, “There’s no way to put a number on this because it’s such a hidden crime, because you do it through the Internet.  The kids are brought in through the back door of the hotel.”

Dean Bryant, Special Agent in Charge at the FBI’s St. Louis Division, says the three-day operation is done simultaneously nationwide to maximize awareness of the problem.  He explains, “When we do this nationally, and take all the cases, and we compile them and go after everybody at one time and have the bigger number, then everybody in the United States can see that we have an issue that everybody needs to deal with, and it prompts people to call us.  And if it’s nothing that’s fine, but if it something then maybe they just saved somebody’s life.”

To continue to tackle the problem, Ritter says more pimps need harsher penalties, and the demand for underage prostitutes also needs to be addressed.

Another issue is reintegrating these victims into society.  Ritter explains, “That is the problem, not only in St. Louis but across the US. What do we do with the girls once we’ve saved them? We have several organizations, the Covering House in St. Louis is providing services to girls, and they’ve extended their age to 21 and under, and there are other agencies that are open to help girls, but we need more.”

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Video transcript from the FBI:

It’s happening here. I can tell you right now there’s a hotel right down the street where it happens. I’ve seen women walk—I think part of it’s a highway—There’s women walking...So it happens everywhere... It could be your neighbors next door.

Every year, thousands of children and teens are victimized by sex traffickers.

My name is Alexandria and I’m 21.

Alex, a victim of child sex trafficking, was recovered by the FBI and helped put her pimps behind bars.

So I got very lucky to be able to walk away with it with no arrest, no kidnapping, nothing... I never got hurt, so I’m lucky, really really lucky. I’m one of the few that can say that.

At age 16, facing problems at home, Alex found herself on the street.

It didn’t appeal, it was more of desperation…you can’t feed yourself, you know, you learn quickly but the only people who are willing to really feed you, clothe you, shelter you, are your parents. So, I had to figure something out...

At first it was terrifying…and then you just kind of become numb to it. Not like an alter ego but just like a different person, you put on a whole different attitude... I felt empty. You are at the bottom of the bottom. And you have nobody to go to for help or for a hug. There’s nobody...

Many victims of child sex trafficking believe there is nowhere to turn for help.

I called everybody, I need help, I called my family, I called all my friends, I called everybody I knew and nobody picked up.

Eventually, Alex called the FBI. The FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force arrested Alex’s pimps, whose multiple victims included underage girls.

If I could say one thing… from my experience and what I know, and I think it was kind of my saving grace, is…they can take everything from you; your voice, your freedom, they can take your fight and will, your everything. But you cannot ever let them take your heart; you have to always keep fighting.

Bad things happen, worse things than what have happened to us, all over the world, and people seem to keep going through it and living on and living life. The important thing is to try and turn every negative into a positive and make something good out of it.

They don’t have you anymore, they can’t hurt you, and you have a power now to wipe them out. The strongest thing that we have isn’t in our fists or—it’s our words, it’s what we say, it’s what we do. So, fight.

The FBI Office for Victim Assistance helped Alex get the resources she needed.

I try to not let it run my everyday—it brings me down. Sometimes I’ll think about everything and I’ll cry... but it happened and I can’t change it. I can only change my future. That’s it. They had my past, but they don’t have my future.

CNN's Virginia Nicolaidis and Bill Mears contributed to this report