Just down the hill from some of Santa Rosa's toniest neighborhoods, an Oakland man brought his 20-year-old "girlfriend" last month to rendezvous with an undercover police officer, ostensibly to trade sex for money, authorities said.
Her "boyfriend" carried a loaded handgun purchased mostly with proceeds from an earlier all-night "date," which brought in $800 in exchange for the young woman's submission to repeated and varied sex acts, Santa Rosa police Detective Chris Mahurin said.
When police stopped the man's car behind the Flamingo Hotel on Sept. 11, the young woman's 17-year-old sister was inside. Investigators believe he hoped to lure the teenager into the trade, as well.
The suspect, Mike Lavella Turner, 19, admitted the older sister -- the one who called him "boyfriend" -- was his "ho," Mahurin said. He said he had "taught her what to do."
It's the kind of case local authorities say is far too common in Sonoma County and across the nation: Vulnerable young women, girls and sometimes boys sold for commercial sex by others who profit from their emotional dependence or fear of violence.
Until recently, those providing the sex would likely be considered criminals. But increasingly, authorities are viewing some prostitutes as victims of a crime, not perpetrators. With new understanding of the dynamics of human trafficking, local law enforcement agencies are reassessing their approach to combatting prostitution and trying to change attitudes
"We tend to think prostitution is a choice, (that) these girls enjoy turning six to eight tricks a night with six to eight different men," Mahurin told a roomful of Sonoma County hotel managers and owners last week. More likely they're working for someone who maintains strict control over their lives and their money, he said.
"We're evolving," Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch told the same group.
The meeting was organized by the revitalized Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force, led by Chief Deputy District Attorney Bill Brockley. It is part of a campaign to raise community awareness and make the county inhospitable to people who traffic other humans for any purpose.
The conference drew about 50 hotel and motel workers to learn how to detect sex trafficking. Signs may include an unusual number of people coming and going from a room; women from outside the area, wearing skimpy clothing, who let their male partner do all the talking; a man who wants to register without showing identification or a credit card, or who uses the woman's identification to register but pays cash for the room himself.
Police do not expect hotel workers to confront or interrogate guests, Mahurin said.
But if a guest can't answer common questions like, "What brings you to the area?" or "What do you plan to do while you're here?" it might be worth making a note or alerting law enforcement, he said.
"You guys are the first line of defense," Mahurin said.
"What these individuals are looking for is opportunity . . . favorable conditions," Santa Rosa Vice Mayor John Sawyer said.
For many, the phrase "human trafficking" is something that happens only in distant lands, evoking images of foreign women or young girls smuggled across international borders.