HOUSTON - The recent arrest of the CEO for Backpage.com has raised some new concerns about sex trafficking in Texas, and especially in Houston.
According to the City of Houston’s Anti-Human Trafficking division, between December 2007 and June 2015, there were 2,035 confirmed cases of human trafficking across Texas, 717 of those from Houston. '
However, the city says more than likely the number of cases are much larger because public awareness is so low.
It was a short walk to a Harris County judge Friday morning after a 3-year-long undercover effort by California authorities to get Carl Ferrer in handcuffs.
The Backpage.com CEO is charged with pimping, pimping a minor, and conspiracy to commit pimping.
Prosecutors say he used his site's "Escort Services" section to essentially run an online brothel that exploited both adults and children.
"Mr. Ferrer looks forward to vigorously fighting these charges that we believe are trumped up,” said Philip Hilder, Ferrer’s Houston-based attorney, who wouldn’t comment further on the specific allegations.
During the hearing, Ferrer waived his right to extradition and was scheduled to be brought back to California Friday afternoon.
Michael Lacey and James Larkin, controlling shareholders of Backpage, have also been criminally charged with conspiracy to commit pimping.
Ferrer was arrested at Bush Intercontinental Thursday after arriving from Amsterdam, where the company has offices. Authorities also raided their headquarters in Dallas.
"Just speaking locally, we saw around 400 unique ads posted (on backpage.com) every day,” said Jamey Caruthers, Senior Staff Attorney for Children at Risk.
The local nonprofit “seeks to improve the lives of children in the greater Houston, Texas area through advocacy, policy analysis, and research,” according to their website.
“A lot of times you'd see multiple ads linked to the same phone number. We know those girls or boys are under pimp control." Said Caruthers.
Caruthers said Houston is a major human trafficking hub due to its two international airports, port, the I-10 corridor, and proximity to Mexico.
Now with Backpage under the crosshairs, Caruthers says his agency is watching out for traffickers shifting to other online forums, while continuing to target victims in person.
"They're targeting your schools, your churches, the grocery stores,” one Houston survivor told an anti-human trafficking conference on Thursday, whose audience included Houston’s Interim Police Chief Martha Montalvo and U.S. Congressman Ted Poe (R-Kingwood).
The survivor shared her story of being lured as a teenager by an older man with the promise of becoming a business partner.
"What they will do is train you on what to say to law enforcement,” she said. “They will isolate you from your family."
The survivor said she escaped after another girl with her attacked the man. The man worried the attack would attract law enforcement attention and let the survivor go.
“Many, many stories do not end like mine,” she said.
Chief Montalvo said since the department formed its human trafficking unit in 2014, it has worked with law enforcement agencies at all levels on training, anti-trafficking operations, and outreach to fight the problem.
Chief Montalvo says the department will be conducting undercover operations during the Super Bowl, as they did when the event came to Houston in 2004.
"We're working with the hotel industry, we're working with a lot of businesses,” said Montalvo. She added they’re also partnering with social services “that can help these victims get out of this life."
Attorney General Ken Paxton says Texas will conduct its own investigation into possible money laundering.