Strip Clubs Partner With ICE/DHS to Thwart Human Trafficking

BURBANK, Calif.—Over the past few days, the new organization Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking (COAST) has convened meetings on both coasts to bring together adult cabaret owners and agents from the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to help root out human traffickers who place trafficked women as strippers in the small number of clubs that either seek out such performers or simply don't care about the backgrounds of the women they hire.

Led by club owner (and COAST co-founder—and former Free Speech Board member) Michael Ocello, over 125 Southern California club owners and employees—including major club chain Deja Vu—met in Burbank last Wednesday for a briefing lasting nearly three hours on how to spot traffickers, pimps and the women they control.

"Each one of you has an opportunity to do something unprecedented, and that's to make a difference in someone's life," Ocello told the gathering, according to a report on Huffington Post. "You may be in a place where you may have the opportunity to see something that nobody else in the world has the opportunity to see, and you may be the one person that's able to make a difference in someone's life."

The recent meeting, a similar version of which was held two years ago, was all the more important because COAST for the first time brought in Special Agent Dwayne Angebrandt of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division's Homeland Security Investigations directorate to speak to the club workers on how to spot women who might not be performing by their own choice. The only similar occurence on record was when FBI agents met with adult industry attorneys, company owners and the Free Speech Coalition in D.C. in 2007 to discuss industry issues.

"It took me back a little bit when I received a phone call about engaging in a presentation with them, it's not a normal relationship that you might see," Angebrandt said.

Angebrandt's agency currently has more than 60 open investigations of trafficking in the Los Angeles area, though that number also includes women trafficked for prostitution and even for non-sex-related labor.

According to the HuffPo article, Angebrandt "urged workers to keep a lookout for entertainers who have bruises, possibly from a beating; have no control over their identification and travel documents; are deprived of contact with family and friends, as well as food, water, sleep, medical care and other necessities; and are forced into prostitution."

"One of the things to look at is how an entertainer comes to and leaves work," he said. "Does she have her own transportation, or is somebody bringing her? Is it the same person every day?"

A similar meeting was held last Tuesday, January 14, at the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel in Tampa, Florida, where Special Agent Bill Williger gave roughly the same information to about 100 club owners, dancers and employees from as far away as Orlando and even Miami.

"We had never really thought about [human trafficking] or talked through that because I always immediately assumed that sex trafficking was more massage parlors or prostitution houses," said Don Kleinhans, owner of Tampa's 2001 Odyssey club and who was also at the initial meeting two years ago. "We started to open our eyes and ears a lot better than we had before."

"We never had any insight into this industry before," Williger summarized his impression of the latest meeting. "We were kept at arms length and we didn't know how to relate to dancers, really."

"The intelligence these girls provide us is second to none," he added, noting that both he and other agents  gain insight from their interactions with dancers, the statements they make and their body language.

For their parts, the club owners wanted to make it clear that very few trafficked women have worked at their clubs over the years, and most said that whenever they suspected that a dancer was not there voluntarily, they investigated and/or reported the incidents to local authorities.

For a list of telltale signs the ICE/DHS agents said indicate that trafficking may be occurring, click here.