Case #152 - Des Moines police find missing Portland teen during prostitution sting

Des Moines, IA|Sex-Trafficking Minors|Add Comment
By: Regina Zilbermints, Des Moines Register
Tony Ortega, Village Voice Editor
"Mastermind" of Backpage's Defense

A 16-year-old girl missing from Oregon was arrested on a prostitution charge after an undercover sting conducted by Des Moines police, authorities said.

A man and woman in a nearby hotel room were arrested for pimping, and police have contacted federal authorities.

The girl’s age was a surprise to investigators, who thought they were conducting a fairly standard undercover operation.

Officers made contact with the girl through the website backpage.com, an online classifieds site which has been accused of providing a forum for prostitution and underage trafficking. Law enforcement officials and attorneys general nationwide have called on Village Voice Media, which owns the site, to take it down. Representatives with Village Voice Media have consistently denied any wrongdoing.

An undercover officer met the girl July 12 at a Holiday Inn, 1050 Sixth Ave. When the two had finalized an agreement, police arrested the teen. She initially gave false information and said she was an adult, authorities said.

“They thought she was an adult,” said Des Moines Police Sgt. Chris Scott. “They arrested her as an adult. They found out later she wasn’t.”

She actually is a 16-year-old missing from Portland, Ore., since June 21, who was listed as “endangered and possibly involved in sex trafficking,” according to police.

The teen, who was not named, was charged with prostitution and possession of marijuana. She is being held at a juvenile facility on those charges and as a missing person or runaway.

While officers were talking to the girl in the hotel room, they noticed that a man from a nearby room had taken interest in their activities. While talking to him, officers noticed two women in his hotel room and recognized one from backpage.com. Investigators determined the room’s occupants were involved in making arrangements for rooms, advertisements and deals with potential customers of the prostitution operation.

Police found marijuana in both hotel rooms and a “large amount” of cash with the man.

Atlantis Carter, 22, of Waukegan, Ill., was charged with pimping, possession of marijuana and using a juvenile to commit certain offenses, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Erika Hart, 24, of Honolulu, Hawaii, was charged with pimping. The room’s third occupant was not charged.

Carter and Hart were taken to the Polk County Jail, and both posted bond.

The investigation is ongoing, but detectives believe the couple have been traveling to major cities in the last few months. The 16-year-old reportedly was with them for at least part of the time; it wasn’t clear how long the group had been in Des Moines.

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