When Marshall took the job, one of her key moves involved the office’s longtime gang pro-secutor, a salt-and-pepper-haired former Dole-Kemp campaign staffer named Scott Kerin. Kerin projects a nice-guy demeanor—exactly what you’d expect from a self-described moderate—that belies a hard-line prosecutorial mentality. In his prior career in Portland, he prosecuted cocaine-dealing gang members, prisoners who assaulted corrections officers, and other hardened cons. Marshall told Kerin his duties would now have a new dimension: he would lead the office’s three-person team focused on child sex trafficking.
The crime is a somewhat elusive phenomenon, periodically tracked by outraged TV news exposés but not any central statistical repository. In the broadest outlines, Kerin says, pimps, often working with criminal gangs, recruit young girls, either through force or the lure of money and drugs, to serve as prostitutes. They market their bodies both at the stereotypical seedy roadside motels and via the Internet. A West Coast “circuit” seems to exist, with victims and perpetrators moving between California, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Portland.
OPEN CAMPAIGNING FOR SUCH A JOB IS FROWNED UPON, BUT MARSHALL BRUSHED AWAY CUSTOM.
Now, Kerin’s phone might ring at 11:30 p.m. or 2 a.m., with a local cop from Tigard, Beaverton, or east Portland on the other end giving him the details of a new child sex trafficking case. Kerin then says goodbye to his sleepy wife and climbs into his car.
Progress is painfully slow and, legally, tackling this offense can seem more like counseling than gritty crime-busting. “The factor that makes the cases so hard to prosecute is ... you’ve got a real-life victim, and often there’s a relationship there,” Kerin says. “The girl is scared of the pimp. Or they love him. Even if you catch them, you still have a witness you need to testify.”
In the county courthouses where Marshall began her career, the state of Oregon prosecutes offenses against local law and order. To succeed in making child sex trafficking a federal case, Marshall and her prosecutors have to show, for every indictment, that somehow the interests of the United States of America are involved when a 14-year-old gets sold on SE 82nd Avenue. The fact that both highways and the Internet cross state lines provides a lever for federal intervention prosecutors might otherwise lack.
And then there are the intangible but real difficulties posed by a crime that springs from intractable human behavior—and that often stirs very little sympathy for the women caught up in the trade. This March, a judge unsealed the indictment against Wilmer. The move garnered almost no media attention apart from an 87-word piece on the Oregonian’s website. The first of 13 comments from readers: “My thing is if you want to be a slut, who am I to judge & if your [sic] stupid enough to sell your body & give it to someone else ... really thats [sic] just stupid on your part.”
Wilmer, and the teen girl’s alleged john arrested in the room at the Motel 6, joined a depressing litany of mugshots and names churned out by Portland prostitution arrests, of which there are at least 10 per month. In those mugshots, the customers are black, white, Asian, in their 20s, in their 60s, bearded, fat, skinny, bald. The women run the racial gamut, too, but overall, they recall exhausted Dust Bowl farmers from 1930s photographs: drawn and hungry, their mouths hard, their skin pocked, defiant chins up or resigned faces tilted to the side. While their true emotions can’t be known from photos, they look fed up, pissed off, or bored. Some bear purplish bruises fading to yellow. Many appear twice in a month, or more. None look surprised. They look like they’ve been doing this for years.
Depending on the vicissitudes of national politics and local law enforcement, Amanda Marshall may not have long to help them, but she’s determined to try. “It’s kind of the way everything’s worked in my life,” she says. “It’s in front of me; I’m going to do it. I never do anything halfway.”