Pierce County should declare war on sex traffickers. It has experienced commanders to do it

Human trafficking is a pernicious problem around the Puget Sound area, trapping vulnerable women and girls in a cycle of manipulation, abuse and brainwash. Pimps are as sneaky as they are sleazy; they outflank authorities by moving prostitutes between counties and by selling sex on offshore websites, rather than once-popular Craigslist or Backpage listings.

Regional gangs are shifting from drug dealing to prostitution, knowing the risk-reward ratio is more favorable.

When Mark Lindquist was Pierce County prosecutor, he called trafficking “one of our top priorities, especially when the victims are underage.” We have no reason to disbelieve him.

The prosecutor’s office had some success during Lindquist’s eight-year tenure; for instance, it brought charges against at least 10 members of the Tillicum Park Gangsters in a sophisticated operation dating back to 2017. One of the Lakewood street gang’s compulsory sex victims was 13 years old.

We expect much more progress from Mary Robnett, who defeated Lindquist, her former boss, in last fall’s election. The first-year prosecutor has a strong background and keen interest in fighting sex crimes that could take Pierce County to a whole new level.

Robnett ran the county’s sexual assault unit before Lindquist promoted her to chief criminal deputy. She later worked as an assistant Washington state attorney general in the sexually violent predators unit. And she was a volunteer board member for the nonprofit Sexual Assault Center of Pierce County.

It doesn’t hurt to be a woman, either. As the first female prosecutor in county history, Robnett enjoys enhanced credibility. Among her fans: a former child prostitute who came to hear Robnett speak about human trafficking this week to members of the Pierce County Council.

Robnett told the council she will work on persuading local law enforcement officials that trafficking cases, despite their complexity, need to be investigated and prosecuted aggressively. Many of them emerge through domestic violence calls.

She also immediately beefed up her office’s expertise by hiring a deputy prosecutor with an impressive record: Coreen Schnepf, formerly of the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office.

A year ago, Schnepf made headlines by winning a conviction against a Silverdale pimp on 44 charges including first-degree human trafficking, rape, assault and kidnapping — charges that resulted in an exceptionally long prison sentence.

As in, 340 years long.

But jury verdicts like that don’t grow on trees. Schnepf, who also spoke to a Pierce County Council committee Monday, explained that justice is often frustrated by wily sex traffickers who instill fear and a perverse loyalty in their victims. An investigation may require 15 to 20 search warrants and multiple victim interviews.

“Many of these cases are more complex than the homicide cases I’ve handled,” she said.

What’s most disturbing is that a common age of entry into coerced prostitution is 12 to 15; runaways and foster children are most likely to be targeted. She’s working on a case now with 16 known victims, five of them juveniles.

The strategy for winning? “We play the long game,” Schnepf said.

A new state law eliminating the statute of limitations for survivors of child sex crimes will give prosecutors even more latitude in taking down offenders.

Robnett and her staff can’t do it alone. Agencies like Washington Trafficking Prevention, a nonprofit based in Tacoma, and Adorned in Grace, a Christian charity that operates out of a former paint store on South Tacoma Way, are indispensable allies in fostering public awareness, prevention and victim restoration.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies would do well to commit more resources to the multi-jurisdiction South Sound Child Exploitation Task Force. Policy makers must not only choke off the supply side, but also take no-nonsense steps to deal with demand.

The good news is that Pierce County has iron-willed professionals and volunteers ready to go to war against sex trafficking. They aren’t easily intimidated and won’t tire of playing the long game.