GREAT FALLS — Since 2021, the Montana Department of Justice reported human trafficking cases have more than doubled in Big Sky Country. Seven human trafficking cases were reported in 2015, compared to 68 cases in 2021, 106 in 2022, and 143 in 2023.
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"It does happen here in Cascade County, yes," said Detective Corporal Angel Creech, in charge of the human trafficking efforts with the Cascade County Sheriff's Office.
"We do sting operations similar to ‘Catch a Predator’ that was done on Dateline," said Creech. "I think what really surprises me is how many people that I will find that want to interact with me pretending to either be a child available for these acts or being a parent that's willing to provide my child to people."
Creech has been with the Cascade County Sheriff's Office since 2014. Since 2019, she's been a part of the office's Internet Crimes Against Children Division, or ICAC.
In addition to investigating tips that come into the office, she's taken part in sting operations.
"I'm chatting with people for hours straight, and I think that really was eye opening for me even after investigating these cases for so long is that there really are so many people who are interested in our children," said Creech.
In cases she's investigated the trafficker, or "pimp", has one or two girls working for him, not far from him. She's seen other cases where a pimp is out of state but sends girls to Montana.
"Younger children tend to be between the ages of, say, 11 and 14, 11 and 15 and they are usually the ones that bring in the most money," said Creech.
Creech says it's a problem that affects all generations. She’s seen trafficking victims in their 30’s and 40’s.
While she can’t say exactly why someone would fall prey to trafficking, it’s not uncommon for the promise of a better lifestyle to lure someone in.
"One of the situations that we have seen is what's called the boyfriend pimp, where, you know, somebody accesses the female's, boyfriend gives gifts, you know, promises them a different lifestyle, maybe that they haven't been accustomed to in the past," said Creech.
She says she’s seen people from all different walks of life pay for services offered by traffickers.
As far as penalties involved with human trafficking, Montana is cracking down.
"Currently, I believe in Montana that our sentences for people who hurt children are some of the largest sentences that you can receive in Montana," said Creech.
The 2023 Legislature passed House Bill 112, which among other things makes soliciting sex a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
Creech says her office believes in a very victim centered approach when helping survivors of trafficking.
"We know that there's a lot of different reasons and a lot of different situations that someone may become involved in this scenario," said Creech. "So we definitely have tried to put together as a community resources for those victims if they are looking to get out of the lifestyle."
When it comes to signs of human trafficking, Creech says the office looks for frequent runaways.
"We know that statistically speaking, that children who run away within 72 hours, it's very, very likely that they have come in contact with a pimp or somebody that is looking to exploit them," said Creech.
Other telltale signs of someone being trafficked are high end clothes, jewelry and fashion items. Strange behavior and a reluctance of speaking for themselves is another indicator. Creech says often victims will have most of their belongings with them. She says often times those belongings are few and may contain lubricants or sex toys. Many times victims will have large amounts of cash and sometimes multiple cell phones.
As for the trafficker, Creech says they often exhibit controlling behavior.
"They're really keeping a close eye on that person. Limiting what kind of information that they can share or even the people that they can talk to," said Creech.
Creech has a counterpart with the Great Falls Police Department and they work alongside a state ICAC team. She encourages people who suspect trafficking to contact law enforcement. She says even if a victim isn’t ready to come forward, it can pay off later.
"What I really try to do is make sure that that interaction with law enforcement is a positive one so that in the event that they find themselves in a dangerous situation, that they at least have that that memory, that law enforcement is there to help them," said Creech.
Sometimes, victims don’t come forward. Creech says it's loyalty based on fear.
"That force that fraud or that coercion is very, very powerful," said Creech. "And some people are really held on tight by that and maybe afraid to come forward and to talk about it, because, you know, those situations that I'm sure can be very frightening."
Creech spreads awareness of the issue at schools and civic clubs. She reflects of one instance on Christmas Eve several years back when someone reported a suspicious facebook post in which someone was looking for a female specific roommate they wanted to help out over the holidays.
"It turned out that this person was willing to actually come to Great Falls and pick up a 16 year old girl that he believed was a runaway," said Creech. "And so it's those kind of situations where you really realize that, you know, it is happening in our community. That person didn’t meet the 16-year old girl he thought he was coming here to pick up."
Creech says raising awareness among the community is a good defense against human trafficking.
She says there are resources available including the National Humtrafficking Hotline and the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children.