Four Men Nabbed in Gillette Sex Trafficking Sting

Along with citations, sex buyers receive education in difference between prostitution and trafficking

Texas detective and human trafficking expert Joe Scaramucci corresponds with would-be sex buyers on a popular website for such transactions during the sting operation Friday in Gillette. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jen Kocher)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—The first buyer is 15 minutes away. He’s driving from South Dakota to Gillette to ostensibly have sex with a 16-year-old girl who advertised on a social media site.

A 23-year-old oilfield worker from Casper is cuffed after attempting to solicit sex during the sting operation in Gillette. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jen Kocher)

What the buyer doesn’t realize is that he’s been corresponding with a police officer, who is waiting for him in a hotel room as part of a sex trafficking training and operation conducted by the Gillette police.

It’s Friday afternoon. The handful of officers have spent the past two days with Terri Markham, executive director of Uprising, a Sheridan nonprofit that provides training in human trafficking prevention. Leading the program is Joe Scaramucci, a detective with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Texas. A renowned expert on human trafficking, he has trained hundreds of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies nationwide.

The buyer is here, Scaramucci announces from his desk in an adjoining hotel room. It’s the police officers’ cue to jump into action. They unload two suitcases of gear and strap on tactical vests, firearms and Tasers.

Meanwhile, the dozen people in the rooms ­– police, victim advocates and Markham’s crew ­– silently wait for the knock on the door. One officer stands with his hand on the door knob and his eye on the peep hole.

Minutes later, there’s a light knock. The police leap into the hallway and cuff a middle aged, white-haired man. As they lead him into the room, he bears an enigmatic smile, as if he’s in on a joke and not about to be arrested on a felony charge for soliciting sex from a minor.

Undiagnosed problem

Sex trafficking in Wyoming is a growing problem. And it’s not going away, Markham says, as long as buyers purchase sex under the guise of prostitution without understanding that between 85% to 95% of sex workers are there under coercion.

It’s hard to gauge the scope of the problem in Wyoming, because many arrests are mischaracterized as prostitution, a misdemeanor. “More often than not,” Markham says, “human trafficking goes unnoticed.”

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 395 Wyoming residents contacted the organization between 2007 and 2020. Of those contacts, 90 trafficking cases were reported. In 2020, 47 victims reached out for help, resulting in 11 reported trafficking cases.

What keeps the human trafficking industry thriving? There’s never a shortage of demand. For this reason, Markham’s organization hosts training programs both to teach law enforcement the difference between prostitution and trafficking and techniques for combatting it. She also schools the buyers on the difference.

Gillette police officers take notes as Scaramucci leads them through a lesson in messaging with buyers, a skill that took him years to get right. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

“Wrong place, wrong time”

The buyer’s name is Bruce, and he’s from South Dakota. He doesn’t have a driver’s license with him, and he says he had no idea he’d be meeting a teen for sex. He was in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” he says, and continues to deny any knowledge of his text exchange with Scaramucci—even as Scaramucci reads messages aloud from Bruce’s phone.

In Bruce’s pockets are $300 cash – the price Scaramucci quoted him­– and a condom.    

He’s not admitting to anything, Bruce repeats.

This is when Markham and her crew step in. She sits down with Bruce to see if he’ll answer  some questions. At her side is Julie Johnson, a sex trafficking survivor, who was exploited by her ex-husband during the decade they were married.

Bruce agrees to talk.

“We’re not here to judge you,” Markham says, “but we want to try to understand what brought you here today.”

Through her research, Markham has found three primary reasons why men purchase sex: loneliness, an unhappy marriage and prior sexual abuse or trauma. What’s more, nearly all of the people she’s interviewed say they are driven by pornography and sex addictions.

Bruce hesitantly confirms that he is unhappily married and was abused as a child by his teenage sister.

“I was held in hotels just like this one,” Johnson says, “and I can tell you, I didn’t want to be here.”

That’s the difference between prostitution and sex trafficking: the latter are victims being exploited at someone else’s hand whether it’s visible or not, Johnson explains.

Bruce agrees to contact the Epik Project, a national nonprofit that works to disrupt the demand that drives sexual exploitation and provide help for those with sex addictions.

Mitigating demand

Since posting the ad two days ago, Scaramucci has fielded text messages from 79 prospective buyers. Some are just playing games, he notes, while others chicken out. His ad features a young female body in a red thong with her buttocks raised in the air. There is no face or other discernible features. The body could belong to anyone, and in this case, law enforcement purchased the photos from young women who signed waivers agreeing to let their images be used for these purposes.

The police officers watch over Scaramucci’s shoulder as he types, marveling at his ability to talk shop.

It took Scaramucci trial and error to master the lingo—and he’s made plenty of mistakes.

In an early exchange where he posed as a teenage girl, a buyer asked him what kind of alcoholic beverage “she” would like to drink. Caught off guard, Scaramucci tried to recall what girls drank during his teen years. Zima came to mind.

“Ha, you’re a cop,” the buyer replied. “Zima hasn’t been made in years.”

That lesson he learned the hard way.

A Gillette man nabbed in the sting operation listens to Uprising Executive Director Terri Markham (left) and sex trafficking survivor Julie Johnson explain that between 85% to 95% of sex workers are not there on their own volition but are being exploited at the hands of others. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

Roses and donations

The next buyer knows what he’s doing, Scaramucci says. In his messages, he used correct symbols and jargon to clearly lay out his demand: sex without a condom with a woman over age 18. The buyer agreed to pay $150 in “donations,” which is sex-industry speak for dollars. Sometimes people call it “roses.”

He, too, forgot to bring his ID and wallet, but agrees to talk to Markham and Johnson. He admits that he’s married but has no history of sexual abuse. It’s his first time, he insists, which garners an eye roll from Scaramucci.

“There’s a zero percent chance this is his first time,” Scaramucci says, sotto voce to two of the victim advocates. 

Unlike the first buyer, he receives a citation for solicitation— a misdemeanor in Wyoming punishable by no more than six months in prison, a $750 fine, or both. He’ll appear in circuit court later this month.

He doesn’t seem upset when he accepts his citation. But the third buyer falls apart once the cuffs go on; he looks around the room, trying to process what’s happening.  

“I work a lot,” he says through tears. “I was just trying to unwind.”

He’s 23 and works in the oil field. He’s driven from Casper and cries even harder when Johnson shares her story. 

He had no idea that this arrangement might not be a consensual transaction between two adults as advertised. He swears he’ll never do it again.

The fourth buyer shows less remorse. He suspected that it might not be consensual, but figured it was okay because he was paying fair and square. He, too, admits he’s here out of loneliness and because it’s hard for him to meet and talk to women.

“It’s because of my sparkly personality,” he deadpans, and then agrees to get help.

Markham is torn for the simple reason that the fourth buyer seemed to know that women were being exploited, yet still chose to purchase sex. Unless demand is squelched, she says, sex trafficking will flourish in Wyoming and beyond.  

“We just have to keep pushing back and trying to educate buyers,” Markham says. “That’s the only way to make progress.”

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