On April 4, 2014, Anchorage Police Department officers responded to a report of a “hysterical female.” The woman reported that she had lost her purse and she believed her coworker had taken it. In response, she’d threatened to tell the police about the “prostitution ring” they were involved in, and her coworker had threatened to assault her if she did. Three months later, officers with the Alaska State Trooper’s Special Crimes Investigative Unit decided to follow up with that “hysterical female.” They did so by flying to the town where she was then working independently and booking an escort session with her.
“Oh baby,” an officer can be heard moaning in a recording of the encounter,“I’ve never had that before.”
Moments later, other members of the Special Crimes Investigative Unit can be heard entering the room and putting the woman in handcuffs. Under Alaska state law, which has redefined all prostitution as sex trafficking, the woman is a sex trafficking victim. In the incident report, she is listed as a victim. She called 911 and reported that she was, by their definition, a sex trafficking victim, and they chose to follow up on that by what sounded like having sexual contact of some sort with her during a prostitution sting operation.
The Special Crimes Investigative Unit, according to an early 2015 status report, is made up of four officers, headed up by Sergeant Mike Ingram. The officer’s salaries cost the state of Alaska $578,239 per year. According to the status report, its “main purpose is to locate and rescue juvenile victims that are being forced to work as prostitutes in the commercial sexual exploitation of children.” But according to my extensive research of Alaska state public record, in the almost 18 months of the SCIU’s existence, it has failed to arrest anyone for any crimes relating to the exploitation of minors. Nor have there been any allegations that anyone arrested by the SCIU forced anyone—adult or juvenile—into prostitution. A few months later, when other sex workers, allies, and I tried to make a report to the SCIU about another case definable as trafficking under Alaskan law, Sergeant Ingram refused to meet with us or take the report.
Earlier, on June 19th, SCIU officers assisted the FBI’s Project Innocence Lost with its Operation Cross Country initiative. According to their report, they carried out a prostitution sting on a person they identified as CI-RZD1-01 at the Microtel in Anchorage, Alaska, after calling their ad on Backpage posing as a client and making arrangements to meet. After being informed that they were facing charges of prostitution, CI-RZD1-01 agreed to become an informant against Alaska’s largest escort agency, Sensual Alaska. Among sex workers, Sensual Alaska was known as a reputable agency with the fairest cuts in the state. The owner, Miranda—whose real name is Amber Batts—a former drug and alcohol counselor, was generally respected and admired. Although I didn’t know her personally, I’d heard stories of her coming to the rescue when women traveled to work in Alaska and wound up broke and stranded.
CI-RZD1-01 brought SCIU officers to an office where she (police concealed her gender, but Sensual Alaska only worked with female escorts) made a $100 drop for the call. Then CI-RZD1-01 showed the officers’ credit card transactions she’d processed on her phone, “indicating purchases between $315 to [sic] $1400.”
On June 30th, CI-RZD1-01 advised Sergeant Ingram that three of the Sensual Alaska escorts would be making a trip to Fairbanks for the Fourth of July weekend and provided him with details such as hotel confirmation numbers. Sergeant Ingram contacted Sergeant Josh Moore from the Drug Enforcement Unit in Fairbanks and arranged for his unit to do surveillance.
The next day officers flew to another city, where they met another woman who worked with Sensual Alaska. The woman (whose name is not redacted in police documents) told the investigators that she had not had any bad experiences with Amber Batts or with clients. According to the incident report, she provided them with the password to her e-mail account, and they found the following e-mail from Batts:
I got your pictures and you’re a total doll! I think you would do very well there …
I would love to start booking for you as soon as you would like to start. I have attached the independent contractor agreement for you to complete and send back. Please take a moment and look it over – it’s just something I have everyone fill out. If all looks well go ahead and either print it out and initial it OR send me a picture by phone or scan it and send it to me, whatever works easiest …
The woman, like many other victims in the case, may have thought that she was proving to the officers that Batts was not a sex trafficker. After all, sex trafficking is federally defined as the use of force, fraud, or coercion in the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for commercial sex acts. But under Alaska state law almost all prostitution is sex trafficking—one woman in Fairbanks was even charged with trafficking herself for placing an ad on Craigslist (sex trafficking in the fourth degree: aiding or facilitating prostitution). The e-mail and attached contract from Batts were probably enough, on their own, to charge her with several felonies.
Meanwhile, in Fairbanks
Investigator Moore with the Drug Unit conducted surveillance in the Extended Stay parking lot, waiting for the three women (whose identities are not concealed in the report) to arrive. Without being detected, he took several pictures of them and the car they arrived in. Sergeant Ingram noted that online ads had been placed for three escorts resembling the women Investigator Moore was surveilling.
A couple days later, the report states one of the women drove back to Anchorage, leaving the other two stranded. She left “on bad terms,” the report noted.
There had been a dispute over money that disappeared from a purse while they were at the grocery store. At the time, each suspected one of the others of being the thief. The police report doesn’t include anything about this incident, but somehow, the investigators knew about it and brought it up with the women involved, seemingly attempting to use the rift to get more information from them.
Batts came up in what residents sometimes refer to ironically as Alaska’s “early hard start program” and the Huffington Post calls the “foster care to child trafficking pipeline.” Batts and her sister (we’ll call her “Anna”) were in and out of foster care from the time Batts was 14. Within a couple months, Batts said she’d graduated from the supervision of a child welfare caseworker to that of a juvenile probation officer.
“I was pretty angry that I was placed into a group home because of my mom’s drinking,” Batts told me. “I came from a home without any rules or anything and went straight to a group home…Probably just in a manner of months I got into some trouble for drinking. I didn’t feel like I was part of anything worthwhile. I felt pretty hopeless, like my mom had thrown me away and the state just kind of housed me wherever they could.”
Anna told me that when she was 12 years old, she ran away from a foster home and called Batts, who at 18 had escaped to Seattle. Batts wrote a bad check to get Anna a ticket to join her in Seattle. When Batts left Seattle, Anna moved in with her older boyfriend and stayed there for about a year—a year in which she says the state of Alaska was officially her legal guardian and yet, the Department of Family and Youth Services (now the Office of Children’s Services) apparently never tried to locate her. She would have been easy to find: she attended school, and during this time, an Alaskan detective was able to find her easily in order to ask her to come back and testify against someone who had assaulted her. When Anna came back to Alaska at age 14, she says the state dropped custody of her (the state of Alaska dropped custody of me under similar circumstances when I was 16). To survive, Anna married a 26-year-old man three days after her 15th birthday, legally defining her as a domestic minor sex trafficking victim.
“What else was she going to do?” Batts said, “Just kinda try to hang out at mom’s until she got mad and threw her out again?”
Batts didn’t start escorting until she was 30, but the first time she realized she could get money for sex was when she was raped while on the run from a group home. The police had her wear a wire and confront the man, telling him that if he paid her, she wouldn’t report the rape. He paid her and was promptly arrested. She wasn’t allowed to keep the money. Under federal law it is sex trafficking to receive money for the sexual acts of a minor, but the police officers who took the man’s payment from Batts were never charged.
“For the most part I was pretty lost and pretty fragile. I started seeing sex as a way to get what I wanted, after that whole money incident with the police. But I never got into escorting until I was 30.”
When Batts was 30, her husband lost his job and she first tried escorting. In the beginning, she worked for a manager she found in the back of the paper. It was only a few weeks before she realized that for the 50% he took she might as well do her own advertising and work on her own. She and a few other women rented an apartment together to work out of.
“I’ve always believed in women working together to better their lives,” Batts said. With the money she made, she was soon able to leave her unhappy marriage.
Since her arrest, the local media has portrayed Batts as someone who preyed on vulnerable youth, although she hasn’t been accused of exploiting minors. It upsets her to be portrayed as someone who would do that, she says, because, “I used to be one of those girls.”
“I’ve been a girl who has had to hand over fifty percent or more of her money to some guy who doesn’t do crap and just thinks that you should give him your money. I’ve seen those girls that want to get away from their pimp or want to get into a better work environment and didn’t know how to do anything. If anything I’ve—I hate to use the word rescue, but I was always trying to help and do the least harm.
“From the first time that I started working for that guy…there is a camaraderie between us women…We were always trying to help each other, trying to come up with solutions. If somebody couldn’t figure out how to pay their rent, okay, let’s try to figure this out…When I saw that we were giving some guy more than half of our money I was like, ‘we can do this, we don’t need to let some guy do this for us, we can do this.’ And that’s kind of how it all started.”
When she started Sensual Alaska, she had been out of the industry and doing administrative work in human resources for an oil and gas company. Layoffs were going around, and she was thinking about doing a little escorting to create an economic safety net for her and her children. An old friend in the business said she would pay her a cut to do her booking. Soon, she was working herself and handling booking for a few other women, and she quit her HR job.
Operation Cross Country
The initial informant, CI-RZD1-01, was arrested as part of Operation Cross Country. OCC is a part of the FBI’s Project Innocence Lost. In addition to placing Innocence Lost Agents all over the country to investigate sex trafficking, Project Innocence Lost also goes cross country during OCC every year or so, working with local law enforcement agencies to do as many prostitution stings as they can in a week. Afterwards, they publish a tally of “pimps” arrested and juveniles “recovered.”
On June 23, 2014, the FBI issued a press release saying that it had “recovered” 168 children and arrested 281 “pimps” during an Operation Cross Country the week before. That’s about one and a half pimps per victim. In Anchorage they list three pimps arrested and zero children rescued. There were no sex trafficking charges filed in Alaska during that week or the following week, and there don’t seem to have been any federal charges filed during that time either. Did they arrest the pimps and not charge them? Did they arrest any pimps at all?
In January, I made a Freedom of Information Act request for arrest report numbers, federal case names, or state charging numbers for the three arrests. The FBI responded that in all three cases “release of this information…could reasonably be expected to interfere with [prospective] enforcement proceedings.” They were claiming that all three pimps had been arrested eight months before, but in all cases there were prospective charges. I responded with a request for “any scrap of evidence that these arrests occurred.” The FBI sent the same response. I am now doubtful that these three arrests occurred at all.
On July 9, at “approximately 0926 hours,” (9:26AM) investigators simultaneously served warrants at Batts’ residence and at the incall apartment. Batts had been on the phone with another sex worker when the police knocked on her door, and word spread quickly through the sex worker community. I got a phone call before noon saying that she had been arrested, and I checked the state’s arrest database. The arrest showed up, but no charges were listed yet.
At Batts’ house, Investigator Ramin Dunford told her that while she was technically breaking the law, she wasn’t the kind of person they were really going after. What they wanted, they told her, was information about pimps who abused sex workers. They would have to charge her with something, of course, but they’d talk to the prosecutor about going light on her, especially since she was going to be such a good cooperator. They might even be able to just give her a court date and not arrest her.
When they booked her a few hours later, they charged her with seven counts of felony sex trafficking. The charges included managing a prostitution enterprise, procuring or soliciting a patron for a prostitute, facilitating travel that included commercial sexual conduct, managing a place of prostitution, inducing a person 18 years of age or older to be a prostitute, receiving money derived from prostitution, and engaging in conduct that instituted, aided, or facilitated prostitution.
What did all that actually mean? Batts explained:
…When somebody would call, if they were requesting you, per se, they would ask about your availability, so I would kinda just tell them if you were on today or, ‘Would you like to schedule an appointment in the future?’ But I would be asking them questions like, ‘Have you ever seen an escort before? Who have you seen? Do you have any references? What is your last name?’ But there was a lot of work that I did without the guy’s knowledge—I mean, it was for our safety. I felt I wasn’t screening for law enforcement, I was screening for the people that were robbers, sexual assault. I was able to go on CourtView, because Alaska’s got CourtView. And you can find out anything these days with Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Then I had a couple different sites that it would kind of do a thorough background check. I can’t remember the name of the site but it was really neat and I could tell if it was a legit person or not. Then I would also Google their phone number and see if there was any kind of weird instances on that. That is screening and booking, right there. And it’s not something that takes two minutes, I would put in at least half an hour to 45 minutes. After that was all done, I would let them know that they’d be, ‘Okay, you’re clear, I’ve screened you,’ and then they would be able to go forth and set up a session.
Investigators moved quickly after the arrest to interview the alleged victims.
“You’re not in any trouble,” they started most of the conversations by saying. If the women resisted speaking with them, the investigators explained that they were just so worried about them because they had been victims of sex trafficking. What’s more, they had services that were available for the “girls” who were cooperating with them.
“You’re not going to get in any trouble, I’m telling you right now. That’s an assurance. That’s an absolute. There’s no way that I can say that and then come back and hammer you,” Sergeant Ingram told one of the women in a recorded interview.
The women tried to explain that Batts wasn’t a sex trafficker.
“She wasn’t like that,” one woman said in another recorded interview. “And, you know, there were times where I think she’d get frustrated cause she’d try to send me somewhere kind of shady and I’d be like, ‘No, I’m not going to do it, I don’t feel right about it.’ She’d be like, ‘Oh, ok, I understand.’ I mean, I don’t have anything bad to say about her.”
“’Whatever happens, that’s you, that’s your body, you make the call,’” another woman said that Batts told her. “She can’t tell me, ‘you have to do this,’ just like I can’t tell you you have to do something.”
“Miranda’s not that type of person, Miranda doesn’t try to push you. She does not treat you like a pimp… She’s not abusive, she doesn’t talk to us down…She’s very respectful. She treats us like a normal job,” another woman told an investigator. “She’s not a pimp and she’s not a madam…Miranda is not like a lot of the people you guys have dealt with. She may be from your perspective, because you guys are the law. But from a personal perspective…”
Another woman insisted that she only gave non-sexy body rubs to clients. “I don’t like men. I don’t have sex with men. I don’t wanna touch your penis…I did not have contact with anybody’s penis.”
When the officer pressed the matter she said she was a lesbian.
In one interrogation, the officers brought up the time that the woman they were speaking to had been molested by her stepfather as a child. According to the recorded interview, the Anchorage Police Department had investigated and decided not to press charges, calling the thirteen-year-old girl a liar. Now, Investigator Ramin Dunford said, there was no statute of limitations for child sexual assault and, no pressure or anything, but he could go back and “take him down” now.
“Are you recording me?” another woman was recorded asking.
“No,” Sergeant Ingram lied.
At the end of each of the conversations, the investigators would explain what they’d meant when they said that the women weren’t in any trouble:
“As long as you’re a cooperator, and when we contact you, you answer the questions honestly and truthfully, you pick out the dudes along the way, cause we got a ton of them to go through, we’ll do it on your time and we’ll do it in a way that doesn’t embarrass or upset…As long as you’re a cooperator and you’re doing what we ask you to do, you’ll never have to worry about any of this coming back on you,” Sergeant Ingram told one woman.
When one woman insisted that she didn’t recognize any photos of clients, an investigator urged her to reconsider her answer, saying, “the way this works is that as long as the information you’re providing is accurate and you’re cooperating with our efforts…”
“Sometimes girls [sic] might want to cooperate, you know, we might be like, ‘we got you on this, and we don’t want to pull the trigger, but we need your help,’ and so sometimes, you know, sometimes we gotta pull the trigger,” Investigator Dunford explained to another woman.
The woman who had made the initial report that started the investigation, however, didn’t just get a talking visit. SCIU officers traveled to her town and booked an appointment with her. On the recording an officer can be heard haggling with her over prices and then moaning that he’s “never had that before,” before other officers entered the room. “State Troopers,” they announced, “let me see your hands.” They immediately put her in handcuffs. In a previous report, they referred to this as calling in the “rescue team.”
“[Batts] never used any strong arm tactics with you? She ever threaten you with anything?” one of the investigators asked the woman who had dialed 911 after putting her in handcuffs.
“No,” she replied.
She went on to explain that she had quit after calling the police when she was drunk, not because she was afraid of Amber hurting her, but because she was afraid another escort would find out and hate her.
Later an investigator apologized for the sting operation, saying, “I apologize for having to do it the way we did it, but I had to give you some incentive…to work with us… Us coming right in here and ask you those questions and I’m sure you probably would have told us to piss off.”
They explained that while they weren’t charging her with anything yet, they had an internal case number and case, “if we need to throw that down, we would. The only way that that would really happen is if the Attorney General decided that you weren’t being cooperative with us, or we found out that you decided to disappear on us, or you decided to tell other people that we were out here doing this type of operation. Then you’d be facing a felony at this point and you couldn’t get out…fast enough for us to come find you on that. I’m not trying to make your life hell…I really came here for your help.”
“We wanna be friends,” the other investigator added.
In October rumors started to spread that the SCIU was harassing and threatening one “victim” who refused to speak with them. Through the grapevine, I heard that she believed they were doing surveillance on her in order to arrest her for prostitution or trafficking herself. She was afraid to work and afraid that if she had contact with other sex workers they would be arrested along with her. In early November she made a suicide attempt.
The next day, October 17th, prostitution charges were filed against 10 men whom the SCIU said were clients of Batts’ agency. Some charges were based on credit card charges or e-mails. Others were based on screening e-mails.
According to charging documents from the cases, the officers also called many of the men. From reading the documents, it seems clear that the officers often accused the alleged clients of raping underage trafficking victims, judging from the men’s frequent insistence that the women they saw were of age and that the sex was consensual. It turns out that accusing people of raping children is a good way to get them to admit to paying for sex.
In other cases, the officers called the men’s ex-wives, listing as evidence personal observations like, “She is surprised but not shocked that [her ex] got involved in a prostitution sting. When they lived in [another city, he] took her to clubs… with dancing and drag queens. She was not raised that way…”
In one case, the charging document contains several e-mails between Batts and a man requesting the youngest escort she has, dressed like a school girl.
“Actually,” Batts wrote to him, “you seem like a rude and sick man and after [the escort you requested] spoke with [an escort he’d seen previously] she has decided not to see you. And after my communication with you and your fetish I do not wish to hear from you again. I won’t contact you again. Goodbye.”
In court, all of these prostitution charges are evidence of sex trafficking. Even when the charges paint Batts in a positive light, demonstrating how she turned down business from clientele who could hurt or harass the escorts, where there is prostitution there is sex trafficking.
A couple days after those charges were filed, Sergeant Ingram called an escort who was a real victim in another case. I happened to be there and listened in silence as he asked her several times, in a threatening tone, how it felt to be threatened by a cop.
Conditions of Release
After Batts had been in jail for four months, she was allowed out on bail with an ankle monitor, which cost her $600 per month. She was not to leave her house at all except for doctor appointments, substance abuse treatment, or church. A court-approved, live-in third party custodian had to be locked down with her at her house 24/7.
For a time, Batts’ sister moved in and acted as her third-party custodian. When she had to leave, the next third-party Batts had lined up wasn’t approved and so Batts went back to jail after three months of house arrest. Several months later, she pled to just one count of felony sex trafficking and was allowed to go home wearing her ankle monitor.
Judge Philip Volland had the option to sentence her to between four and ten years. If sentenced to only four years, Batts would potentially be eligible to serve her time at home on ankle monitor and continue parenting her daughter.
In Alaska, non violent offenders can often serve their time wearing an ankle monitor. Batts explained:
It’s like $400 a month…They want you to work….See, you get to pay for your incarceration while you’re on electronic monitoring. It’s a win-win for the state, cause not only are you paying for your own incarceration, you’re also able to be out in society and be productive. I think it costs on average like $200 a day per prisoner…so instead of putting someone in jail that’s not a violent offender, it makes more sense to put them on ankle monitor. Because you’re not housing them, you’re not paying for the medical, you’re not paying for their food, and they’re paying for their own incarceration.
If sentenced to ten years, Batts would lose her home and miss her daughter’s teenage years. The state asked for six years.
The night before the sentencing, activists gathered at the Alaska Center for Alternative Living, Alaska’s kink community’s first and only community center, to make shirts. We made the letters really big so the judge could read them from the pulpit:
— Tara Burns (@THEecowhore) August 14, 2015
On Friday, the 14th, activists attended Batts’ sentencing. Two hours of argument focused on the pre-sentencing report and ultimately took so much time that the actual sentencing was rescheduled for August 17th. According to Batts’ attorney, the pre-sentencing report will be considered by corrections officials in all of the decisions they make in carrying out Batts’ sentence. My recording equipment failed, but I live tweeted much of the hearing at #WhoresUNITED907:
Tweeters around the world joined the conversation:
— Katie de Long (@delongkatie) August 14, 2015
At the sentencing today, Judge Volland sentenced Batts to 5 years for sex trafficking in the second degree and 18 months for probation violation. This is how the state of Alaska has chosen to eradicate prostitutes: by attacking our systems of mutual aid, screening, and other standard safety practices.
I asked Batts what she would say to other sex workers after all this. “To not give up,” she said, “not give up our rights for safety. That we should always be able to communicate with each other and work together in order to better our work environment.”
As someone who has been researching the effects of policy surrounding the sex trade and has been trafficked herself, I’m personally and professionally invested in repealing Alaska’s new sex trafficking law and creating policy to protect people in Alaska’s sex trade. I’ve started this petition at Care2 to repeal the law that put Amber Batts in jail.