Pastors Cheree’ and Dave Wright of Life Link Church

Pastors Cheree’ and Dave Wright of Life Link Church in Chandler flanked former sex-trafficking victim Olivia Holcomb during an information rally in Downtown Chandler last Sunday.

Olivia Holcomb was 9 when her parents divorced and her life turned topsy-turvy.

The Texas girl lived with her mom, who began bringing men home. Holcomb said growing up associating having a man around equated to happiness as she watched her mom swing from being happy to being upset, depending on if she had a man or not.

“In the summer of 2018, my mom and I lived with her boyfriend at the time,” she said. “He was abusive and very mean to her.”

Both adults drank and Holcomb said she was miserable when the boyfriend would start hurting her mom.

“I refused to stay there,” she said. “I ran away.”

At 16 and with no money, Holcomb started meeting significantly older men through a dating app. She learned giving sexual favors would earn her food, drugs and a place to sleep. 

She said she met about two dozen men who paid her for sex until police arrested her after her mom reported her as a runaway. Police went through Holcomb’s cellphone and discovered she was a victim of sex trafficking.

Holcomb, who now lives in Chandler, shared her story in a video Jan. 12, at the second annual Night of Hope event, hosted by 19 East Valley churches to bring awareness to sex trafficking and encourage the public to get involved. 

The event, attended by over 300 people at Dr. A.J. Chandler Park, also highlighted National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

“This is a problem that does not know borders,” said Gilbert Police Chief Michael Soelberg, who was at the event representing law enforcement. “It’s international; it’s throughout the country; it’s throughout the state and it’s throughout our local community.”

Soelberg said Mesa Police Department led the charge against sex trafficking in the last five to seven years and he got involved with the issue while working there. Soleberg became Gilbert’s chief in 2017.

Law enforcement agencies in Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe – in conjunction with the Maricopa County and Arizona attorney general’s offices – conduct at least one operation a month in the East Valley to combat human trafficking, according to Soelberg.

“It’s amazing, once we start our operation within a matter of hours we basically have a backlog of people trying to get access to not only girls but boys, adults, minors, babies – you name it,” he said. “There are no boundaries. So, it’s a problem not going away.”

Soelbert said as a patrol officer, he would scout for these types of crimes by watching the streets and hotels and for people walking the street.

“This still happens to a slight degree,” he said. “But everything is (now) online.”  

He said when the agencies stage one of their operations, officers would make 10 to 15 arrests a day.

“Through our activities we’ve done everything we can and we will continue to fight but we need your help,” the chief said.

He asked the crowd to support financially or through volunteering with the nonprofits at the event such as CeCe’s Hope Center and Streetlight USA, which helps sex trafficking victims heal. And, he said, if people see something suspicious, report it.

“This is not about making arrests and putting people away but rescuing those forced into this,” he said. “We’ve got to combine our forces and make sure we do everything we can to combat it.”

According to the state Attorney General’s Office, the average age of entry into the sex trade in Arizona is 14, though law enforcement officers have seen girls as young as 9 sold for sex.

Many of the factors making Arizona a popular tourist destination also fuel sex trafficking – including the warm weather, close proximity to the border and interstate highway networks, an array of conferences and professional sporting events and close proximity to other tourist destinations such as Las Vegas and San Diego, the Attorney General’s Office said.

“We have to pay attention to this,” Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel said. “We can’t turn a blind eye. This is an issue happening in our community. When we ignore it, we are complicit.”

She said her office will hold perpetrators of this crime accountable. She added Maricopa County was the fourth-largest county in the nation and the third-largest, behind Los Angeles and Chicago, in trafficking prosecutions.

“We are committed to protecting victims and survivors,” she said.

State Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, also asked the crowd for help.

“Try as we might to pass the greatest laws in the state, there’s always people out there trying to exploit others,” said Mesnard, who represents District 17, which includes most of Chandler, part of Gilbert and Sun Lakes.

He said when the slave trade consumed the country before it was abolished, some13 million people were sold into slavery.

“Thirteen million, that’s a lot,” he said. “There are twice that many people in the sex-trafficking exploitation, which is a form of slavery. It’s not as obvious because it’s in the shadows.”

He stressed the importance of people being the eyes and ears of the community to help fight sex trafficking and used Uber driver Keith Avila as an example.

One December day in 2016, Avila picked up a teen girl and two women for a trip to a motel in California. He eavesdropped on their conversation and after taking them to their destination, called police with his suspicion of child prostitution.

“Police showed up and rescued the girl and arrested the two women who took her to be exploited,” Mesnard said. “None of us know who Avila is because he is an everyday guy. He was sensitive to what was around him and as a result he saved a 16-year-old girl.”

Holcomb also was eventually saved. A month after police picked her up, she had already been in and out twice to a psychiatric hospital for depression and suicidal thoughts. 

Police then contacted an advocacy agency in Texas and placed her at Refuge Ranch, a long-term residential program for domestic minors rescued from sex trafficking.

It was there, Holcomb said she found love she never felt before, not through sex or men.

“It was a pure love I can’t even describe,” she said. “I graduated high school early and fell in love with myself again. It was an amazing experience.”

She re-established her relationship with her dad in Arizona and eventually moved out here.

Holcomb’s sex trafficking story is not unique, according to Kathleen Winn, executive director of Project 25/ VAST, which fights sexual exploitation.

Holcomb thought she only had two choices: stay with her mom and the abusive boyfriend or run away, Winn said.

She didn’t know there were people out there who cared and wanted to help her and could give her other choices, Winn added.

 Instead, Holcomb came across people who said they would help her but at a cost – a loss of innocence and “something that could never be undone once it was done,” according to Winn.

“Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation is a problem that is pervasive in all our communities,” she said. “It’s a problem-driven by men unfortunately, 99 percent of our buyers are men.

“We as a people need to change our culture, we need to stop this surge,” she continued. “I believe God is calling forth an army and we are part of it. You are not here tonight by accident. It’s not a coincidence. We all need to find the Olivias in our communities and we need to let them know we are here to help. We are here to change the future.”

Winn said when she embarked on this crusade a decade ago, she was told sex trafficking didn’t exist in this country and to sit down and be quiet.

Today, looking out at the audience, she was encouraged so many people are aware of the problem.

She said she made a promise to God - by 2025, she would do whatever she could to end sexual exploitation and pointed to progress being made against sexual predators.

“Mr. Weinstein is on trial, Mr. Epstein is no longer with us,” she said. “Dr. Larry Nassar is in prison and on one is selling children on I know we as a community have done what we needed to do but I know there is more to do.”

The public can also get involved by becoming a mentor or a parent to a child in foster care, said Katie O’dell, state director of Arizona 1.27, an organization engaging local churches in the Arizona child welfare system.

“What we don’t realize about trafficking, especially in the United States, is there is a common factor at play,” she said. “And it is kids who find themselves in the foster care system in the United States are 60 percent more likely to end up to be victims of trafficking.”

Knowing this, she added, preventative steps such as engaging with a child in foster care can help ensure they never end up a victim.

In this country, traffickers prey upon children in the foster care system and recent reports consistently indicated a large number of victims of child sex trafficking were at one time in the foster care system, according to a U.S. State Department report in 2019.

Shannon Mitchell was one of the hundreds of people who showed up for the event.

The 47-year-old Chandler resident said she herself was unaware of the problem until she heard about Night of Hope event.

“When I learned about it, it did surprise me,” she said. “Many don’t know it’s happening in our neighborhoods.

“I love the community is coming together to bring this awareness.”