WICHITA — Cynthia Cordes had prosecuted the pimps who'd taken teenage girls out of their homes and put them on the streets of Kansas City to sell their bodies.
She'd seen what happened to women brought from China and forced to live inside a strip mall in Overland Park, having to sleep on the same benches where men paid to have sex with them in a so-called massage parlor.
But Cordes saw little happening to the men who paid to have sex with Kansas City girls too young to consent, and who supplied the consumer demand for the abuse and enslaving of women from foreign lands.
"They were getting a pass," Cordes told local law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers and others Tuesday at the eighth annual Protect Our Children Conference at the Airport Hilton.
In 2009, Cordes worked with police in Independence, Mo., to set up a sting and became the first federal prosecutor in the U.S. to successfully prosecute customers of the sex trade under anti-sex-trafficking laws.
Cordes now hopes to bring her innovative techniques for combating commercial sexual exploitation to Kansas. Last month, the Department of Justice approved a pilot program for enhanced enforcement task forces to combat sex trafficking from St. Louis to western Kansas. It will be headquartered in Kansas City, where Cordes works as an assistant U.S. Attorney.
"It's so hidden, people say it doesn't happen here, but all you have to do is look, and it's there," said Barry Grissom, U.S. Attorney for Kansas, who sponsored the three-day event that educates authorities about crimes against children.
Cordes was also the first to use a part of a federal law governing child pornography to give more prison time for pimps who advertised pictures of young girls over the Internet.
But her workshop on 2009's "Operation Guardian Angel" was a focus for police and prosecutors during the three-day event in Wichita.
It began when Independence police began placing online classified ads for "young fun" and "little girls."
"Within the first 24 hours, we got 500 responses," Cordes said, drawing gasps from a packed convention room of hundreds of professionals who deal with child sexual abuse daily.
An Independence police officer posed as the pimp, who would claim to have girls as young as 11 available for sex. No children were actually involved. Men asked for specific ages of girls, handed the undercover officer money and were pointed to a room with a dirty mattress on the floor. When the men paid the money and stepped into the room, they were arrested.
Seven men were convicted in 2009. Among them: a Navy recruiting officer who showed up in uniform, an over-the-road truck drivers and an insurance agent with an office on Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.
Cordes has helped obtain sentences from 10 to 30 years for pimps and 10 to 15 years in federal prison for customers, known in the sex trade as "johns."
Afraid and abused
The pimps Cordes prosecuted have included Don Elbert II, who found three sisters talking about running away. He took them out of their home. Once they were in his custody, he became violent. The girls were abused and afraid, Cordes said. They worked the streets of Kansas City out of fear.
One girl was 15. The others were her 13-year-old twin sisters.
Cordes told the group in Wichita one of the girls spoke about what her life was like at Elbert's sentencing.
"Before I met (Elbert), I was a beautiful young lady that always did good and always happy about everything," one 13-year-old told the judge. "Everything changed about me. I turned into a really bad person. This was not part of my life before I met him. And then I turned into a really afraid person."
Cordes has been among growing number working in law enforcement across the country, including Wichita, who have started viewing the females involved in commercial sex as victims, rather than prostitutes.
"I've never had anyone tell me they wanted to stay in that life," Cordes said.
Perhaps no case illustrated her point more clearly than the case against Edward Bagley.
Bagley, who went by the name "Master Ed," his wife, Marilyn, and two other men are named in an 18-count indictment. They're charged with luring a mentally disabled teenager to their secluded rural home.
There, Bagley forced the girl to become a "sex slave," authorities said. The indictment said Bagley beat, tortured and caged the woman. On her 18th birthday, he made her sign a "sex slave" contract and put her to work in a local strip bar near Lebanon, Mo.
"This was one of the most disturbing cases I've ever worked on," Cordes told the crowd Tuesday morning about the on-going case.
'He owes me'
Cordes said trafficking cases were also legally difficult, taking up to four years to resolve through the courts.
But she also said they were rewarding. She said officers have contacted her years after going on to other assignments, telling her the trafficking cases were among the most memorable of their careers.
Cordes said that public education had helped uncover more cases.
"Most of our tips now come from the public," Cordes said.
While the cases are difficult, Cordes said, they carry big rewards
Women are rescued. They go back to school. They get training for jobs and counseling for their trauma. They rebuild their lives.
Cordes said one surprising bit of healing comes when a judge orders the pimps to pay restitution. The prosecutor also succeeded in getting garnishments of prison wages.
Whether they men can actually pay, Cordes said, means little to women who have been forced hand money over to their pimps.
"I had one say, "He owes me now,' " Cordes said. "And he'll never be able to pay it back."