Detroit police say they have broken up a multi-state sex slave ring that lured or kidnapped girls as young as 13, after one of the victims was rescued by a store security guard.
The case is a reflection of a serious nationwide problem, children's advocates say, as both young girls and boys are vulnerable to predators using the promise of self-esteem, a sense of adulthood and excitement to lure children and young adults into prostitution or sex slavery.
In the Detroit case, two men are in custody awaiting arraignment on Thursday, Detroit Police Department spokeswoman Bernadette Najor said.
Police were waiting for prosecutors to issue charges against the two suspects, Henry Davis, 32, of Chicago, who is believed to be the leader, and a 17-year-old from Detroit whose name was not being released, Najor said.
The arrests came after a 17-year-old girl on Monday got away from a group of people she said had held her captive since last Thursday. She said she was kidnapped in Cleveland before being taken to Chicago and Detroit.
Investigators are still not sure how many girls and young women were victims of the alleged ring, and it was not yet clear how many people were in it, Najor said. Police say there are dozens of victims aged from 13 to 21.
Six women were rescued Tuesday in a raid by police at a house on Detroit's east side, based on information from the 17-year-old girl. A total of 13 people were taken into custody and questioned but only two were arrested.
At least one of the rescued girls told police she had been kidnapped and held prisoner, but was unable to tell police where she had been kept.
Police have suspected the ring might have existed for months. They have received at least six rape complaints from juveniles in the area since September.
Based on what some of rescued girls told them, police say they believe there were female members of the gang who acted as enforcers to keep the captive young women in line.
"The intimidation within the group was done by some of the women that were more senior within the group, the actual physical intimidation and what they called violating. Very similar to the way they do within gangs of violating people who go against the rules of the group," Detroit Police Commander Gerard Simon said.
People who lived nearby the house where the alleged sex slave ring was based told ABC affiliate WXYZ in Detroit that they never suspected that young women were being tortured next door.
One neighbor said that there was a lot of traffic in and out of the house, "everybody laughing, grinning."
Preying on Need
Jill Leighton, the director of ESCAPE, a Minneapolis-based volunteer agency that tries to help exploited children, said that what police said was happening in Detroit was all too common an occurrance for youngsters on the street.
"Children are lured into it through need," she said. "They're homeless or runaways or chemically dependent. The pimps know just what to say: 'You're beautiful, you're mature, I understand you.' They know what these children want to hear."
Children who came from troubled homes or those already on the street are most at risk, but even youngsters without problems with their families are vulnerable, in part because the Internet gives predators a way to reach into homes and in part because society and media encourage increasingly younger children to want to be "adult," she said.
"He could promise anything, from if a girl's being abused at home he could get her out, or if she's not, he could tell her he'll treat her like an adult. He's accelerating her adulthood," Leighton said. "It's so prevalent in society. You've got MTV and movies and Britney Spears, everything which continues to make younger and younger girls want to be adults."
A University of Pennsylvania study that is widely considered the most comprehensive look at the issue found that tens of thousands of North American children become victims of juvenile pornography, prostitution, and trafficking each year.
ABC affiliate WXYZ in Detroit Contributed to this report.