Marisela Quintero read the headline. She winced, as if she’d been punched.
Emma had been killed.
Emma was 17. She had recently been arrested on prostitution-related charges in a Motel 6 parking lot, wearing a skin-hugging tank top, high heels and booty shorts. She’d flashed a fake driver’s license and, in her purse, carried eight latex condoms and a bottle of vodka.
Quintero, the county’s only social worker assigned primarily to child prostitutes, couldn’t get her to admit her real name at first. Emma had been too terrified, but not of what might happen in court. What would her pimp do if he thought she’d turned on him?
Eventually the court sent her back to her family in California. That was two weeks ago. Now, the news story said she had been shot to death, with no suspects named.
Had it been a mistake to send Emma away? Did her pimp think she had snitched?
The possibility was not far-fetched. These men were masters at manipulating and dominating the teenagers. They sweet-talked the girls in shopping malls and Greyhound terminals, bought them pedicures and wigs, plied them with drugs and gave them the attention they craved. Once ensnared and working as prostitutes, the girls could fall victim to pistol-whippings and gang rape — sometimes, even worse. It was all part of what Quintero and others bleakly called “the game.”
Quintero feared for her next client, Maria, who was more tightly tied to her pimp than Emma had been.
Maria was 16.
Las Vegas is a major hub of child prostitution with an international reputation for depravity.
A recent study by the nonprofit Shared Hope International said 224 girls and two boys accused of prostitution-related offenses churned through the juvenile court system here during a nearly two-year period. About a third were from California. Almost a fifth were younger than 16, and many said between five and 15 men had purchased their sexual services each night they worked.
After their first arrest, girls were usually detained for about two weeks. Quintero met them then.
Success was measured by how long Quintero could keep them away from the pimps. The more time spent in group homes or with supportive relatives, the better the odds that they wouldn’t sprint back to the streets. And maybe they could be persuaded to testify against the men who corrupted them, who demanded money and sex and sometimes the honorific “Daddy.”
Still carrying the story of Emma’s death, Quintero entered the interview room at the Clark County juvenile detention center. Maria — high cheekbones, blond highlights, toothpaste stain on her county-issued blue sweat shirt — began to vent. Her neglectful and abusive family. Her rape by a family friend. “My mom said I was lying,” she told Quintero. “Whatever.”
Maria was 12 when she “chose up” with her first pimp, who gave her marijuana and waved around $100 bills he promised she’d make. After that came a blur of drugs and vicious men and arrests.
Then she met the pimp she now considered her boyfriend. She giggled describing how he’d gently teased her. Later, he punched and raped her, she told Quintero, but apologized nearly every time. Two years ago they had a son.
Maria’s latest arrest came as she trolled for men one morning at the Planet Hollywood casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
Quintero mentioned Emma’s killing. Maria picked at her eyebrows.
“I’m not scared to die anymore,” she said.
It was surreal, Quintero thought. She’s 16 and doesn’t care.
“Do you still feel a bond with your son?” Quintero asked.
Maria’s face softened. “Yeah, I love him so much.”
It was an opening. Quintero suggested placing the boy with one of Maria’s siblings. She also tried to gauge where Maria could stay without fleeing, as she had so many times.
“You’re smart. You have all that potential,” Quintero said.
“I’d hate to read about you in the paper.”
“If someone wants me dead, they want me dead,” Maria shot back.
The next day, Quintero slipped into Courtroom 18, where Judge William O. Voy presided over the weekly juvenile prostitution calendar. Maria waited in a hallway.
Girls shuffled in, their hair in ponytails, their faces scrubbed of makeup, their fingers stripped of acrylic nails. The parents who showed up squirmed. When mothers and daughters hugged, their faces were woeful, as if both were apologizing.
In Las Vegas, the girls are treated as victims, not criminals, a relatively new tactic. Solicitation charges are usually dropped in favor of less severe offenses. Then Quintero will consult with prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, group homes and the girls’ relatives to recommend to Voy where the girls should go next.
That can be tricky. The girls struggle with multiple problems: drug addiction, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder.
On this morning, in February 2009, Emma’s slaying seemed to hover over the proceedings. Emma had shown promise when she revealed her identity. Voy had approved her release to California. Now she was an example of what could go wrong.
Maria walked into the courtroom, her expression sheepish. She’d been here before, vowing to turn around her life.
Voy called on Quintero. Where should Maria go?
“At this point, regardless of what we do, it’s going to be a risk,” Quintero said. She turned up her right palm, as if to say, what choice do we have?
Put Maria in the group home, Quintero said next. Reevaluate things in a few weeks. Voy agreed. Maria smiled.
Then Quintero talked to Maria and scribbled notes: shoes, 9; pants, 9; shirts, M/L.
Maria had nothing of her own besides socks and a blouse, potentially giving a pimp an opening to woo her with niceties. So Quintero pawed through V-necks, corduroys and bags of underwear at an on-site donation center. She packed a bag: hair spray, razors, lavender shampoo-conditioner, “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul,” and a flowered journal because Maria liked to write poems.
Quintero tried to shake off her misgivings: With a bag of stuff, was it easier for Maria to run?
A week later, in Voy’s courtroom, the judge was grim. The night after Maria’s hearing, she ran off. Quintero never found out if she took the bag.
“God, that worked good, huh?” Voy said, almost to himself. “She lasted until 8:30.” Long pause. “The kid’s wearing me out, man. I’m sorry. She’s going to end up dead.”
Over the next few months, Quintero did some detective work. One of Maria’s relatives helped track down her Myspace page.
Maria was still alive. But she’d returned to prostitution. Her profile displayed lots of cleavage and a fake age: 24.
Quintero emailed her: “Hey, girl. I hope you’re doing okay.... I’m still here if you need anything. Take care.”
Quintero was not quixotic. Her own childhood in California showed that people could exceed their surroundings. Her parents had sneaked into the country illegally, but eventually became citizens. Her mom worked in housekeeping, her dad at a factory that made shower doors. For a time, they could afford only gang-ridden neighborhoods in Carson.
Quintero became the first person in her family to earn a college degree. Now she was 28, married and a mother, working with teens who needed a family but instead found a pimp. Quintero sometimes found them exasperating, but often inspirational too. They had survived so much.
Maria soon wrote back. She was fed up with her pimp and felt suicidal. “I BELIEVED THAT HE LOVED ME AND AFTER WHAT HE DID TO ME THIS TIME I THINK THAT ITS TIME TO LAY IT DOWN AND GO ON HOME TO MY GOD.”
“You have so much to live for!!!” Quintero replied. “Your son needs his mom. Let me help you.... Where are you?”
Not long after, Maria called, her bravado back. She had been traveling, she said nonchalantly. Everything’s fine.
She cut off contact.
Quintero wasn’t surprised.
A pimp uses every psychological trick to weld a girl to him. He has her tattooed with his name. He gets her pregnant. He convinces her that prostitution is an act of romantic devotion. He claims hotel bellmen conduct surveillance for him — so don’t run. But he rarely uses his fists. That might sideline her from the game.
Trying to sever the bond was next to impossible. Victories for Quintero were usually smaller and messier. But they happened.
Quintero had another client at the lockup: Annie — 13 and pregnant.
Investigators wanted her to testify against a pimp, who might be the father. She wasn’t sure.
Annie toyed with her hair, which she had untwisted from petite braids. Her own mother meant well, counselors concluded, but had poorly supervised the girl and her siblings. She went to school infrequently, told counselors she’d experimented with drugs.
Annie was in detention after snatching a cellphone from a woman on a bus. Police suspected she and at least two other girls had been sexually abused, if not “turned out,” by a pimp. All three were slated to testify against him on multiple counts of pandering and sexual assault.
Annie’s lower lip pouted. Other girls in detention said testifying meant betrayal. If dragged into court, she huffed, “I’m not gonna say nothing.”
But she did, begrudgingly.
The day of the hearing, in April 2009, Annie wore one of Quintero’s maternity tops — the donation center had no shirts to cover her belly — and munched on potato chips and cheese crackers.
Inside Courtroom 8C, the suspected pimp sat at the defense table: a 6-foot, 160-pound, dark-skinned man in his late 20s with thick braids, a mustache and an empty stare. He’d told Annie she was pretty and seduced her in his Cadillac. She’d recruited one of the other two girls to work as a prostitute for him.
Annie climbed onto the witness stand, near a pot of yellow flowers. The prosecutor asked for graphic details of the times she and the man had sex. Her replies came in near-whispers.
“First I was sitting and then I started lying down and I guess I just had sex.”
You were 13?
Annie tucked in her limbs and used one hand to hide much of her face.
When she finished an hour later, Quintero followed her to the hallway. Annie’s face was ashen. She plopped on a bench. Another girl who’d testified ran over and asked: Did he look at you?
“I don’t know. I didn’t look at him.”
“He smiled at me,” the other girl said, with a hint of giddiness.
“Oh,” Annie replied flatly.
Annie was soon placed in a new facility for pregnant teens, with her own bedroom, bathroom and white crib, but she ran home to her mother a few weeks later. Quintero saw her briefly before she delivered a girl.
Quintero took comfort in the outcome at court: The pimp pleaded guilty to child pandering and was sentenced to at least three years in prison.
It was December. Nearly a year had passed since Emma’s death, and Maria had disappeared. Quintero sat in the back of Voy’s courtroom. The court marshal stuck his head out the door and called for a teenager who’d come to the courthouse voluntarily.
It was Maria. She was in a brown sweater and ripped jeans and had loosened her hair to hide scarring she hadn’t had months ago. Her eyes were weary.
Maria was accompanied by her mother. She’d recently moved back home, she said, because she wanted to see her son and had some legal issues to settle. She told Quintero she was thinking of turning over her pimp to police. When Maria said his name now, it was as if she were spitting.
Was she sincere?
At least she wasn’t dead. Quintero knew that might be all she could hope for. After the hearing, Quintero asked Maria where she’d been for 10 months.
“You know, around,” said Maria, who quickly changed the subject.
A short time later, Maria vanished. She reappeared briefly in September 2010, when she was brought into court on a warrant. She said she’d rented an apartment and found work as a dancer.
Quintero hasn’t heard from her since.
This story is based on several months of observing Marisela Quintero and her clients under the condition that the girls be identified using pseudonyms. The Times does not typically identify the alleged victims of sex crimes or persons under 18 who are charged with crimes.
Times reporter Ashley Powers also reviewed numerous court records, including arrest reports and hearing transcripts, and interviewed Quintero and her husband, Noe; Judge William Voy; Susan Roske of the county public defender’s juvenile division; Alexis Kennedy, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, co-writer of the Shared Hope International study; representatives from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and the county district attorney’s juvenile division, and experts in child prostitution.