The Underground World of Human Trafficking featuring Jesse Hugus


A couple weeks ago, I reached out to my Instagram audience asking if any of them knew a police officer I could interview.

Many of us have been doing our part to support the Black Lives Matter efforts — to first raise awareness about how widespread and embedded racism has seeped into our psyche, but also, to unlearn thought patterns and actions.

With this work and the loud uproar to defund the police, I wondered what the mood of the “room” was with the officers these days.

In reviewing the responses, I had an overwhelming number of people say, “Jesse Hugus — you have to interview her!” so naturally, I reached out, and she said yes!

Thank God.

I went to high school with Jesse but she was a few grades ahead of me and had much better things to do than hang out with a thirteen year old freshman with a Laguna Beach obsession. STEEEEEPHENNN (by the way, did you see the Kristin, Stephen reunion?)

‘What time can you connect?’ I asked eagerly.

She responded and within minutes, our plan was in place which all unfolded in such a synchronous manner, given the… well, you’ll see.

“Hi!” I started as her glowing face popped up on my screen, “you look like modern day Barbie!” I said sincerely. Her blonde collared-length hair was naturally curled and her olive green tank top complimented her skin… I wondered if she just went into some sort of rejuvination chamber and suddenly, I couldn’t wait for my laser appointment on Tuesday.

She smiled and laughed, giving me a humble “thank you!” before we got down to business.

Jesse is a native Arizonan — she was born in the Phoenix area and moved to Prescott around six years old; she currently resides in Phoenix with the rest of us psychos that think 120 degree heat is acceptable.

Hey, it’s still better than humid-ass Florida.

“Tell me about your childhood… did you play any sports growing up?” I ask, ready for her to tell me about the obligatory soccer or t-ball group she was put in.

“No, actually! I wanted to be a part of jazz band when I was young,” she laughed, remembering the reason it didn’t happen, “but my mom was like, ‘nope, you’ll be a loser if you’re in jazz band’ so that was out of the question… and then I guess I just didn’t start any sport until high school,” she seemingly shocked herself.

“You didn’t start sports until high school?” I repeated, remembering her as very athletic.

“Yeah, I did cheerleading for a year and then track and field for all four years,” she said and I remembered my time on the tar… wait, that sounds like black-tar heroine… my time on the track.

What’d you compete in?” I asked.“I did the 4×1 and the 4×4 but my specialty was pole vaulting, weirdly enough,” she recalled.

“My dad did pole vaulting in high school and college!” I got overly excited, as if pole vaulting was as rare as getting struck by lightning.

We reminisced about the terrors of the ice bath before jumping into Jesse’s initial ambition for her life.

“Well, I definitely went against the grain of the ‘typical’ girl… I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young… I wanted to be the first female on the moon,” she laughed (I could totally see it).

“Then in high school, I wanted to go into public safety because my dad was a Phoenix Firefighter, but he had other ideas,” she shared, “he had more traditional views about what roles women have, which was not
in the fire department,” her response was matter-of-fact but I felt my brows furrow and a surge of women empowerment platitudes ran through my head about girls being able to do whatever they want.

Not to worry — she reinforces that sentiment by going to college for Criminology, working in a lab doing forensics work (I miss Dexter).

“Then, the police department I work for now had an opening and I thought ‘what the hell — might as well try,’ not really thinking I’d get it,” she underestimated herself, “but then I got in… and I’ve been with them for nine years.”

We walk through her getting hired on as a police officer, the intense months of basic training, and patrolling the streets.

“Honestly, you don’t get comfortable for years,” she thinks, then pauses, reconsidering… “actually, I don’t think you ever really get comfortable on the job,” which sounded more accurate.

She talked about doing morning memorials for fallen officers, working the graveyard shifts (not a fan), and putting in ten hour days.

After almost six years serving as a police officer, Jesse was promoted to the investigations unit where she is now the sex crimes detective.

I called for a police officer and now she tells me she’s the sex crimes detective?!

My ‘SAVE THE CHILDREN’ poster was lying in the other room as I would be heading to the march against child sex trafficking that same day.

Like I said — synchronicity.

“Woah, woah, woah, okay, you’re in the sex crimes division?” my eyes widened. “How did that come to be?” I leaned in closer to the camera.

She laughed, “well, as you could imagine, there’s not a lot of women on the force, so I was pulled aside to do work on prostitution operations and sex trafficking. I remember going to Flagstaff so we could try and identify this serial rapist that was picking up girls on their way home from the bars… then I would be in Phoenix working to identify predators at certain hotels,” each word came out stronger than the previous as I sat listening with my mouth wide open, nodding for her to continue.

“I don’t think people realize what a massive world sex crimes and trafficking is,” she looked up at the ceiling with concern, “it’s literally everywhere, which really rocked me… some of the people showing up to these stings were business owners, professionals, 18 year olds, 70 year olds…it’s just so prominent,” I could almost see the Rolodex of cases she recalled.

With a deep breath, I asked what happened when a John picked her up, imagining what would’ve appeared to be a sweet, innocent young blonde girl, turning into Angelina Jolie in SALT once she got the perp.

“So, we’d put an ad out with a phone number and I’d pose as a 14 or 15 year old and within minutes of turning the phone on, the calls would come flooding in and we’d get text after text ALL DAY… literally hundreds of Johns,” she went to continue but I interrupted.

“HUNDREDS?! In ONE area?” I felt my tear ducts start to well and goosebumps lined my arms.

“Oh yeah, easily,” she assured me, “some of them show up, some of them get smart and bail… it’s just unbelievable… the amount of people that participate in that kind of lifestyle,” she shook her head and I joined her with a look of disgust and a shiver.

“We’re not seeing this on the news…” I pleaded, anxiously running my fingertips through my hair, “why aren’t we hearing about this on the news? Do you have any theories?” I begged for something that made sense.

“Honestly, I think it’s because it makes people uncomfortable,” she raised her eyebrows, “sex in general, but especially taboo sex, or rape, which is what it really is,” she offered her conclusion.

Bottom line — no matter what the reason — we need to know about the problem, so we can make every effort to stop it from being one.

We go on to talk about a bust that happened in Prescott Valley involving all-too familiar names from the community, then I ask how this even comes to be… how these predators even meet each other, because I don’t imagine two dudes are throwing back beers in a garage and one goes ‘hey, you attracted to kids?’

“So, most of this happens on the dark web. They’ll start engaging with one another, and then start trading photographs through what they call handshakes, and literally form a friendship because they know if they’re exchanging with one another, they’re not gonna get picked up.”

I felt myself shiver again.

“Yeah, it’s gross,” she responded, “and you even have people that create it with their own children and sell it, or they trade it for other kinds of pornography,” she paused to take a sip of her iced tea, in an effort remain calm, I assumed.

“Their own children?!” my voice cracked as my heart ached for the vulnerable kids being abused in the place where they should feel the safest.

“Yeah, we have a whole division of law enforcement dedicated to this, so when they can idenify the victim, it goes into a database, which essentially flags IP addresses that trade images of the child.”

“Okay, that’s great,” I responded, “but let me ask a potentially dumb question… why is it so easy for Facebook or Google to flag posts with ‘inappropriate content’ and take that shit down, but hundreds of thousands of child pornography files can continue to be traded daily?” I pressed with frustration.

She explained how advanced a lot of these systems are on the dark web, so their IP addresses are nearly undetectable.

“It’s not like they go serve five years in jail, come out, and are no longer attracted to children.”

“Fine,” I sounded defeated, but realized this would just be the beginning of my deep dive into this world, “what are your thoughts about those that claim pedophilia is a sexual orientation?” I remembered reading something recently about a professor pushing these beliefs.

“Ahh, that,” she quipped, as if she’d heard it one too many times, “I think it’s repulsive, but, they still don’t know exactly what causes pedophilia because there are different categories — you have some people attracted to infants, some attracted to pre-pubescent, and some attracted to pubescent teens. I was listening to this great psychiatrist who’s dedicated his work to studying pedophiles,” she recalled as I nodded, guessing what the psychiatrist’s conclusion would be.

“As humans, while we’re developing, when we’re five, we typically think other five year olds are cute… same thing when we’re ten, eighteen, and so on… but the theory is that pedophiles’ sexual development stops at a certain point which, from my work, makes the most sense. And unfortunately, with what I’ve seen, it’s engrained in them. It’s not like they go serve five years in jail, come out, and are no longer attracted to children.”

So what’s the answer then? Pump them with chemicals to take away their sex drive?

According to Jesse, that’s not the solution… these predators would still have the natural draw towards children.

So, life in prison? Throw them in a special institution for the rest of their lives? Death penalty?

I don’t know.

“What happens to these people after you bust them, then? Are there plea deals offered to sex predators?” I cringe at the thought.

“Well it can be difficult to try the cases, so the key is going after the people trafficking children… and adults,” she paused for another iced tea break.

“And it’s not as if one day kids are like, ‘hey, I think it’s time to go have sex for money’… it’s very gradual.”


“They’re called romeo pimps and they find kids at malls, movie theaters, online…and they start chatting, telling them everything they want to hear, which eventually leads to a relationship where they’ll ask about the child’s family — who their parents are, any siblings, where they live…anything and everything they can get” my stomach tightened at the thought of someone trying to do this to my three year old niece.

“So then, once they’ve built up that trust with the child, the perp will always suddenly need money for something and say ‘hey, my friend will give us $200 if you have sex with him; you need to do this for me’ and then if they say no, they’ll threaten hurting the child’s family.”

From there, as Jesse explained, the pimp has the child under their control and a lot of them become attached. “It’s kind of like a form of Stockholm syndrome,” she surmised. “Especially when they come from a broken home, which a lot of the victims do; they grow this affinity for the person selling them.”

Pulling from the Epstein documentary, I asked how common it was for the young girls to recruit other victims.

“Yeah, you see that very often, actually; where one girl has been working with the trafficker for a while, and builds a trust… then she’ll start running the girls and making arrangements.”

Feeling sick yet? Angry? Disheartened?

I’m sure… but like I said… give us the chance to KNOW about this so we can decide how to educate our loved ones.

Jesse informed me that once the girls are rescued, there are group homes they join, where a lot of treatment and life-skill training takes place.

There are many of these facilities in Arizona and a lot of task forces in the state that work together to help rehabilitate these girls… you’ve got nurses, hospitals, police, advocacy centers…” she trailed off and nodded.I nod with her and expel my thoughts…

“Human beings are resilient, right? That’s part of what makes us so fascinating… we can get used to almost anything, so it makes sense that these children would need to go through a complete detoxification for an extended period before even considering trying to fold back into their communities. I just hope these communities… our communities, can learn how to best support the victims,” the knot in my stomach was still clenched.

She motioned in a way to say ‘I agree’ as her dainty gold necklace sparkled in the sun.

“The state of Arizona is actually very forward thinking with respect to sex trafficking — there’s a lot of money thrown at this, working with local businesses, hotels, and motels, to educate them on recognizing the signs.”

“Okay, great, that’s a perfect segue…” I felt a glimmer of hope, “what would you say to the lay-person in terms of signs to look for?”

She paused to consider.

“Just trust your gut — if you see something that looks off, call… and make sure you take down as much information as you can — license plate numbers, hair color, skin color, any notable distinctions about the persons’ appearance. I think if we pay close enough attention, we’ve all got a pretty good feel for when something doesn’t seem right,” she laid out a veil of confidence for us all.

“Yeah, I think so many people live in their own worlds and don’t feel as inclined to remain aware… also what about these people that have children under their thumb? I mean Larry Nassar had access to hundreds and hundreds of kids and seemingly took every opportunity to abuse them,” I remembered the documentary show those girls recall the horrors he put them through, often right under their parents’ noses.

“Yeah, a lot of these people find themselves in jobs that give them a direct connection to children…” she said, recalling a former middle school teacher in Prescott that was arrested for consuming child pornography.

“So, how can businesses do a better job of identifying predators?” I asked. “Because I watched a video from this company, Bark, that works to identify predators online… it’d be great if this kind of software was utilized by all companies during the hiring process,” I urged, asking if this was something that could be mandated through legislation.

“Yeah,” she started before considering her next words, “it’s a bit of a gray area with infringing on freedom of speech, but I do think we’ll see a lot more of that type of development in the future because many of these perps don’t have a criminal history,” she looked disgusted and my face matched hers.

We concluded our conversation with insights into the police department as a whole, which I WILL touch on in the future, but in an effort to stay on topic, I would like to leave you with a few statistics to mull over.

According to, human trafficking generates roughly $150 Billion in profits per year… BILLION — with a B. That’s the second highest revenue stream of any prolific crime in the world.

According to the ILO, the United States is the number one country of origin for victims of human trafficking.

According to the 2017 State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, there were only 14,894 prosecutions and 9,071 convictions for trafficking globally in 2016.

So, again, I ask you, the reader, what your opinion is… how should these people be treated? Life in prison? A ten year sentence? Death penalty? Psychological rehabilitation? I’m genuinely wondering, as our work here is just beginning.