IA: (part 1) How an eastern Iowa teen prostitution, human trafficking ring took root


In the basement of an ordinary-looking Williamsburg home, the 13-year-old girl was given a choice. Either she would have sex with two men nearly twice her age or she would be given back to her kidnapper.

Already in the week since Demont Bowie told the suburban Minneapolis girl she belonged to him, he’d beaten and abused her, starved her and deprived her of sleep. He traded her body to his friends and even a mechanic. When Demont told her to do something to someone, she did. There was no refusing. He’d said he’d kill her, kill her family, if she tried to leave.

She believed him.

Somehow, she’d survived a week of hell at Demont’s hands in Wellman, a Washington County town of 1,500 people. Now Demont was gone — had run away after a fight with his father at an Easter 2005 family gathering.

The girl was in the basement with Demont’s half brother, Moosey Jones, who had put her in this double bind. She was bawling, begging him. But she was terrified of Demont, so she had sex with Moosey, his friend and another underage boy, not knowing that not going back to Demont would send her on a new, terrible path as a prostitute for a business advertising in Eastern Iowa as an escort service called Naughty-bi-Nature.

The girl would come to be known as M.B. in court documents in Linn, Johnson, Iowa, Washington and Clayton counties, as well as U.S. District Court. Getting her out of the business that seemed to produce poison in so many ways would almost cost one Iowa woman her life. Locking up the people who’d exploited her would take more than two years.

Hers, the first human trafficking case prosecuted in Iowa federal court, would test the resources, skills and patience of investigators and prosecutors who never had dealt with such a complex case, and who hope, even as they ready themselves to better respond to the next, to never see another like it.

No ‘Pretty Woman’

Although police and prostitutes say it’s easy to dial a date in the Corridor, prostitution is hard to prosecute. Like drug dealing, the people involved are all implicated in the crime and all — theoretically at least — are willing participants. Customers don’t have any interest in reporting prostitution. Neither do the women who turn tricks — whether for money, because of drug addiction or in fear of a violent and controlling pimp.

People unfamiliar with the business sometimes think of prostitution as a victimless crime — a simple transaction of money for sex. In reality, experts say, pimps prey on vulnerable women and girls with few other options, isolating them, coercing them into the business and keeping them there by force. One underage girl who said she worked for Naughty-bi-Nature was too scared to help in the prosecution. It’s a drug-infused, violence-infested culture that can operate below the surface in even the smallest and safest of Eastern Iowa’s small towns, as M.B.’s case would show.

As one prosecutor put it: “This isn’t ‘Pretty Woman.'”

And it happens all the time, says Betty Thompson, a former child prostitute who grew up to help a man named Robert Sallis run Naughty-bi-Nature, first from the tiny Johnson County settlement of Cosgrove and then across the Johnson-Iowa County line in Williamsburg. Thompson, whose father was a pimp, said she started prostituting as a 12-year-old runaway in Cedar Rapids but later gave up that life. She said fear and violence help area pimps keep control.

“This goes on every day in Cedar Rapids but no one wants to say anything because there are people like Robert Sallis out there,” she said of the man who beat her to unconsciousness before she left him and started talking to police about the business. She said even now, with Sallis and two of his sons in prison, she fears for her life and her children.

But Sallis’ son, Robert “Moosey” Jones, who introduced them, called Betty a chameleon who worked hand in hand with his father.

“When she came around and she found out what my dad was about and what I was about, her swag changed,” Jones said. “She kind of like changed to fit in.

“The prostitution game is an illusion game and Betty’s really good at illusions,” said Jones, who denies ever pimping but said his father, grandfather and brother have all been pimps in Eastern Iowa.

“She built a whole illusion for that girl,” he said.

A pimp’s life

Johnson County prosecutors charged Robert Sallis with a rarely used statute similar to the federal racketeering laws used to bring down mobsters, and he’s serving a sentence of up to 25 years in prison for his part in the prostitution ring. But Sallis’ supporters say he’s paying too high a price, convicted on the testimony of accomplices.

“I think he was convicted by people who were lying to keep their own butts out of the fire,” one longtime friend said.

Old friends describe Sallis as a family man who loves his sons. Someone who twice brought Demont Bowie to Iowa in an attempt to save Bowie’s life. They paint a picture of Bowie as a jealous, unpredictable man who vowed to kill his father and half-brother more than a decade ago, and say Betty Thompson didn’t pay a heavy enough penalty for her part in the business.

Several women who knew Sallis, Moosey Jones and Bowie, or who had worked as prostitutes for Naughty-bi-Nature, declined to comment for a reporter. More than one said the reporter was risking her safety by reporting this.

But by poring over hundreds of court records and reports, and through more than two dozen interviews, The Gazette has pieced together over the last year and a half the story of how Robert Sallis and Betty Thompson were able in late 2004 and 2005 to operate a prostitution business right under the noses of police, able to prostitute the 13-year-old M.B. throughout Eastern Iowa for weeks even as their house was being watched by Williamsburg patrol officers.

The secret to their success? Sticking to small towns, keeping a low profile and counting on the silence of their customers and associates.

It was a strategy that worked for months — until Betty fled from Robert and started to talk. M.B. wouldn’t tell police about the kidnapping until she was more than 300 miles away. Even then, she lied at first about Naughty-bi-Nature, wanting to protect Thompson.

While investigators circled in on Sallis, Bowie, the men Bowie traded M.B. to and the johns she was sent to service throughout Eastern Iowa, the girl was shuffled from one foster home to another, her whereabouts a secret from even her parents.

As Demont and Sallis told prosecutors, if they didn’t have a witness, they didn’t have a case.

In plain sight

Before she was taken to Iowa, M.B. wasn’t all that different from a lot of other troubled teenagers. She was an eighth grader who fell in love easily and had a habit of skipping school. A girl from a single-parent home, rebelling against Mom’s rules. A runaway who considered herself wise in the ways of the world.

“I don’t know that it was anything that isn’t fairly common in a lot of adolescents,” said Wade Kisner, Cedar Rapids-based state Division of Criminal Investigation special agent in charge, who got to know the girl in his two years investigating the case as a field agent. “But she encountered and got involved with some dangerous people. People who certainly did not have her best interests at heart.

“Unfortunately I don’t think she’s the only one. I’m sure there have been many, many other young girls that have ended up in the same situation. This was just one that we know about and hear about.”

Not all those stories have happy endings, Kisner said.

Trafficking victims usually are young and poor, and the less education they have, the easier they are manipulated by traffickers, researchers say. A 2005 Croft Institute for International Studies report says traffickers isolate and disorient victims and use violence to ensure they live in constant fear.

Moosey Jones said pimps look for girls who are “gullible, vulnerable, misguided, who have low self-esteem.”

“They’re more easy to mislead,” he said.

Vulnerable 13- and 14-year-olds routinely are recruited to prostitution, said Melissa Farley, a research psychologist who has studied prostitution for 14 years. “Thirteen-year-olds think they know a lot about the world, but they don’t,” Farley said.

One prostitute who worked for Robert Sallis and Betty Thompson said she was told her family didn’t want her back. Another said Betty threatened to tell police the girl had slept with her underage son if she quit.

Researchers say most victims of human trafficking won’t go to police, even if they get an opportunity to do so, because of the severe psychological stress and the threat of violence. And local police rarely are trained to recognize victims and bring them to safety.

M.B. was interviewed by a Washington County sheriff’s deputy in Wellman only a few days after she was kidnapped, but — scared, disoriented and distrustful — she didn’t ask for help. Instead, she gave a false name and birthday. In Williamsburg, police watched Robert and Betty’s house for weeks and never saw evidence that a girl was being held there and used in prostitution.

Only by working together and actively seeking out victims can police successfully intervene, researchers say. In the case of M.B., that effort was spearheaded by a single sheriff’s detective.

Determined and tireless

It was because of a couple of tips and a domestic assault that Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Detective Sgt. Kevin Kinney was able to start an investigation into Naughty-bi-Nature and the kidnapping of M.B., which would come to span counties throughout the Corridor and result in dozens of prosecutions. The information he collected would spin off into other investigations, some of which are ongoing.

“We stumbled upon this not because some federal agent was out there trying to look into this activity, but because an alert and bright deputy from a small town stumbled across it and knew enough to take it up farther, talk to other people that could do something about it,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney C.J. Williams, who helped coordinate the investigation and prosecution. “Only because Kevin Kinney was bright enough to listen and to think about what he’s being told and to realize there might be something bigger here than what he first came across.”

Colleagues describe Kinney as determined and tireless, a “hard charger” who, once he gets the scent of something, won’t let go.

“He gets on the trail of something and he sticks right on it,” said Williamsburg Police Sgt. Robert Knoop, who has known Kinney since the 44-year-old Oxford-raised detective was a Clear Creek High School football tackle. “He’s dedicated as hell.”

Since the investigation and prosecution into the case of M.B., and as part of a nationwide Department of Justice push to more aggressively seek out and prosecute cases of human trafficking, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has established a human trafficking task force and has trained local police to recognize trafficking victims. Williams said the more skilled investigators become in recognizing victims, the more cases he thinks there will be of people trafficked for work and for sex.

“I think as we coordinate the prosecution, the investigation of human trafficking, we’re going to find more of it out there than what we know of now,” Williams said. “Human trafficking is an area that has not been a focus before, I think, because it has been under the radar. I think people were just not aware that it was happening as much as it has been.”

He anticipates seeing more sex trafficking cases in large urban areas and Iowa cases more focused on forced labor of illegal immigrants. But, he said, he wouldn’t be surprised to see another case like M.B.’s.

“I don’t think there’s a small town in Iowa that necessarily is immune from somebody like that who would do something like that,” he said.

That, M.B. said a few weeks ago, is why she risked her life to help in prosecuting Bowie, Jones and Sallis, and why she agreed to talk with The Gazette about her experience.

On Easter 2005, she just was worried about staying alive and trying to figure out how she ever would find her way home.

Coming Monday: Betty Thompson seeks stability in her rough life.

Please see original story, photographs, and comments at link above.

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