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Traffic streaks along Las Vegas Boulevard on Monday, March 20, 2017. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

SANTA FE — A 30-minute drive outside New Mexico’s capital city, two-lane State Route 41 passes Zorro Ranch Road and the entrance to what, until recently, was part of Jeffrey Epstein’s domain.

The sign is easy to miss. Take in the stunning panorama of the mesa country beyond the Galisteo Basin or glance at the sunflowers that wave from the roadside and you might drive right by.

These days Zorro Ranch’s large double gate stays closed. “No Trespassing” signs are posted. Two surveillance cameras are trained on the entrance, where a speaker system is set up to confirm or deny access to the nearly 10,000-acre property cut from the middle of a far larger spread once owned by late New Mexico Gov. Bruce King. This is cattle country, but Epstein was no cowboy. He’s alleged to have abused teenage girls at the ranch and coerced them into having sex with his politically powerful friends at the palatial compound that sits atop a mesa and is the largest residence in the state.

The New Mexico ranch is one of several locations investigators have focused on as they’ve peeled back Epstein’s world of mansions, private jets, and a seemingly endless parade of young females. His jailhouse death on Aug. 10, officially ruled a suicide by hanging, saved the coward from facing his accusers. It also added to the mystery and intrigue surrounding his life, criminal behavior, and the powerful societal strata he was able to access. With a net worth estimated to exceed $500 million, Epstein collected the names and phone numbers of celebrities, business titans, and former and future presidents.

Epstein’s ability to manipulate the justice system and all those bold-face names have made his story irresistible to a legion of investigative journalists and other observers of an American social fabric that’s fraying mightily in the era of Trump. Whom Epstein knew and influenced have made him a creepy character worthy of Balzac’s pen.

For all his private jets, mansions and powerful contacts, Epstein was really just a pimp at heart. In his way, he was as cold at the bone as any Boulevard hustler with a diamond tooth and a string of streetwalkers. He was a pervert and procurer, albeit one with better contacts.

It was something I couldn’t stop thinking about during a drive to the gates of Zorro Ranch and the edge of his sordid world. As his victims’ stories have unfolded in heart-wrenching detail, thanks in great part to the groundbreaking work of Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, for all their tragedy they weren’t so different from the nightmares experienced each year by an endless parade of other teenagers in small towns and big cities across the country.

Lured by promises of glamorous modeling careers, Epstein’s victims were manipulated in much the same way other girls are fooled by a pimp’s endless patter. It’s alleged he used female accomplices to collect the girls and keep them in tow. Epstein didn’t need them to turn tricks for money. He had money, but he used them for his own ends, to dress up rooms and, it’s alleged, undress VIPs he wanted to influence and presumably extort.

Does Las Vegas have its own Epstein?

It would be naïve to believe otherwise. With its throngs of tourists and hedonistic reputation, Las Vegas long been considered a sex-trafficking crossroads. That includes the exploitation of children and teenagers as prostitutes.

Meanwhile, authorities peck away at the problem. Operation Independence Day, the FBI’s nationwide sex trafficking operation, in July rescued 14 girls in Southern Nevada and 103 minors nationwide. Although laudable, experts know it was a small peek into one of the darkest corners of our society: the modern-day slavery inherent in the use of children for prostitution.

A six-year analysis of sex traffickers by Arizona State’s McCain Institute for International Leadership reinforced some memes those following the Epstein sage might find familiar: Most victims averaged just 15 years old; more than half were runaways; nearly half knew their trafficker. Unlike Epstein, who received a sweetheart deal (13 months in county jail) and special treatment once convicted, the study noted that the average minimum prison sentence other sex traffickers received was 13.5 years.

But that’s where Epstein’s powerful contacts kicked in.

Epstein is now beyond punishment in this world, but much has been written about whether his alleged female accomplices will pay a price for their roles in the recruitment of the victims. Here, again, that shouldn’t be so surprising. In the world of pimps, there’s almost always a “bottom,” an older woman who helps coerce the girls and keep them in line.

The report, available on the Nevada attorney general’s website, found a disturbing trend. Although each case is unique, “The increased prominence of female sex traffickers has implications for public perception, as sex traffickers are stereotyped as being only males. The involvement and the unique roles in the sex trafficking activity of the female sex traffickers, as well as their previous sexual exploitation experiences, are necessary next steps to explore and to gain a greater understanding of evolving sex trafficking trends.”

Jeffrey Epstein is gone, but the distance from Zorro Ranch Road to Las Vegas Boulevard is shorter than you think.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith

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