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Indy Q&A: U.S. Attorney Nick Trutanich on sex trafficking, marijuana and public corruption

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Criminal JusticeLas Vegas RaidersMarijuanaSex Industry
Nicholas A. Trutanich, United States Attorney for the District of Nevada and Ray Johnson, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Scores of first responders, victim advocates and local and federal law enforcement personnel crammed into a lecture hall in Reno last week to exchange information on how to tackle the issue of human trafficking.

Speakers walked attendees through everything from the signs that a massage parlor is a front for an illegal brothel to an overview about the steps law enforcement is taking to respond to such cases. The issue has garnered greater attention in recent years, with Nevada lawmakers passing several bills in recent sessions aimed at curbing the practice.

One of the faces at the forefront of efforts against human trafficking is Nick Trutanich, U.S. attorney for the District of Nevada, whose office is tasked with investigating many such cases.

The Nevada Independent caught up with Trutanich at the seminar to discuss the challenges of those prosecutions, as well as his office’s priorities on marijuana enforcement and recent, high-profile public corruption cases.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: The federal Department of Justice worked to convict 526 people nationwide for human trafficking last year. Do you think that reflects the true scope of the problem, or is it much bigger?

A: With respect to human trafficking, as awareness is raised, both in law enforcement and in the community, we're seeing more reports of human trafficking, more investigations and more prosecutions. Prosecutions have grown exponentially in the Department of Justice nationwide, 82 percent in the last four years compared to the four years before that. So I submit that with respect to trafficking, as public awareness raises, we're going to send more and more prosecutions.

Q: How many prosecutions have there been in Nevada?

A: The office prosecutes about one to two human trafficking cases a year. These cases are resource-intensive, not only from the trauma-informed prosecution side — making sure that the victim, the survivor of human trafficking, has the resources that he or she needs to make a better life for … him or herself afterwards. But also from the investigatory and prosecution side. These criminals, these traffickers, do this in the shadows. They don't interact, typically, with the johns. They have the person being trafficked do that. They do those negotiations. And so they … also manipulate, through force, fraud and coercion, their victims. And so all of that leads to a very resource-intensive case, which quite often ends in a trial, which is also resource-intensive. So we have a small office, it's a priority area. The department considers it a priority area as seen by the numbers. 

Q: The Raiders are coming to Las Vegas, the city is growing, and a lot of big events are expected to come to town. Do you expect this will draw more trafficking?

A: Both anecdotally and through the academic literature about human trafficking, it's clear that special events typically draw human traffickers and their victims because of the demand side for these problems. So far our strategy with respect to any special events in law enforcement and working with NGOs is to raise awareness and make sure that if you see something, say something and be vigilant to investigate around these events … The good news in Nevada when it ... comes to special events is we have buy-in from industry. We have decals on every stall in every bathroom in the airport to make sure that trafficking victims have the tools that they need to exit the life. 

Q: What is the typical situation in which you see trafficking occur? Is it in massage parlors? Motels?

A: There's certainly an issue with respect to labor and human trafficking in various industries throughout the state. I'll go back to the last prosecution that our office did. This was an individual with ties to criminal enterprise, ties to gangs. Gangs are using human trafficking as a way to fund their criminal enterprises. Unlike narcotics and drugs, gang members, traffickers, can resell a human victim over and over and over again, making that victim a profit center. So in that particular case, it's the Brandon Pruitt prosecution … He trafficked a 14-year-old girl, started in California, brought her over to what we call ... a prostitution track in Las Vegas, and through force, through fraud, through coercion, this particular victim was trafficked. She testified in trial to a rape that one of her johns committed against her and then a subsequent beating by the defendant for his conduct. The court sentenced him to 25 years. 

Q: There’s a huge crowd at this human trafficking seminar. It seems there is a lot of interest in this topic and resources from the federal government, which has produced posters raising awareness about sex and labor trafficking. Why do you think it’s become a growing priority for law enforcement?

A: With respect to resources, in 2017 the department issued $47 million in grants. You have the DHS Blue Campaign that is out there and it should be required reading for everybody in the service industry to make sure that if you see something, say something. It has signs and indications and factors that people should look out for for trafficking victims. With respect to why trafficking is so important, it’s modern day slavery … Despite the fact that these investigations and cases are hard to build, the Department of Justice considers it a priority and is dedicating resources to it throughout the country, not just in Nevada. 

Q: Why is it so hard to build these cases?

A: The reason it's so hard is the control that these traffickers have. The victims, if you talk to survivors of human trafficking, they'll tell you that not only are they scared of their trafficker because of the force and coercion used by that trafficker, but they also are recruited into the life through words of love and manipulation, making the way that the traffickers and victims interact very complicated. … It's a tool that traffickers use — to build their relationship with the victims to further insulate them from prosecution. 

Q: Do you believe there's any nexus between legal prostitution and Nevada brothels and sex trafficking?

A: What I'll say is the Department of Justice is going to attack and combat human trafficking wherever it is. And that's true throughout the state — Vegas, Washoe County, and in the rurals. 

Q: Can you say anything about whether there are any open investigations going on related to Dennis Hof, the former brothel owner and Assembly candidate who was accused of sexual misconduct by former employees and died last October?

A: I can't confirm or deny any ongoing or potential investigation. I appreciate the question, but I just can't go into that.

Q: What are your priorities related to marijuana? Should we expect any sort of a crackdown?

A: I do believe that there's a nexus between drug use and crime statistics. Obviously Nevada's not a safer place with just drugs generally available on every street corner. When it comes to my priorities, I'm focused on drugs that are killing people. Drugs like heroin, drugs like fentanyl, opioids, drugs like methamphetamines. Those are my priorities and we've been extraordinarily successful in the last few years focusing on those particular priorities. I believe no less than 12 medical professionals have been indicted and or sentenced since August 2017 by the US attorney's office when it comes to over-prescription and illicit prescriptions of opioids. I think that's where I'm gonna go.

Q: It appears the trend line for opioid deaths is starting to turn downward after decades of increases. Are you seeing that in Nevada?

A: There's certainly been a surge of resources, public awareness, investigatory resources at the state and local and federal level. I think you're right that we are making a difference and the statistics bear that out. That said, talk to the Yenick family, talk to the Nadler family in Las Vegas. The truth is one victim of an overdose by a doctor that's illegally prescribing to an addict is one death too many. Our office has a dedicated prosecutor on these cases, north and south. We're still investigating cases and we're still going to vigorously prosecute them because not only does it send a general deterrence [message] to medical professionals thinking that this is the path that they will follow, but it also sends a message to victims both past, present and future that the department is not taking its eye off the ball on this issue. 

Q: To what do you attribute this trend taking a turn?

A: We're making a difference in combating it because the issue has the attention of everyone. It has the attention of public officials at the local level, at the state level, and at the federal level, and that because of that attention, we've been able to raise public awareness. You also have nongovernmental agencies that are engaged in prevention. The Boys and Girls Club, various programs at the state level, they're all engaged in raising awareness to make sure that adolescents don't get hooked on these drugs and if they're prescribed them, lawfully know the dangers of addiction. So I think all of that has come together to sort of make a difference in this state and in the nation, though our fight is not over. I want to be clear about that. 

Q: The state has said it has no evidence of diversion, in which legal marijuana is illegally crossing state lines. Do you believe there has been diversion?

A: I look at facts, not based on my belief, and I'm aware of a public audit of the marijuana industry. We're monitoring that and looking at that, obviously, and so I hope that the regulatory scheme improves.

Q: When former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson pleaded guilty in March to misusing campaign funds, there was a statement made at a press conference by an IRS special agent in charge suggesting you were overseeing more than one public corruption case. Should we expect more shoes to drop as it relates to public officials?

A: I can't confirm or deny any ongoing investigation, you know that. But what I'll say is that public corruption is a priority area for the Department of Justice. Obviously, constituents need to have faith that their elected officials are doing right by the communities that they serve. The good news in Nevada is vast, vast majority of public officials are doing just that — serving with integrity, honesty, and humility. And I won't go further than that with respect to any other statements made by me or leadership in federal agencies.


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