“I didn’t think I was a victim,” said Elle Snow. “I thought I was a criminal.”

That was one of the heartbreaking insights into the mind of the former trafficked sex worker who spoke of her experiences as a young kidnapped woman in Sacramento. And as she described her transition from a hard working restaurant manager who was forced into work as a brothel sex worker, she warned the audience that the victims of human trafficking often do not fit the public’s image.

“It doesn’t look like ‘Taken’” she said, referring to the 2008 movie on sex trafficking. “I was a straight-A student,” Snow told the audience. “I was holding down two jobs — one managing a restaurant. I wasn’t into drugs. I wasn’t into guys. I just thought I was going to take a little weekend vacation in Sac.”

Snow was speaking at a seminar put on by the Soroptimist International of St. Helena on Nov. 9 in the St. Helena High School Performing Arts Center.

Snow had been preceded by two panels of speakers who described the state of human trafficking in Northern California. Doris Gentry, a member of the Napa City Council and also an activist against human trafficking, moderated the discussion. St. Helena Vice Mayor Peter White and Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School Principal Karin Cox also spoke briefly to the audience in the introduction of the panelists.

The two panels of speakers were roughly divided into law enforcement officials and anti-human trafficking activists. Included on law enforcement panel were: St. Helena Police Chief William Imboden; Oscar Ortiz from the Napa County Sheriff’s Department; Taryn Hunter, a prosecutor in the Napa County District Attorney’s office; and Andy Jensen from Homeland Security. This first panel briefly spoke of the state of human trafficking in Northern California.

Imboden said that, though there had been no arrests in St. Helena, the police department is aware of the problem in other areas of the county. Hunter mentioned the Nov. 6 conviction of a sex trafficker for pimping and pandering after a Napa County sting following the online advertising for prostitution in Napa County.

Other members of this panel described similar illegal activities – both nationally and in California – and the legal difficulties in getting convictions of the traffickers because the victims of trafficking are often intimidated. All said that education of youth about the mechanisms of the sex trafficking industry was of paramount concern. (See sidebar: “Sex trafficker snagged in Napa County.”)

Included in the anti-human trafficking activist panel were Jane Anderson from AEQuitas; Judith Durham from Napa Emergency Women’s Services; Kathy Wilson from New Day for Children; and Heather Hoffman from 3Strands Global Foundation. Each described individual stories of victimized women that their organizations had helped, and the vigilance and education that children, parents, teachers, administrators, and law enforcement officers need to receive to recognize the activities of human sex traffickers.

Hoffman, from 3Strands Global Foundation, talked about the recent signing of California Assembly Bill 1227 by Governor Jerry Brown, which now requires public schools (grades 7-12) to provide training and education on human trafficking and prevention. California decriminalized child prostitution in 2016.

Behind the statistics offered by the panelists were the stories of individual children who were manipulated and ultimately forced to participate in crimes of human sex trafficking. Elle Snow’s experience – and her brave retelling of how she became entrapped – riveted the audience.

Snow recounted how, at age 19, she was “romanced” by an older man over several months – first in a brief encounter, and then through email and texting in Eureka, Calif.

“I met my trafficker the same way a lot of us do,” Snow said. “You always hear, ‘I met a guy.’ And he was here in rural Humboldt County and we kept bumping into each other. I took this as fate and he portrayed it that way. He met my mom, he met my family. I didn’t realize that I had been marked.”

Snow described her family, and soberly profiled her life growing up: Father absent, poverty, childhood molestation, physical abuse in the home, etc. But despite these obstacles, Snow was a “go-getter” in school, looking to succeed in life. She was, by her standards, on track for that success. But the older man who befriended her, she said, offered her a weekend in Sacramento and – following a heady night of entertainment — she was told she needed to “go to work” in a brothel.

When she refused, the pimp threatened her family in Eureka and she succumbed. Even after she escaped (after two attempts) she said the shame of her actions kept her in emotional captivity as she continued to live the life of a prostitute for more than a year. “I thought I was a criminal,” she said.

Snow said that she finally got some help and offered to testify against her trafficker in court – a legal process that she said took two years before going to trial. After all was said and done, the perpetrator received only a couple of years in jail, and bargained for early release against his time already spent in detention. “He will be out of jail in 2018,” she told the audience and an audible gasp threaded its way through the auditorium.

Today Snow is running the non-governmental nonprofit called “Game Over.” The name of the organization, Snow said, refers to what pimps and traffickers call “The Game” of sex trafficking – an industry which actively promotes the trade through YouTube videos and other social media, Snow said. “You can even search for instructions on how to become a sex trafficker,” Snow said. “I looked it up, and discovered that my trafficker was literally following a point-by-point instruction manual.”

Game Over is currently providing educational training to youth groups, community members, service providers, social workers, medical staff, foster parents, victim advocates, and law enforcement agencies throughout the nation.

Snow is a two-time Soroptimist Ruby Award winner and has been recognized by Congress and Senate members for her work in the anti-trafficking movement. She is a member of Soroptimist International, The Survivor-Leaders Institute, and The National Survivor Network. For more information, visit itsgameover.org.

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Reporter

Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.