In 2015, Dallas Grassbaugh was 23, homeless and supporting a debilitating drug habit by selling her body for sex. Then she met Shane Roach. She'd already escaped two sex traffickers by then, and Roach, an aspiring hip-hop artist from Albuquerque, promised he could help and protect her.
Roach bought her a meal and drove her to a motel, where she rented a room. Inside, he took away her cellphone and ID and told Grassbaugh she now belonged to him.
He imposed several rules: She wasn't allowed to go anywhere without him or contact anyone without his approval. She was required to call him "Daddy." For insurance, Roach reminded her that he knew where her father and brother lived. And he showed her a picture of her grandmother's house in another state.
Roach advertised Grassbaugh online, offering sex with her in exchange for money, all of which he kept.
She was forced to work from 7 am every morning until 4 am the next day. If men stopped calling, she was allowed a few hours to sleep, but at 7 am, she was on duty again.
One day, he drove her into the desert west of Albuquerque.
"He beat the hell out of me with his pistol, and told me that he would bury me out there if I tried to leave or if I disobeyed him," Grassbaugh tells SFR.
Once, when Roach thought she'd tried to contact someone without his permission, he beat her with the telephone in a motel room until her skin split open and blood gushed down her face. He then informed her he planned to sell her to another pimp—a transaction that, if completed, would mark the fourth trafficker in just a few years who considered her his property.
Grassbaugh escaped soon after, with help from a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that aids sex trafficking survivors and police. She went on to testify in court against Roach for nearly 10 hours, helping prosecutors send him to prison for more than a decade.
Grassbaugh's waking nightmare is common.
SFR spoke with survivors and reviewed sex trafficking cases rooted in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and other states that bear numerous similarities to those here. Victim advocates and one of the state's leading law enforcement experts on the issue say trafficking is rampant across New Mexico. Women report being sold for sex online, in motel rooms, massage parlors, casinos, truck stops and at camps set up to house oil and gas workers.
But examining the scope of trafficking in New Mexico and whether it's on the rise here is difficult; there are no uniform terms used by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors for trafficking-related crimes.
For example, when SFR asked the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Department for data on trafficking cases, spokesman Juan Rios responded: "What is your definition of sex trafficking?"
Further complicating the picture, the state's police and sheriff's departments don't mandate training for officers and deputies on how to identify sex traffickers or their victims, which can be a nuanced, difficult job, because the crimes are designed to be hidden in plain sight.
Figures provided by the state attorney general's office show sex trafficking investigations holding steady at about 40 cases a year since 2016.
Santa Fe Police Chief Andrew Padilla declined to be interviewed for this story, referring questions to a sergeant who never responded.
Kyle Hartsock is the special agent in charge of criminal investigations for the Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office. Previously, he spent 15 years with the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office, where he created the Ghost Unit, a specially trained group of deputies who worked numerous sex trafficking and child exploitation cases. Hartsock says sex traffickers are preying on women across New Mexico, particularly those struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction.
"It's more prevalent than anyone has accurate records on," Hartsock tells SFR. "A big part of that is misidentification of what trafficking looks like."
Inconsistent definitions make tracking trend lines around the state tricky. What one agency deems a case of sex trafficking, another agency may classify as a case of domestic violence.
Sex trafficking falls under New Mexico statutes in the broader category of "human trafficking," defined as someone knowingly recruiting, soliciting, enticing, transporting or otherwise forcing a person to perform labor or services, or forcing them to engage in sexual activity. But that definition doesn't kick in for sex trafficking cases until the prosecution phase; it doesn't apply to investigations by police.
Hartsock says he's seen countless cases in which investigators missed obvious warning signs that someone was the victim of sex trafficking. Officers most commonly mistake sex trafficking for domestic violence or drug cases. He attributes this to a lack of training within law enforcement agencies.
"There's no mandated training that I know of that has to do with human trafficking or sex trafficking," he says. "I think it should be part of the Department of Public Safety standards that every new police officer should have to go through training to recognize what these victims look like. But right now, most of the training is reserved for detectives."
Hartsock says better training for detectives statewide would help, but courses for patrol officers could potentially make an even bigger difference. Detectives only speak with trafficking victims after they've been identified as a victim (or suspected perpetrator) of a crime. Every other interaction a victim has with a police officer—with someone who might be able to free them—is with patrol officers.
Most victims of trafficking report being coached by their traffickers on how to answer questions asked by police, advocates and authorities say. Some are instructed not to speak at all. Others are told to say they do not have a pimp and have chosen to work as an escort. If the officer who's questioning them hasn't received the training needed to spot the signs of sex trafficking, that officer could simply believe the scripted answers, or assume they don't want help.
Prostitution is illegal everywhere in the US, except for parts of Nevada. Still, many adults do willingly, safely and consensually sell sex. However, trafficking advocacy groups say that, in New Mexico, most adults offering sexual services are being forced or coerced in some manner.
Traffickers are also increasingly preying on children; homeless and runaway teens are especially popular targets.
Jazmine Goodman, a victim advocate for the Albuquerque nonprofit Spoken For, says most homeless children are approached by a trafficker within the first 48 to 72 hours of being on the streets.
"They approach them with these empty promises of a better life," she tells SFR, "but then they quickly turn to control and abusive relationships that almost immediately turn into some sort of trafficking situation."
Traffickers hunt for victims online and in person, and employ a variety of tactics when targeting a victim. Most look for vulnerabilities to exploit: problems at home, recent painful breakups, financial troubles or insecurities about their appearance.
Increasingly through the years, traffickers have used the internet to sell women's and girls' bodies. For years, the website most prominently used to advertise sex was Backpage.com, which was often criticized for facilitating sex trafficking and the trafficking of children. On April 6, 2018, federal authorities seized Backpage's domain name, following a raid on the home of one of its founders. In late April 2018, the company pleaded guilty to human trafficking in Texas.
Shortly following Backpage's closure, President Trump signed off on new laws, known as FOSTA/SESTA, intended to give prosecutors more power to go after websites thought to be enabling sex trafficking. Some applauded the new laws, hoping they would remove a valuable tool used by traffickers.
But the New Mexico AG's Office tells SFR the federal laws have not reduced trafficking in the state. In 2016, the office took on 43 sex trafficking investigations. That figure dipped to 36 in 2017, then ticked back up to 42 last year.
With the closure of Backpage, traffickers moved their sex ads to other websites and smartphone apps. It also took away a tool used by police to find and arrest traffickers.
Hartsock and his team frequently used Backpage in their investigations. He says Backpage's closure not only makes it more difficult to track the traffickers, it makes it harder to judge how much trafficking is happening in New Mexico.
"Backpage gave us a medium where you could gauge increase or decrease of prostitution ads, and with it gone, it just decentralized it and makes it harder to detect," he says. "It's also moving to applications like Tinder and Snapchat that you can't really do daily counts on because of the way the platform's set up."
The hospitality industry has faced heavy criticism—and litigation—as an alleged link in the trafficking chain in New Mexico and elsewhere. Lawyers and advocates say operators have not done enough to prevent these activities, and have not provided staff proper training on ways to spot the signs of trafficking.
Annie McAdams, of the Texas-based law firm Annie McAdams PC, has filed multiple lawsuits against motels, alleging willful participation in the trafficking of women and girls. Last month, McAdams filed a suit in New Mexico against the Albuquerque Motel 6 on University Boulevard, which is located just off the interchange for I-25 and I-40.
The lawsuit, filed in District Court in Albuquerque on behalf of a sex trafficking survivor listed in court filings as "Jane Doe #17," alleges the underage victim was "instructed by her trafficker to meet johns" at the motel, and that despite a "constant flow of male customers" to and from the girl's room, the motel's staff refused to take steps to alert authorities.
Motel 6 did not respond to a request for comment.
In a case Hartsock worked in late 2017 and early 2018, he uncovered some of the intricate ways in which trafficking works in New Mexico—and how traffickers move from city to city, even enlisting women who are being trafficked themselves as a sort of go-between to ensnare other women.
According to an affidavit for an arrest warrant he filed in state District Court, the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office rescued a 16-year-old girl—referred to as "Jane Doe" in court records due to her age—who had been transported from Albuquerque to Santa Fe in late 2017 by two women working as prostitutes.
BCSO's investigation found that, though the two women worked for a pimp named Andrew Wyatt, he'd given them some time off and they wanted to earn some money that Wyatt wouldn't keep. According to police, they went to Santa Fe because the work was more lucrative than in Albuquerque. In a text message obtained by police, one of the women said the last time she worked in Santa Fe she made $700.
One of the women insisted they bring Jane Doe with them, a "youngin" she had once worked with, and the trio rented a room at a motel on Cerrillos Road. They stayed there for four days, and each day, ads offering sex with Jane Doe were posted online. Jane Doe told police she did not post the ads herself, that she was forced to have sex with three to four men each day while in Santa Fe, and that she was forced to pay for the room and food.
Police say one of the women kept every dollar paid by men for sex with Jane Doe, and that she tried to negotiate a new payment structure with Wyatt wherein he would keep 50 percent of what the woman earned, but the woman would keep 100 percent of what Jane Doe earned.
After leaving Santa Fe, Jane Doe was transported to the Phoenix, Arizona, area by a man named John Dompierre. There, she was again sold for sex online. In April of 2018, Dompierre, Wyatt and six others—Chante Bickham, Camara Cherry-Amos, Breeauna Langton, Keron Eugene Lucious, Jason L Jackson and Devin Perkins—were indicted on federal child sex trafficking charges in connection to this case. On March 11, Jackson was convicted of trafficking a minor. The other cases are still pending trial.
Another survivor who spoke with SFR on the condition of anonymity says she was lured to New Mexico from a different state by a man she met on social media. She'd been having family problems, and he told her he could help get her away from the situation by giving her a place to stay—all she had to do was get to Albuquerque. So she bought a plane ticket.
When she arrived, he confiscated all her belongings and beat her repeatedly before locking her in a closet. She was unconscious for a long period of time; she believes it could even have been several days. Once she regained conciousness, the man photographed her in lingerie and posted the photos online in an ad selling her for sex.
Like Grassbaugh, she wasn't allowed to speak to or see anyone without his approval, and the threat of another beating always loomed. He took her to motels near the Albuquerque International Sunport where she met the men who called the number in the ads. The trafficker kept every cent.
When not in a motel being forced to sell herself to strangers, he kept her locked inside his home. One day, he went to the airport to pick up another girl and forgot to lock the door. Realizing it was her best chance to escape, she ran to a neighbor's house, banged on the door and pleaded for help. The neighbor helped her call police.
Her trafficker was arrested and she was taken to Santa Fe where she found help from The Life Link, a nonprofit with a mission to work for the "hungry, homeless and displaced," that aids survivors of sex trafficking and others rebuild their lives by providing housing, access to education and help finding jobs.
Grassbaugh sought help from The Life Link as well before Roach could sell her to another pimp. She was in a motel room in Albuquerque awaiting the other man's arrival when she decided to call.
"I had to reach out for help, otherwise I knew my family would never see me again," she says.
Because she was in immediate danger, The Life Link advised her to call police in Albuquerque.
It was a risky call to make. If police viewed her as a victim of a crime and arrested the man who'd been holding her captive, she would be free. If they didn't believe her or didn't arrest him, at best she would receive another vicious beating or be arrested herself. At worst, Roach, who always carried a gun, would make good on his promise to bury her in the desert.
She made the call.
"I ended up getting scared after calling and hanging up," she says. "At that point, they had already zeroed in on my location and they came anyway."
Police arrived and took her in for questioning. She was safe—for now. But Roach still hadn't been arrested. What she didn't know was that while she was being questioned, police were working to determine his identity.
Internet searches identified Roach and, through surveillance, police learned he was trafficking other women as well. They arrested him in a sting operation on June 29, 2015.
Roach was charged with human trafficking, conspiracy to commit human trafficking, kidnapping and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Grassbaugh testified against him. In a courtroom full of strangers, she re-lived every horrible detail about the things Roach forced her to do, and the brutal beatings she received.
"I was on the stand from about 8 o'clock in the morning until 6 o'clock at night," she says.
After a four-day trial, the jury deliberated for about three hours. When they came back, they announced they'd found Roach guilty of sex trafficking. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and is incarcerated in Arizona.
While cops, courts and government agencies may have different definitions of sex trafficking, members of law enforcement, lawyers and victims' advocates all agree that every single day, women are being forced to sell sex.
"People think Albuquerque is too small, or Santa Fe is too small—when actually, it's happening very, very often," says Goodman of Spoken For. "We have a lot of it happening within our cities, and it's really important that we change that mentality that we don't have to talk about it here."
How you can help
Common signs of sex trafficking include young girls who are accompanied by a much older person; a woman who won't speak for herself or doesn't seem allowed to answer questions on her own; someone who doesn't have any sort of identification; and anyone who won't look others in the eye.
Christine Barber, executive director of Street Safe New Mexico, says if something looks suspicious, don't hesitate to report what you've seen. "The biggest thing is to trust your gut," she says. "If it looks weird, then it is weird. Don't overthink it."
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 888-373-7888.
In New Mexico, The Life Link operates a human trafficking hotline at 505-GET-FREE.
If you're in need of help, spot something suspicious or want more information on how to combat sex trafficking, you can call or text either number 24 hours a day.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
National Human Trafficking Hotline
Street Safe New Mexico
For the One