“STOLEN” is a year-long NBC 7 investigation into the sex trafficking and exploitation of children in San Diego County. The seven-episode documentary series is told from the perspective of survivors, advocates -- even traffickers, and sex buyers, explaining the depth and scope of this problem in our communities and our schools. And with more children online during the coronavirus pandemic, experts say they are at greater risk of exploitation now more than ever. “STOLEN” celebrates the strength of survivors and their families, as they struggle to free themselves from the bonds of sex trafficking. See the full series here.
Kyler Daugherty has experienced a dark-side of humanity most people could never even begin to comprehend. He is a clean-cut, well-dressed man and looking into his deep blue eyes, it’s hard to fathom the abuse and torture he has suffered. Daugherty is a sex trafficking survivor.
And it’s his story that led detectives with the San Diego County Human Trafficking Task Force (HTTF) to take a new approach with an undercover operation in 2019.
It’s Comic-Con in San Diego; a time when sunshine, laughter and costumed superheroes flood downtown San Diego, CA. More than 135,000 fans travel from around the world to attend the world’s largest and most celebrated comic book convention.
But the entertainment and pop culture extravaganza has a dark and dangerous undercurrent, one that pits real-life villains who are out to profit off of the pain from others as the five-day convention is also a peak time for sex buying.
Undercover detectives with the HTTF see the large demand for sex buying up close.
“Big events bring a lot of tourism and it can generate a larger demand for commercial sex in our city, in our county,” said an undercover task force officer who agreed to speak with NBC 7 under the condition of anonymity.
NBC 7's Monica Dean and Tom Jones speak with an undercover officer for the San Diego County Human Trafficking Task Force about his message for parents in this podcast episode of "Into San Diego." Listen below.
As convention-goers ready their masks and makeup, across town, HTTF detectives and officers are getting ready to launch “Operation Comic-Jon” -- a sting operation that targets sex buyers, sometimes referred to as “Johns.”
The “Comic-Jon” sting is notable for other reasons. The 2019 operation marked a change in strategy for the task force: it was the first time detectives targeted sex buyers shopping for underage boys.
For the first time, Daugherty agreed to share his story on camera with NBC 7 -- the same story that moved detectives to shift their focus, hoping it will save other young boys from being victimized.
On this summer day in July, HTTF detectives are dressed in casual clothes; jeans, ball caps and t-shirts. The group looks more like they belong at a Saturday beach barbecue than on the job, catching criminals. Their laid-back appearance is a stark contrast to the colorful spectacle miles away that characterizes one of San Diego’s largest tourism events.
“Operation Comic-Jon” starts at HTTF headquarters; a two-story building in an office park centrally located in San Diego County. After all, agents know that the evils of sex trafficking are typically not on display in broad daylight but instead on social media and the dark web.
“We have identified social media sites or websites online where we know that some of this can take place,” an undercover task force detective said. “And so we're essentially just splitting up the responsibilities and tackling a couple of different places online.”
Here’s how the sting operation works: in the days and weeks leading up to the sting operation, the undercover detectives created digital profiles, posing as young people and posting them on a variety of websites and apps known for sex buying.
Detectives field inquiries from potential sex buyers who respond to the detectives’ online posts and communicate through text messages and chat rooms.
“The sex buyers, they are blatant, they're bold,” an agent said, adding that it doesn’t take long to elicit a response. “You know what it is that they're asking for. What they're wanting to do.”
10:20 a.m. Friday, Aug. 2, 2019
Inside the undercover HTTF van, NBC 7 accompanies a detective with the task force. The two-way radio is chirping. The detective is one of several on the way to a hotel in Kearny Mesa. At least three detectives are text messaging potential sex buyers who say they’re ready to meet in person.
The detective pulls into the parking lot on the outskirts of the hotel property and waits.
“All I know is that an individual has agreed to do a sex act for money and he will be expecting to show up at a location here soon,” the detective tells us.
A text message comes through and the detective picks up the two-way radio to relay the details, “I just got an update. Apparently, he's out at an ATM and he's four minutes away,” he said. “Let me get a little closer and I'll park and then we can have the take-down team roll in.”
The beep of the walkie-talkie interrupts the tension in the air. The suspect vehicle is spotted pulling into the parking lot and the siren on another unmarked patrol car sounds.
A man is pulled from the driver’s seat and put in handcuffs by the task force. He’s wearing a plain gold-colored t-shirt and jeans that show his ankles. He is quietly surprised but shows little emotion. The arresting officers take the man around the parking lot to a more open location where they collect his information.
Deputy DA Matzger is there on scene to observe the team in action. There is a digital evidence trail showing the suspected sex buyer was expecting to meet an 18-year-old man to pay for a sex act. He told us this is his first time soliciting an act of prostitution.
“I guess it’s my unlucky day today,” the man said. “I never paid before. There were offers, but I never really agreed to it.”
When asked if he had considered if the people who are selling themselves for sex were being trafficked he said, “I never really thought about it.” He said his arrest was a “slap in the face.”
But in the end, the handcuffs are released and the would-be sex buyer walks away.
By California law, the man faces a misdemeanor charge and citation, which will likely result in a fine -- a fact that San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan says is unsettling.
“It is less than a traffic ticket in many cases. It's a $200 fine. You don't really spend any time in jail,” Stephan said. “We're sending a message that this is really no big deal.”
TRAFFICKING ARRESTS IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY & RACIAL DISPARITY
While sex buyers are served citations, San Diego County law enforcement are making arrests.
From 2014 to 2019, police data analyzed by NBC 7 shows 198 suspects were arrested on trafficking and pimping charges in San Diego County. Of those, 183 were prosecuted.
Stephan and advocates say when it comes to the race of traffickers, there are a lot of misconceptions.
“Any age and any race, and that's very, very important to emphasize because a lot of people want to do a stereotype, like a pimp stereotype and it's just not true,” she said. “They come in every color.”
A groundbreaking trafficking study published in 2016 out of San Diego estimated the racial breakdown of traffickers is pretty split, with the majority being White and Black.
But when it comes to arrests, data obtained by NBC 7 shows in the last five years, 83% of people prosecuted for trafficking and pimping were Black. The authors of that trafficking study, Doctors Ami Carpenter and Jaime Gates, told us they weren't surprised by the disparity and said the numbers reflect an overall racial disparity when it comes to the incarceration of Black Americans.
When asked about the disparity, Deputy DA Matzger said, “I do know that what you're saying is true. I don't know what accounts for that discrepancy but the people who are getting arrested are coming from multiple different ways to law enforcement.”
GIRLS AREN’T THE ONLY VICTIMS OF SEX TRAFFICKING: KYLER’S STORY
Law enforcement is beginning to become more proactive about looking for boys victimized at the hands of traffickers.
It’s Daugherty's courage and strength in exposing the most painful moments of his past that are making a difference in how sex trafficking is understood and policed.
“I will live with this forever,” Daugherty said. “It's something that I always say I'll never get over and there's not a single day in my life, that I don't somehow think about it.”
Daugherty says his path to abuse started in the late 1990s in South Dakota. His parents were having behavioral issues with his older brother, so they sent Daugherty to boarding school in Indiana in hopes of sheltering him from the trouble at home.
“I was 15 and pretty much on my own, and I was trying to come to terms with being gay,” he said. “I had a hard time fitting in. I was just a nerdy kid who didn't fit in with the jocks. I didn't fit in with really any group. And being gay, I was called out and made fun of a lot.”
Daugherty said he was 16 years old when he met his trafficker, “Trey.”
“I ended up coming across a predator who took full advantage of that,” Daugherty said. “He saw that I was vulnerable.”
Trey offered him a job in Columbus, Ohio, building websites, and Daugherty says he packed his bags and left the school in Indiana.
“He was my boss. He was my friend,” Daugherty said about Trey.
Daugherty says the work gave him a sense of value and importance, but life in a new place changed in an instant.
Daugherty said he was making more money than he had before and Trey liked to take him to parties and parade him around older businessmen.
“It was kind of like living the MTV lifestyle. It was always flashy, lots of money,” he said.
One night the partying escalated into a situation that would dramatically change the trajectory of Daugherty's life.
“I was drugged. And eventually, I was raped and he [Trey] filmed it,” Daugherty said. “If I did anything he was going to send this DVD to all my family.”
Daugherty said Trey even surveilled his family and showed him the evidence.
“There was always this thought they were going to rob my parents or do harm to my parents,” he said.
Daugherty said he was soon living under Trey’s control with other young boys who were also being held captive and exploited. Throughout 2000 and 2001, Daugherty was sold to sex buyers across Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“I was sold to hundreds if not thousands of men and across many, many states. And I wasn't the only one that I know of. At least -- there were at least 30 in my ring of boys that were being sold,” he said.
Daugherty said the buyers who purchased him came from all walks of life: professionals, construction workers, politicians, law enforcement, and even clergy.
“It was so harmful to me just knowing that here is someone who is supposed to be protecting me and was harming me,” he said.
NBC 7 Investigates reached out to several law enforcement agencies across the U.S. that Daugherty said he contacted to report his abuse, but representatives said they could neither confirm nor deny active investigations.
Daugherty's harrowing escape finally came one night as his trafficker and abuser, Trey, slept in the room next to him.
Daugherty was able to escape but he says fear, shame and the trauma of abuse left him unable to report any of what had happened to authorities. He says it took him eight years to finally begin to accept the trauma, and eventually, he came forward to law enforcement.
Daugherty says his trafficker Trey has since died. He’s been in contact with law enforcement investigators looking into his case across the U.S., but he says it’s been a frustrating process with little justice.
“The hardest thing for me was there were no resources for me. And that's changing, and me speaking out about it, I can't tell you how many nonprofits are now trying to extend their services to males and boys,” he said.
Daugherty relives these traumatic experiences of his past time and time again for the sake of educating others and supporting other survivors. He speaks to law enforcement, medical professionals, students and community groups to help them understand the issue that so few are willing to discuss.
Daugherty is a consultant with North County Lifeline’s Project Life and helps with their awareness and community outreach programs.
“I speak at middle schools, and high schools all across San Diego and I speak nationally,” he said. “I always say I don't like doing this. It's hard, but I keep doing it. I do it because it's saving lives.”
Click here to watch the full "STOLEN" series.
- If you or someone you know could be a victim of sex trafficking or exploitation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text the words "BeFree" or 233733
- If you have a question or story tip for the STOLEN team, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org