Young victims in human trafficking cases often stay with their abusers because they are trained to do so, a prosecution witness testified Friday.
“These victims are almost robotically obedient to the trafficker,” said Sharon Cooper, a developmental and forensic pediatrician who teaches at the University of North Carolina.
Cooper was called by the prosecution to testify in the trafficking trial of Oscar Higueros Jr., a former Cayucos firefighter charged with 35 crimes in a case involving a Los Osos teenager.
According to the District Attorney’s Office, Higueros met the teen, referred to as Jane Doe, through a Craigslist ad in July 2014 and paid $150 to have sex with her while the 17-year-old girl’s mother and sister were out of state. The ad had been placed by Richard Brooks, who had sought to pimp the girl out after meeting her through a separate Craigslist ad a few days earlier.
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Brooks, who connected Jane Doe and Higueros, was convicted of several offenses for his role. This month, he was sentenced to 61 years and eight months to life in prison.
The girl testified previously that she moved in with Higueros after a fight with her mother. While Higueros initially represented a safe haven, she told jurors, he eventually became threatening and abusive, at one point trying to get her to sign a master-slave contract. The prosecution also alleges that he forced her to make sex videos, which he planned to post online for money.
“I felt like I had no other option,” the girl testified earlier in the week.
Higueros’ attorney, Jay Peterson, however, suggested she did have options: She had friends and relatives she could have stayed with, he said through questioning. During her monthlong stay with Higueros, she once even returned to her home in Los Osos and had dinner with her mother, he pointed out. She also had access to a car, phone and money.
“You had other places you could go, right?” Peterson asked.
“Not exactly,” Jane Doe answered.
To counter the defense argument that the teen wanted to stay with Higueros, the prosecution called Cooper to the stand. Cooper, who has testified in 17 other trials involving minors and trafficking, said victims of trafficking suffer from what she called child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome. Those victims, she said, are groomed to be slaves.
Those who have been molested at a young age are especially susceptible to traffickers, she said, because they have low self-esteem and believe they were at fault for their own molestation.
Jane Doe testified that her grandfather had molested her for several years. When she told her mother about the abuse, she said, the grandfather committed suicide.
Traffickers, Cooper said, frequently punish their victims, often by choking them.
Jane Doe and two other women have testified that Higueros choked them and tied belts and dog leashes around their necks.
Choking, Cooper said, forces “trauma bonding” because the trafficker makes the victim think she’s going to die but then lets go, making the victim feel grateful.
“Most of the victims I’ve seen have a slave-master relationship,” she said.
Traffickers also want their victims to call them names like “daddy,” something Jane Doe and other women alleged that Higueros did.
“It convinces the child that they are completely subservient,” Cooper said.
The defense plans to call its own human trafficking expert witness, Alexandra Lutinick, a researcher at UC Berkeley. According to a description by Columbia University Press, Lutinick’s book, “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” “considers the experiences of both those who ‘choose’ sex work and those who are forced into it by circumstances or third parties.”