Hidden in plain sight: Human trafficking reaches into Palo Alto, Silicon Valley

Original article in the Palo Alto Weekly.

by sue dremann

The young man working at a Mountain View Safeway slammed his head on a commercial refrigerator door, unable to verbally express the ordeal he had been through for nearly a year.

The violent gesture, which alarmed his co-workers, was his least painful experience since moving to Mountain View in the fall of 2012. “John Doe,” an American citizen, was about to make a break for freedom after allegedly being beaten and tortured at home. Santa Clara County prosecutors allege his was a case of domestic labor trafficking.

Throughout the Bay Area and even in wealthy and sophisticated communities such as Palo Alto and Mountain View, people are being enslaved and forced to work for others, according to police and district attorneys in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Hidden in plain sight, immigrants and U.S. born, they are kept in bondage through fear, intimidation and threat. They are monitored almost constantly and are accountable at every moment: while shopping, taking their captor’s children to the park, or even at church, say professionals who work with human-trafficking victims.

Working grueling hours in restaurants, as street peddlers, domestic servants, manual laborers and prostitutes for little or no pay, they are broken down psychologically by their captors so that they believe the only life they will ever live is the one they currently have.

This weekend, the nonprofit Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition (BAATC) is convening a major anti-trafficking event, Freedom Summit 2015, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to raise public awareness of the problem in Silicon Valley and galvanize individuals and agencies to action.

The choice of venue is not coincidental: In 2016, the Super Bowl — which BAATC organizer Betty Ann Boeving said will be the “single largest human trafficking incident in the United States” — will be held there.

Sporting events and large conventions often involve forced labor, Boeving said. It’s the kid standing outside the stadium selling T-shirts or souvenirs, or the maids and other workers in restaurants and hotels catering to the crowds, she said.

“If the hotel’s 60 or 70 percent capacity is suddenly around 100 percent, where will they get the temporary work force?” she asked.

Hotels will unknowingly employ trafficked maids and service workers through contracted businesses, she said.

The problem is greater than one might think. An estimated 100,000 U.S. children are victims of trafficking within the United States, and as many as 17,500 people are thought to be trafficked into the United States each year, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The Bay Area’s major harbors, airports, economy and large immigrant population fuel trafficking, according to the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force. Human trafficking is replacing other types of crime among criminal gangs, since there is less punitive risk and greater reward. A drug is sold once, but a sex slave can be sold and resold, anti-trafficking advocates said. A trafficking conviction can carry a sentence of up to 15 years to life, but when victims are reluctant to testify, as they often are, charges can be reduced to lesser offenses. Pimping and pandering, for example, carries up to six years in prison, but drug-trafficking penalties in California range from four to nine years.

In Santa Clara County, more than 300 potential victims of human trafficking were identified and rescued from 2005 through 2013 by the San Jose Police Department Human Trafficking Task Force and the South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking. Women and children made up the majority of the victims. The cases involved work such as forced sex, domestic servitude, commercial cleaning, forced begging and recycling, servile marriage, restaurant service, peddling, nursing home care, fruit vending and elder care.

The county’s District 5, which includes Palo Alto and Stanford, has seen at least six cases in the past decade, including three domestic servitude, one elder care and two commercial sex cases, according to data collected by the Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center at Santa Clara University and the nonprofit organization Community Solutions.

San Mateo County had 10 cases in 2014, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

But those numbers are thought to represent only a fraction of local human-trafficking cases, law-enforcement and anti-trafficking advocates said.

Human trafficking even came knocking on Boeving’s front door.

“Hi, my name is Roger,” the 17-year-old teen said. He was selling magazines to make money for school.

Boeving wasn’t interested in the magazines.

But then Roger ventured further, Boeving recalled: “What if it’s not magazines that I’m really selling?” he asked.

“It turns out he was prostituting himself to women in a suburban city,” she said. He and other workers were being transported in a van around neighborhoods to sell magazines — and themselves.

Roger’s story is an example that breaks the stereotypes of human trafficking, Boeving said. Victims aren’t always women, and many aren’t immigrants. Trafficking doesn’t take place only in large urban areas; and it does not discriminate in terms of age, social class or gender.

“We want to wipe away the stereotype of human trafficking only happening in areas ‘where I don’t go.’ It’s not just happening in East Palo Alto and Oakland and Richmond — it’s also in the Hillsboroughs and Burlingames and the Athertons and Portola Valleys of this area,” Boeving said.

Nancy Harris, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in San Francisco, has handled labor-trafficking cases, including one in Palo Alto in 2003. The case, which was jointly taken up by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, involved a prominent African scholar who had come to Stanford University and brought her domestic help. It was the first case in the nation where a victim pursued damages, she said.

“It was a model of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act for these types of cases,” Harris said.

Getting survivors to talk about their experiences is difficult. In part, they often don’t realize they have been trafficked, victims’ advocates said. There are also painful memories and feelings of humiliation. Victims are often wary that telling their story publicly is just another form of exploitation, according to some survivors.

But local law enforcement is investigating trafficking incidents, and legal cases are moving through the judicial system, every year. Profiled below are three local cases of alleged trafficking, two of which are being currently prosecuted in Santa Clara County Superior Court, and the one that took place in 2003 in Palo Alto.

‘You cannot object’

John Doe was 16 years old in 2009 when he met Ahmad Moustafa, his sister’s boyfriend.

Six-foot-two and 260 pounds, Moustafa, 29, claimed to have an illustrious past. An official in the Egyptian military who specialized in interrogating terrorists, he now worked covertly for the U.S. Department of Defense, Moustafa allegedly said, according to Doe’s and his sister’s testimonies in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Feb. 20.

Doe looked to Moustafa as a big brother, initially. When Doe became a biology major at a California college, Moustafa began to mentor him. But Doe was not doing that well in school, and Moustafa reportedly convinced him to leave, Doe told police during interviews in 2013.

Moustafa said that if Doe would move with him and Doe’s sister to Silicon Valley, Doe would have a fresh start, Doe testified. They settled in a Mountain View apartment in the fall of 2012.

But rather than improve Doe’s life, Moustafa soon controlled its every aspect, Doe told the court. He allegedly expected Doe and Doe’s sister to give him money, and he confiscated Doe’s passport, credit cards and driver’s license. Doe was forced to work up to three jobs at a time, Doe said.

“If he was not paid, consequences would follow. There would be physical disciplinary action,” Doe said.

And Moustafa allegedly said he had operatives who were hiding everywhere and would kill Doe, his sister and their family if the pair tried to leave, Doe and his sister testified.

In February 2013, physical abuse allegedly began, and it escalated until October and included torture with objects, according to Doe.

Doe did not reveal to his coworkers the source of his cuts, bruises and burns. He would only say he had been in an accident, he said. But when Moustafa allegedly burned Doe’s face on a hot stove in early October, Doe said he reached the breaking point.

“I had considered suicide for a week,” he admitted in court.

On Oct. 4, 2013, Moustafa allegedly made comments that Doe thought indicated that his life would soon come to an end. That’s when Doe, distraught and exhausted, banged his head on the Safeway refrigerator door. An alarmed co-worker asked him what was wrong.

Doe begged the man to drive him south to meet with his parents, and as the two men drove toward San Luis Obispo, Doe finally let his story come out.

Moustafa now faces four felony charges, including human trafficking, and he remains behind bars. In a police interview he denied the allegations. He accused Doe of inappropriately touching his own sister. Also, the older man said, Doe would “provoke” Moustafa, which caused Moustafa to “snap” and hit Doe a couple of times between the legs.

Moustafa initially denied burning Doe’s face on the stove. But he later claimed he turned on the stove and told Doe to look down at the stove so that he would know “what hell feels like,” and that Doe would go to hell if he didn’t stop touching his sister.

Moustafa denied the torture charges, but he admitted to “spanking” Doe with a sandal and a shoe. The bruises on Doe’s face were because Doe was very clumsy and would bump into the door 20 times a day, Moustafa told police.

During the preliminary hearing, Doe and his sister denied that Doe had ever touched her.

Moustafa has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His attorney did not return requests for comment on the case.

Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Steve Dal Porto said it’s natural to wonder why and how two educated and intelligent Americans would not leave their situation. But it does happen.

“They become convinced they have no options,” he said.

Doe echoed that sentiment during his February court appearance.

“When you are in fear of your life, you cannot object,” he said.

‘You are not a powerful person’

There are certain psychological underpinnings in cases where traffickers are immigrants, according to Harris of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

In many cases, those persons were in high positions in their home countries. When they come to the U.S., with their status diminished, something happens that they would probably not do in their home country, Harris said.

“You are not a powerful person (in the U.S.); you have to make more money here. It’s a psychological issue. These people become much more abusive,” toward the lower classes, she said.

Such was the case for one of Harris’ clients, Janice K., a young mother from Kenya who arrived in Palo Alto as a domestic worker in 2002 with her employer, who was to attend Stanford.

Her employer belonged to Kenya’s elite class; Janice came from an impoverished rural village and was the sole supporter of her mother, younger siblings and her daughter. Janice met the woman after moving to Nairobi to earn money and had worked for her for two years, according to the civil lawsuit filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court against her employer.

The woman allegedly promised a $6.75 an hour wage and a six-day workday with Sundays off. Janice would have access to modern equipment such as washing machines and would not have to perform manual labor. The woman also allegedly promised Janice’s child would be brought to the U.S. after they settled in, according to Janice’s lawsuit.

But as soon as they arrived in San Francisco, the woman allegedly confiscated Janice’s passport and visa, Janice’s lawsuit states.

From then on, Janice said, her movements were restricted from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. She was required to do all of the household cooking and cleaning, including hand washing clothes. She cared for the woman’s 2-year-old child 24 hours a day, and she worked seven days a week without a vacation, according to the lawsuit.

Janice said she was confined to the house, except to take the woman’s child to school. The woman allegedly told Janice that her visa did not permit her to go anywhere without the woman’s accompaniment.

Janice said she was always frightened to leave the house and had been told by the woman not to talk to anyone. U.S. law enforcement would arrest and deport Janice if she did, the woman allegedly said.

During the five months she worked for her employer in Palo Alto, Janice claimed she was paid only $370 — a tiny fraction of the minimum wage and overtime to which she was entitled, the lawsuit states.

Janice once asked for higher wages, which made the woman so furious she allegedly shoved Janice and threatened to beat and kill her, Janice stated in her lawsuit. Janice, if she wanted to leave, would have to pay the cost of returning to Kenya, which she couldn’t.

Janice eventually sought help. Attorney John Rinaldi, who has worked pro bono with the Day Worker Center of Mountain View, remembered that Janice came to the center.

“She was very frightened. Because of the dynamics of the situation, I referred her to a major law firm. She had an amazing story that almost bordered on disbelief. The case stood out because of the power this lady had with her connections. I remember looking her up on search engines. She was all over the place,” he said.

Janice feared that if she was deported she would be sent back to Africa where she would have no power against her alleged exploiter’s influences.

“That would be a real scary situation for her, no question,” Rinaldi said.

Harris said that domestic-worker cases are “really tough cases because they are concealed within the household, and there is not usually physical violence.”

Janice’s case was settled, but due to confidentiality the terms are not public, Harris said.

Her alleged trafficker, now living back in Africa, did not respond to an email request for comment. But in a counter-claim against Janice during the lawsuit, the woman alleged that Janice had stolen $950 from her. But it did not claim defamation.

Janice received legal status to remain in the United States, Harris said. She brought her daughter to live with her.

Today, Janice said she doesn’t want to talk about her experiences. They are too painful, she said in response to a request for an interview.

Harris said that Janice has made the most of her life since getting her independence.

“She has definitely moved on.”

‘I am not supposed to say anything’

Prosecution of human-trafficking cases is often hampered by the reluctance of the victims to testify, according to Terry Harman, Santa Clara County assistant district attorney. Part of the problem is getting the victim to recognize they are being trafficked, she said.

None are more frustrating than sex-trafficking cases. A case that starts out with a human-trafficking charge may be reduced to simple pandering when the victim refuses to testify, Harman said.

With child and teen prostitutes, there are a host of socio-psychological factors, said Adriane Beckman, San Mateo County senior deputy probation officer.

Many young trafficking victims aren’t found until they get into the juvenile probation system at about age 16, usually for other misdemeanor crimes, but the average age of entry into child prostitution is 12, according to Beckman. By the time they find their way into the juvenile-justice system, “it’s likely they have been doing it for a while,” she said.

Children are being recruited for sex trafficking in the schools, right under the noses of teachers and parents. Recruiters know to look for vulnerable youth at foster homes and schools. There have been cases of attempted recruitment in Santa Clara County schools. Boeving said there have been a number of incidents in East Palo Alto.

Liz Schoeben, founder and executive director of Counseling and Support Services for Youth in Milpitas, said she has seen cases in which teenage boys pay older girls to recruit younger girls for sex at parties.

“Eliza D.” was first recruited by a 16-year-old student at her Christian school, according to a criminal trafficking case filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court. She was 15 at the time.

Eliza came from a broken home where she was constantly battling with her mother. She couldn’t wait to get out. One day she lamented to a male student about her unhappiness at home, and he told her he had a way out.

“He said he knew how I could make money. He hinted the idea, and he was like, ‘You just have to be available 24/7, and you have to be willing to do things. Sleep with men,'” she told the court during a March 11 preliminary hearing.

The boy took her to his parents’ house where he introduced her to her first pimp, a man she only knew as “Worm,” she said.

Eliza was eventually tracked down by an uncle and brought home, she said.

She then started interacting with a man on a “hookup” social media site called fling.com. The relationship started in her hometown of Vallejo in December 2014 or January 2015. The man, Patrick Simmons, allegedly picked her up at school during lunchtime. They went to motel rooms to have sex; then he returned her to school near bell time, she told police.

Simmons, 32, initially didn’t know she was 15. When she told him, Simmons didn’t communicate for two weeks, she said. But when they spoke again, he allegedly suggested that she could make money for him as a prostitute, Eliza told police.

On Feb. 4, she contacted Simmons and told him she was ready to run away and make money. Through fling.com and escort-service ads, she said, they worked from motel rooms throughout the East Bay, in San Francisco and eventually in Sunnyvale.

Eliza worked almost 24/7 starting at 5 a.m. and ending at 2 a.m., putting the money she made under a Bible in the motel room, she said. Allegedly, Simmons would post her ad on Backpage.com, and she averaged 10 encounters a day. Simmons kept her under surveillance while she was working, waiting in the car. She notified him by phone when a john showed up and when he left, she told police in an interview.

Eliza once messaged her father through Facebook to let the family know she was OK, but she was allegedly not allowed to contact her family, she said.

Simmons allegedly never gave her any of the money she made, and she did not ask him too many questions because he did not like “attitude” from her, she told police. The violence allegedly started in San Francisco in a hotel near the Civic Center, she said. Simmons, who is 5 foot 11 and weighs 215 pounds with a muscular build, questioned why she was not answering the text messages on her phone from possible dates. He allegedly hit her in the face and punched her in the back, Eliza told police.

Another time, Simmons allegedly struck her so hard in the face that it swelled up, preventing her from taking dates, she reported to police.

Anti-trafficking advocates say that victims are almost always found because someone intervenes. In Eliza’s case, workers from Backpage.com notified the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that Eliza appeared to be under age 18 in her ad, according to detectives. The information was sent to the San Jose Human Trafficking Taskforce, and Santa Clara County Human Trafficking Taskforce set up a sting.

When police busted her, Eliza wept.

“She was visibly upset, crying with tears running down her face the whole time. Her tears could be described as coming down her face like a dripping faucet,” Taskforce Officer Jeff Nichols said in his report.

But Eliza wasn’t crying tears of relief, she said.

“I would rather go to jail than to go home,” she told police.

Nichols offered to get her services and help, and she became more cooperative, he said. When he asked Eliza what she knew about Simmons, she became scared and started to cry more, he said.

“I am not supposed to say anything,” she said. Then she asked quietly, “Can he hear me?”

Simmons, who had nearly $7,000 in cash on him at the time of his arrest, faces 11 felony counts, including human trafficking causing a minor to engage in commercial sex involving force or fear. He has prior convictions and served time in prison for pimping and pandering and for selling a person for illicit use and corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant, according to the police report.

Simmons did not make any statements to police during his interview, according to a police report, and he did not testify during the preliminary hearing. His attorney did not return a request for comment, and Simmons has pleaded not guilty.

Despite all that she has experienced, Eliza told a judge during a March 11 preliminary hearing that being with Simmons gave her comfort — more than she had at home. She was grateful that he had taken her away, she said.

“I didn’t even in my head consider him a pimp at all. He was my boyfriend. He was like my everything,” she said.

Beckman, the San Mateo County probation officer, said the juveniles with whom she works “have experienced a lot of abuse. It’s a breeding ground for trafficking. Linking love with abuse is unfortunately a recipe for disaster,” she said.

Traffickers lure in young women of every race and class by exploiting their need for love and attention, she said. The problem is compounded because the girls often fall into the Stockholm syndrome: Those who are abused fall in love with their abuser, she said.

Finding trafficking victims and getting them to talk about the crimes is difficult for law enforcement.

“The victims aren’t running to get help. It’s kind of like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said.

But law enforcement has been trying to build a fragile trust with these young victims, she said. Agencies have been coming around to not treating the victims as criminals, she said.

“We don’t really want a child labeled with prostitution. This is a tag that will follow them. These are young people who are being victimized,” she said.

Officers in many cities are now being trained to ask questions that might lead to discovering trafficking.

“They’re asking about basic human rights — questions such as ‘Do you have food? Do you have water? Do you have a place to stay?’ You’re not putting your agenda on the child, but you’re coming to where the child is at. If they say the pimp is their boyfriend, you take it from there.”

Unfortunately, recidivism is common, she said.

“Typically with this population, they repeatedly go back to their abusers,” she said, noting that brainwashing becomes a large part of the coercion process.

Treating trauma bonding often requires presenting alternatives many times over.

“It takes time. As a mentor said, it’s like running a marathon, not a sprint. You have to be in it for the long haul, because it sometimes takes a lifetime to get to a child of prostitution.”

‘They have to know other people like me care about them’

Since April 1, 2013, Senate Bill 1193, section 52.6 has required “Stop Human Trafficking” posters to be displayed on public transportation and in massage parlors, bars, emergency rooms and medical clinics, and farm labor and job-recruitment centers. It’s part of a statewide effort to increase public awareness and reach out to victims.

“It has to be like the smoking issue, so that it’s common knowledge and it’s everywhere,” said Caryn Huberman Yacowitz, a Palo Alto resident and anti-trafficking advocate who is still haunted by her suspicion that a housekeeper in her neighborhood three decades ago might have been trafficked. “I think they (victims) have to know that other people like me care about them.”

Santa Clara County created a Human Trafficking Commission in April 2014 to address all aspects of human trafficking in the county, from identifying and helping victims to prosecution of traffickers.

“This is one of those problems that’s been hidden in plain view,” county Supervisor Cindy Chavez, commission co-chair, told fellow supervisors.

Raising public awareness is a large part of the campaign, she said.

That’s where public trainings come in, from church groups to schools. Huberman Yacowitz attended a training at her synagogue, and other faith communities in Palo Alto and Menlo Park are including human trafficking in their discussions.

Boeving and others said that people can get involved in many ways. They can join a group to monitor and inform businesses that are supposed to display signage under SB 1193, and they can ask establishments they frequent to post the signs in conspicuous places.

Parents can talk to their children about human trafficking or ask school officials to hold classes on the topic.

Boeving said that people can learn to discern “traffick patterns” wherever they live, work and play. In their neighborhood, they should ask questions: Does the housekeeper seem to never go out, or is she always in the company of the employer? Are a group of people living in a garage and being transported daily to and from the residence in a van? Does the nanny at the park always have bruises on her arms, and is she afraid to talk to anyone?

“Instead of the usual bars on the outside to keep someone from getting into the house, there are bars on the inside of windows to keep people from getting out,” Boeving said of homes where people are enslaved.

In coffee houses and bars, does the same woman arrive several times in a day with different men?

On the streets, is the vendor on the same corner all day without taking breaks to use the bathroom or get food? Does a prostitute seem very young?

In restaurants, mom-and-pop stores, massage parlors and nail salons, does the worker seem to be there for very long hours? Do the workers appear to be living in the back?

When someone suspects human trafficking, Boeving said, they should call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 888-373-7888. In an emergency, call 911.

Saturday’s summit will be a good place to start for people wanting to stem trafficking locally, Boeving said — a “one-stop shop” for information and resources. More information is available at 2015.freedom-summit.org.


Human trafficking is modern-day slavery.

The industries victims are in:

• Commercial sex

• Domestic services (nannies, servants, housekeepers)

• Manufacturing

• Construction

• Farming and landscaping

• Fisheries

• Lodging and tourism

• Massage and beauty services

• Janitorial services

• Food service

• Street vending (fruit, flowers, souvenirs)

How to identify victims:

• The person is accompanied by another person who seems controlling

• The person pretends to be a student or tourist but is not

• The person is rarely allowed or seen in public, except for work

• The person may seem afraid or may have signs of physical or psychological abuse

• The person seems submissive or fearful

• The person lacks identification or documentation

• Someone else holds the person’s pay or money

• The person, especially a prostitute, seems under age

• The person is working long hours with no bathroom or food breaks

• The person is picked up by a van with others at the end of the long day

• The person appears to be living with other persons in the back of the business, and the door is locked

Questions to ask a person you suspect is being trafficked

• Can you leave your job or situation if you want?

• Can you come and go as you please?

• Have you been threatened if you try to leave?

• Has anyone threatened your family?

• What are your working or living conditions like?

• Where do you sleep and eat?

• Do you have to ask permission to eat, sleep or go to the bathroom?

• Is there a lock on your door so you cannot get out?

• Does someone prohibit you from socializing or attending religious services?

Note: Before questioning a person who may be a victim of human trafficking, discretely separate the person from the individual accompanying him or her. The trafficker could be posing as a spouse, family member or employer.

Understanding the trafficked victim

• Many victims do not speak English and do not understand American culture

• Some victims do not know what city or country they are in because they are force to move often

• Most victims have a strong feeling of distrust because they fear deportation or incarceration

• Many victims do not see themselves as victims and do not realize that what is being done to them is wrong

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Asian Americans for Community Involvement, Domestic Violence Advocacy Consortium Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Task Force


All calls are confidential

• Local police department, 911

• Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Task Force, 408-918-4960

• AACI Asian Women’s Home (Languages: English, Vietnamese, Chinese and other Asian), 408-975-2739 (24-hour hotline)

• Freedom House (in San Mateo County), 650-488-0831

• The Katharine and George Alexander Community Law Center (at Santa Clara University), 408-288-7030

• MAITRI (Languages: English, South Asia, including Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Fiji Islands), 888-862-4874

• National Human Trafficking Hotline, 888-373-7888

• Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence (Languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese), 408-279-2962

• YMCA Silicon Valley Domestic Violence Department Support Network Program (Languages: English and Spanish), 800-572-2782 (24-hour)

Information resources

Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, baatc.org

Counseling and Support Services for Youth, cassybayarea.org

Cross Bay Collaborative, sagesf.org/trafficking-program

Polaris Project, polarisproject.org

South Bay Coalition to End Human Trafficking, southbayendtrafficking.org

Calculate Your Slavery Footprint, slaveryfootprint.org

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Asian Americans for Community Involvement, Domestic Violence Advocacy Consortium Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office Human Trafficking Task Force