HOUSTON—On this bright Sunday in February, history is being made.
A few miles away, some 72,000 people decked out in jerseys and waving big foam fingers are gathered at NRG Stadium for pro football's biggest event, Super Bowl LI. Over the next several hours, the New England Patriots will come back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to send the game into overtime for the first time ever. About 111 million people around the world are watching on TV and online as the Patriots overcome a 25-point halftime disadvantage, scoring the last 31 consecutive points to take home the Lombardi Trophy.
But the real history is being made by about a dozen people gathered at a small church in a tiny suburb where no fans are watching.
For the last three days, a unique mix of software developers, intelligence operatives and former members of the U.S. Special Operations Forces has been working together, trolling hundreds of local online sex ads to find underage girls being trafficked, to identify and locate their pimps, and then hand ready-made cases over to law enforcement agencies.
It may be football fans’ high holy day, but the Super Bowl is nothing short of hell for underage kids who are being sold against their will.
Which is why the tallies that will matter most by the end of Operation Game Changer, as it's been dubbed internally—the group’s first trip to the Super Bowl— is that two national trafficking networks will have been identified, 44 individual traffickers will have been pinpointed and eight actionable cases will have been built and handed over to law enforcement agencies in three states—five of which can be prosecuted federally since they crossed state lines. That's roughly the amount of work another organization might be able to accomplish in a year.
This is DeliverFund—an anti-trafficking group started by former CIA operative Nic McKinley, 38. And as it enters its third year of operation, it's already making a huge dent in the trafficking world. Rather than rescuing girls directly, the focus is on taking out the big fish: The men and women who make them available for sale. To do that, the group uses terrorist-tracking tools that heretofore were available only to the federal government; DeliverFund is the only nonprofit nationwide that uses them for anything other than training purposes.
“We're computer nerds with operational capabilities." McKinley says simply. “There is no overall picture of human trafficking in the United States. No one can tell you what that looks like—including us. But we are the organization that's starting to develop that picture.
"There are a lot of really good intentions in the anti-trafficking world, but very little capability thrown behind most of them. I realized the opportunity to throw world-class capability behind noble intent, and that is why DeliverFund has become such a wrecking ball to the human-trafficking industry.”
MAKING THE TEAM
DeliverFund may have burst onto the scene only recently as an organization, but the seeds for it were planted 10 years ago.
In 2007, McKinley was fresh out of an 11-year career in the U.S. Air Force, doing some personnel recovery work for privately owned businesses. When an American girl went missing while visiting a Mexican resort, he heard the term “human trafficking" applied to a domestic situation for the first time.
"Before that, it was always through the lens of 'that overseas stuff,' girls in Cambodia and Thailand," he explains.
Shortly afterward, the CIA came knocking on his door, recruiting him to be part of a specialized unit conducting full-spectrum intelligence operations in high-risk areas.
“We spent a lot of time in places ending in '-stan,’ a lot of Africa time," McKinley recalls.
A few years and a few dozen deployments later, he was promoted into a position as the country team leader in a hostile region of the Middle East.
“It was a lot of responsibility, and part of that was to be a representative to the hostage working group," he tells Citizen. "I remember sitting in a board room in an embassy listening to the largest bureaucracy, the most powerful military and justice might the world has ever seen, talk themselves out of being able to help two American kids who'd been taken by their father to this non-extradition country and selling them to their uncle (presumably for sex)."
The CIA is prohibited from collecting information on U.S. citizens, so McKinley couldn't move to stop the children's father. Meanwhile, the FBI refused to get involved, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was absent because the crime was happening in the Middle East
“I was not so much angered as just appalled by the fact that the most powerful country the world has ever seen can kill people with flying robots from 6,000 miles away, but we can't do anything to help our own people who've been taken to another country and sold."
The meeting took place in early 2015—McKinley's 30th and final deployment.
While stationed in Iraq in 2009, he met Jeremy Mahugh, an affable former Navy Seal and fellow Montana native who was doing intelligence operations work in the area. The two quickly hit it off.
“Nic was just one of those really squared-away guys,” recalls Mahugh, now 40. “He’d been to that area before and it was my first time there, so I was learning from him. There's a small percentage of us who would put in the time to get things done, work late nights. Here was a guy who was mission-focused, mission first. He gets it.”
McKinley was reading “lots of books on human trafficking” at the time: Mahugh was fascinated.
In 2014, the two reconnected over lunch in Washington, D.C., as Mahugh was returning from Iraq and McKinley was on his way to one of the -stans. McKinley discussed the anti-trafficking organization he was hoping to start in the near future.
“I don't know what it really was in me that this cause triggered—it was just the right thing to do," Mahugh recalls. "So I said, 'Let me know when you're ready to bring this to fruition, and I'll stop whatever I'm doing. I'm all in.' "
That day came in April 2015, about six weeks after McKinley resigned from the Agency and returned to his home in Albuquerque, N.M. But Mahugh—a natural networker who'd just finished managing a political campaign—had already been busy fundraising for four months.
A few weeks later, the two met Tara Bradford—also a Montana native, now 47—who would become the third particle in DeliverFund's nucleus. She was the founder of a nonprofit organization called FACES (Foster Adoptive Community Empowerment and Support) in Bozeman, and good friends with McKinley’s younger sister, who mentioned that he and Mahugh would be in town talking about the new organization they were starting.
“I went to a small gathering,” Bradford recalls. “At the end, Nic said, ‘If you have a particular skill, we'd love to talk to you.’ At the time, it was The Nic and Jeremy Show, and I was like, 'Two military guys running a non-profit? They need help!’ ”
Within 24 hours, Bradford was part of the team, starting by coordinating McKinley's schedule. But she quickly found her skills being called into play to handle increasing amounts of DeliverFund's organizational aspects, and has been a salaried staff member since last October.
“Tara has really stepped up and helped us with finding insurance, getting all the business administrative things under control,” Mahugh tells Citizen. “She works with accountants, attorneys, managing payroll for people, contracts, all that stuff. And she's been working on (getting) grants. She's been a huge part. We wouldn't be here without her.”
TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK
With the nucleus established and eight years of research and foundation-setting behind it, DeliverFund began to build out its operational capabilities in earnest. The main goal: To augment law enforcement's investigative capabilities in every way possible to help them make arrests and reach convictions of trafficking more quickly—thereby removing the source of the problem from society, and rescuing not only the underage girls currently in each pimp's network, but his or her future victims as well.
"We go into a market, evaluate what the needs are and then fill those needs,” McKinley explains.
And the needs, when it comes to fighting trafficking, are plentiful.
For example: "There's one local police department that claims to have a human trafficking unit. And on paper, they do," McKinley says. "But they didn't actually allocate any funding for it. The detectives on that unit are actually assigned to another task force. So they're really wearing two hats—one of which is permanently put in a closet."
Resource allocation isn't just an issue when it comes to manpower, either. There's an immense gap between the amount of money federal and state governments give to the war on drugs, and the amount spent on fighting human trafficking. According to the Generation Freedom coalition—a network of anti-trafficking groups nationwide—the federal government spent $242 million fighting human trafficking around the world in FY 2016, compared to $30.5 billion spent in the war on drugs.
Enter DeliverFund—emphasis on the fund. Thanks to a mix of donations from private businesses, individual donors and foundation grants, the group was working with a $600,000 operating budget in only its second full year, and refuses to take government money itself in order to avoid the handcuffs that come with being a state actor.
"We feel that would hinder our ability to do what we're called to do," McKinley explains. “But if we inform (law enforcement agencies) on what we’re doing, then they can do whatever they want with that information and set up their organizations in such a way that there's synergy between them.”
For example, McKinley hosts a weekly meeting attended by a mixture of investigators from police departments, county sheriff’s offices, attorney generals' offices, and federal law enforcement officers at a nondescript facility in a highly questionable Albuquerque neighborhood to discuss trafficking cases they're all currently working on, compare notes and share intelligence. Before DeliverFund set up shop in town, communication between those groups was spotty at best—as were their results.
DeliverFund currently has working relationships with law enforcement agencies in five states, and hopes to double that number by the end of 2018. "We really exist to resource the local guys," McKinley says. “We like to help the federal guys, and we do—but the local guys are the ones who do a lot of the heavy lifting.”
To that end, DeliverFund has been known to buy computers—or insanely expensive proprietary software licenses—for departments that can't afford them. For less-frequent needs, it acts as a shared resource for departments that require things like special camera equipment. And it runs a 10-today training course at its Albuquerque headquarters for departments to learn the computer programs.
“They can build four to five cases in their own jurisdiction before they leave that class,” Mahugh points out.
But the one aspect that really raises DeliverFund above every other player in the anti-trafficking game is the group of specialists who make up its International Human Trafficking Analysis Center (iHTAC).
Which brings us back to Houston, where Operation Game Changer is under way.
CALLING THE PLAYS
In a large room on the second floor of an evangelical church, six long folding tables are spread out in a large rectangle. They are crowded with laptops, iPads and computer monitors—some propped up on copies of the Bible and Purpose Driven Youth to create the right ergonomic angles for the users. Over the next few days, the space between the electronics will ebb and flow with a steady pulse of coffee cups, water bottles, cans of Red Bull and Monster energy drinks and snack bags of trail mix—sustenance for the 18 analysts working 12-hour shifts to build actionable cases to report to police.
Some are DeliverFund staff. In addition to McKinley and Mahugh, there's a pair of former Delta Force operators—one of whom is highly decorated, and the other of whom is fluent in seven languages ("I learned what the 'gift of tongues’ was when I met him," McKinley jokes). There's also an Army Special Forces veteran whose career-ending injury hasn't stopped him from being one of the quickest case-builders on the team; a former Marine who just retired from a SWAT unit; and a former Ranger-certified Green Beret who lives nearby.
Some are people from the iHTAC member groups: Emily Kennedy, 26, whose company Marinus Analytics provides a software program called Traffic Jam that DeliverFund relies on heavily in its investigative work; Daniel Clemens, 38, founder of Shadow Dragon Cyber Intelligence, which is one of the premier firms in the cyber-investigation arena; and Brian Dykstra, 48, whose company Atlantic Data Forensics usually works with lawyers to pull information from people's cell phones.
And there's an assorted mix of advocates: CaraLee Murphy, 35, U.S. aftercare manager for the A21 Campaign, which works with DeliverFund to rehabilitate trafficking victims, and Amor Sierra, 50, a DeliverFund board member and owner of the Miami Tattoo Company, who donates her talents to removing pimps’ tattoos from victims. Also present are two financial supporters—Atlanta Braves pitcher Blaine Boyer, 36, and his buddy Adam LaRoche, 37, who retired last year from the Chicago White Sox.
A deep-learning machine at Carnegie Mellon University has been trolling sex ads on Backpage.com and affiliated Web sites for several days, looking for a set of pre-determined indicators of possible trafficking to generate several hundred leads. These are where the analysts start their investigations.
The ads are filled with photos of girls who look like they could be underage, who clearly didn't take selfies, who might look stiff or posed. Photos that sometimes include other girls—and sometimes, parts of feet or hands that look like they might belong to a man holding the camera or even holding down the girl. "They're pretty casual about it, because the risk (of getting caught) is so low,” McKinley says.
The team looks for specific indicators and counterintelligence tactics when identifying these networks. “People who change things that are not normally changed," McKinley says. “That's probably someone trying not to get caught."
Working as a unit, Kennedy and Sierra take an ad and drop the number listed on it into Traffic Jam, the program Kennedy developed. The results show five phone numbers associated with it. Most are throw-away phones, but occasionally, a number turns up a real name and other identifying information.
Sometimes the number is associated with a fixed location, like a massage parlor. The group avoids those ("cops tend to already know about them,” McKinley says). Other times, the number may show up on a Web site called The Erotic Review, which is like Yelp—except the only people who use it are men who've bought sex from prostitutes. That can be an indicator of trafficking.
Once they have a potential name, Kennedy and Sierra drop it into a different application, called Circus, that searches 255 social networks—everything from Facebook and Instagram to food-delivery service programs, offshore sites and the “dark Web" (the background of the Internet that allows users to remain anonymous because it can only be accessed through specialized programs).
“It's insanely expensive and law enforcement doesn't have it." McKinley tells Citizen of Circus. “So that's something we can do on their behalf so they don't have to take seven or eight hours trying to find that person's Facebook page. We can do it for them, download every single post (the suspect has) ever made, who all their friends are, every photo they ever put on Instagram so law enforcement can get to the end of the rainbow a whole lot faster.”
Another program trolls the Facebook pages of suspected traffickers every five minutes for updates, where evidence of their activities is often posted. That's just how bold some of these criminals are.
With the data in, the analysts find links to other social media accounts, then run photos through a facial-recognition program. A three-dimensional picture of the alleged trafficker's identity is starting to develop.
"I like this one," McKinley says, as he looks over Kennedy's and Sierra's shoulders at their monitor. “Who has that many phone numbers?”
A few minutes later, the analysts hit paydirt on a target—a burner phone, complete with an email address, associated with a girl calling herself “Asia Love,” whose Facebook account shows some kind of relationship with a 48-year-old male—with a home city listed. Other girls' names show up as being associated with his phone number. It looks like a trafficking ring.
“This is where the human mind comes in,” McKinley says. “What makes the most sense for what you're looking for? This guy has a record. Illegal use of a weapon, failure to register a motor vehicle—that's pretty common with traffickers—unbelted minor in the front seat. That's interesting. Possible employer? None found. That's an indicator.”
Kennedy writes up the first report of the operation as the other analysts chase down more leads. When they find a good one, they stream the girl's photo onto a large screen mounted in one corner of the room so others don't duplicate their efforts. If it takes them more than 30 minutes to determine whether a particular photo shows evidence of human trafficking, they assume it doesn't and move on to the next lead.
The teams work around the clock in this fashion. It will take them, on average, about six hours to build an actionable intelligence report they can send to law enforcement.
The hours tick by, as the soda cans and coffee cups proliferate and salacious photo after salacious photo is displayed on the big screen in the corner.
Toward midnight, one of the Delta Force operators notes dryly:
“It just occurred to me that we're all here looking at porn in church.”
ON THE GRIDIRON
There's a reason so many special ops guys are involved with DeliverFund: Only half of the group’s activities involve computer investigations. The other half entails physical verification of suspected traffickers—and it helps to have people who can handle themselves if complications arise.
“It's one thing to have cyber capabilities, and another thing to have on-the-ground capabilities," McKinley explains. “The guys who can do both are unicorns."
“Guys home on leave, looking for things to do—we can put them to work for a few weeks at a time, pay them to do what they already do on a different front."
“Part of the reason I recruit the people I do,” McKinley explains, "is because we have a lot of guys with a lot of really scary experiences under their belt, and we’re not looking for any more excitement.”
The field teams have plenty to do in Houston: Since traffickers often depict one girl in an ad but send another out to do the job, the teams are called on to find out if the suspected victim whose case they're investigating is actually on site.
It turns out Kennedy's first report involves a girl one of the full-time analysts identified as a trafficking victim in another state weeks ago. There appear to be nine girls in her ring; she's had 13 phone numbers associated with her ad since last September, and has been advertised in Las Vegas, Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and several cities throughout Texas and Mississippi.
The field teams, traveling in two cars, are dispatched late one evening to a seedy-looking hourly motel in a rough part of town to see if they can spot her. But no one is visible on the grounds and the analyst back at headquarters who's been texting her, posing as a john, is unable to convince her to come out of her room. After 45 minutes, the teams head back to headquarters, unable to confirm her identity.
The next afternoon, a completely different story unfolds.
An unoccupied house in an upper middle-class section of town directly across the street from a community center has been chosen as the site for today's "jilt “precisely because of its great sight lines. The analyst in contact with the suspected trafficking victim has made an appointment for her to come to that address at a particular time.
So the ops teams swing into position. Once parked at the community center, the first team notices a two-story house two doors away that's under construction and convinces the foreman on the site to let them in. Armed with a telephoto lens, they'll take pictures from an open second-story window of the car that drops off the girl, the driver and the girl herself when she shows up. The second team stays hidden, keeping watch for the trafficker’s car. They'll try to follow it back to the nest afterward. All this information can help determine if the pimp is working alone or if he has help.
Traffic is heavy today, and the girl is late. In the meantime, families stroll around the neighborhood—a middle-aged woman pushing a baby stroller; a young mom with a baby in a sling tucked under her coat, followed by two older kids on bikes and their dad out for a walk. Several minivans cruise carefully past.
This crime is no respecter of neighborhoods. It can and does happen everywhere.
About 20 minutes go by before a young woman with dyed pinkish hair, wearing ill-fitting pink pants and a long, low-cut black T-shirt that shows off the large tattoo on her chest, approaches the house from down the block, where she's been dropped off. Looking like a fish out of water, she adjusts her pants, rings the doorbell—then steps away to check the address when there's no answer. She pulls out her cell phone and calls someone as she walks up to the house next door to check that address. Still talking, she walks down the street to the end of the block and turns the corner.
The second team drives casually past, ready to follow the trafficker after he picks the girl up. With the coast clear, the first team sprints back across the street with a camera full of photos of the girl, the car that dropped her off and its license plate—a trove of useful information. It’s been a successful and uneventful operation.
And that's the way DeliverFund likes it.
“If there are easier ways to do something, we'll do it that way," McKinley explains. "We do things the most legally transparent way we can, when we can, as morally and ethically as we can.”
But not every situation they encounter is that tidy.
Just a few minutes after getting back to headquarters, another mission comes up. Earlier in the day, through a chance encounter, members of another anti-trafficking group in town for the game told DeliverFund staffers about a potential ring operating out of their hotel.
According to the intel that was passed along, a group of scantily clad young women—some of whom appear to be underage—are being escorted from the fourth floor to a waiting van at the same time every evening, and logged out by an adult. Upon arriving back at the hotel several hours later, they are logged back in. Could DeliverFund go check it out to see if it's really a trafficking ring?
One of the analysts punches in the hotel address, pulling up an image.
A production crew has been at headquarters today, filming a segment on DeliverFund for a potential TV show. Though they've been kept out of the war room for the most part, at that moment one of the crew members realizes he's left his phone inside and comes to retrieve it. He spots the photo of the hotel and notes the address.
It just happens to be the hotel where the film crew is staying.
And just like that, the field teams have the perfect cover for getting inside and scoping out the place: They'll pose as roadies, carrying in the film crew's equipment while looking for good spots to check things out in the hotel lobby. And as luck would have it, the rooms where the crew members are staying—which the hotel staff changed at the last minute—provide a perfect view of the parking lot where the girls are being picked up and dropped off. Meaning there's ample opportunity to get shots of the license plates of the cars they're getting into and out of.
Once they reach the hotel, it becomes apparent why DeliverFund only likes working with highly trained special operators.
The place is crawling with activity. There are two cars worth more than $100,000 apiece parked in the front and back, with gang members standing near them watching the areas—countersurveillance.
The Green Beret radios in. At the moment, he has eyes on a 6-4, heavily muscled gangbanger escorting a girl wearing a tight dress and heels through the lobby toward the elevator. He appears to be acutely aware of everything going on and stone sober; she is scratching herself, and looks high.
The Green Beret trails them to see what's going on.
“They essentially own the whole fourth floor, and it smells like weed," he says. "Whether they're moving drugs or moving girls, it's very obvious that they're moving something. It really does look like they have about 15 girls working out of here.”
Other members of the crew are taking photos of license plates—Georgia, Texas, California—and faces. The analysts start running down registrations and Facebook profiles. The SUV that let the girls out most recently is a rental. The second field team follows another van full of girls to a local club.
Though DeliverFund gets tips like this from other groups once or twice a week, “this is the first time we’ve gotten one that appears to be a good tip,” McKinley says. "But we still haven't confirmed it's trafficking. It could just be a lot of girls making really had decisions and seeing a way to get some easy drugs.
“There's definitely coordination and support (from the hotel staff) for what's going on. It's just a matter of whether there's any law enforcement available to go check it out."
As it turns out, there's not: The Houston Police Department says it was at the hotel recently, but everyone in its human trafficking task force is on other calls tonight.
“That's what we run into," McKinley says. "The cops were there last week, and they'll be there again sometime soon. But there's no one to stop this right now. And that's why the traffickers feel they can get away with their crime so often.”
But the porosity of the law enforcement net is exactly why DeliverFund does what it does: The more agencies it can connect with, the tighter that net will become.
DeliverFund's cases don't end the way people who watch a lot of prime-time crime dramas would expert—with doors being kicked in, bad guys carted off in handcuffs and criminals confessing all. These aren't tidy, hour-long packages with bows on them.
But the impact the group is making is vast in a more meaningful way. The more light that shines on the specific evil of human trafficking, and the more resources that are devoted to fighting it, the more other types of crimes will decrease as well.
"Traffickers will often have their girls steal license plates off cars" so they can disguise their own, McKinley explains. They also might force them to shoplift their own toiletries from drugstores. And “when a trafficked girl gets pregnant, what do you think happens?
"If you want to minimize abortion, fight human trafficking. Instead of protesting, put someone on surveillance outside the (facility) and every time a guy waltzes a girl in, pays with cash and waltzes her back out, report it to law enforcement. You want to fight pornography? Here's a really easy way to do it: Fight human trafficking. Many trafficking victims are forced to do web-cam work between customers.”
Technology is what has allowed trafficking to move from the street corner to the privacy of hotel rooms and private homes—and that kind of anonymity has made it easier for traffickers to conduct high volumes of business over the last decade.
And that means technology is what's going to end it eventually, once and for all.
"These guys don't know the technologies we have even exist, much less how they work. So they can't even cover,” McKinley says.
"And that's the point: To create unmanageable risk within these markets and let the traffickers know that no matter where you go or what you do, the only way to stay out of our sights is to never touch anything electronic. And if you do that, how are you going to advertise? And if you can't advertise, how are you going to make any money?
"We’re out there. And there's nothing you can do about it."