It’s Friday morning around 10:30, and half a dozen undercover officers from Toronto's human trafficking unit are silently snaking up the stairwell of a downtown hotel, waiting for the signal to move in.
They’re looking for a girl. They don’t use the word “rescue,” but they might as well.
“The undercover officer is in the elevator now,” whispers Rob Heitzner, the detective leading the operation.
Like everyone on the team, Det. Heitzner is dressed casually, in jeans and a grey hoodie. He looks like a suburban hockey dad, except for a piercing gaze that seems to take in everything at once.
Heitzner looks down at his phone and suddenly motions to follow, his right hand lightly hovering over his hip, where his revolver is hidden. He turns and says, “We have the room number now.”
* * *
This operation started at Toronto police headquarters an hour earlier, with officers scouring hundreds of online sex ads looking for evidence of exploitation. The unit’s mandate is to find young, often underage girls forced to work in the sex trade — and one of the signs they look for in these ads is “branding.”
That’s when a young woman has a tattoo on her chest or some other fairly visible part of her body that “shows they are property of the pimp,” says one officer with a burly build and the protective air of a big brother.
“It’s very, very animalistic,” he says, his voice tinged with disgust. “When you think of it, cows get branded. Farmers do it to identify their own property.” As an example, he shows a provocative ad of a scantily clad young woman with an Air Jordan tattoo on her collarbone.
Advertising sex with a minor is illegal, but they come across an ad that sets off red flags. The girl looks too young and it says she’s in from Calgary.
“They don't stay in one location for any period of time,” says one undercover officer, who we will call “Tom.” “That’s on purpose, so they have no home base of friends or family.”
Tom sends a text, asking if the girl in the ad is free in an hour. Seconds later, the phone pings with a reply. She’s available and working out of a nearby hotel. The officers file swiftly into a meeting room.
'We have to be extra cautious — there may be a pimp lurking around.'
“So the girl has been around Calgary,” Det. Heitzner tells the six officers assembled, referring to the ad. “If she's moving like that, usually that’s a sign of being trafficked. We have to be extra cautious — there may be a pimp lurking around.”
The officers quickly split into two cover teams and head out, lugging bags of protective gear, including bulletproof vests. These operations are dangerous. Pimps are frequently in the area and often armed.
Tom sends the girl a text saying he’s a few minutes behind. The officers pile into an unmarked van in the police garage. “Hopefully there will be a ping when we get out of the underground,” he says.
On the short drive over, Heitzner is in constant communication from his own unmarked vehicle.
“So she wants to know how old I am and my ethnicity,” Tom says over the police radio.
“Looks like this could be fluid,” he says. He’s just received a text. “She says come up to the 15th floor.”
“OK,” Heitzner radios back. “So second cover team is going to go in and once we’re in place, we’ll bring you in.”
The need for reinforcements is real. In situations like this, police don’t know if they are actually texting with the girl in the ad — it could be her pimp. It often is. The fact that Tom is being asked to describe himself could mean a set-up.
The officers park and Tom steps out and waits outside the hotel’s main entrance while the rest of the officers move into position. Once the cover team is in place, he’ll get the word it’s safe to head up.
An officer carefully opens the door into the hallway of the 15th floor and peers out, waving the rest of the team ahead. They file past and melt out of sight into the maze-like hallways. One officer pads softly back and signals to Heitzner to follow.
There’s not a sound to be heard on the floor — only the drone of vending machines. A few seconds go by. Then, the pinging of elevator doors opening.
A tall, blond man in his early 40s steps out. It’s Tom. He walks over to room 1555, pausing before knocking softly. The door opens and Tom steps aside. The cover team appears and quietly swarms into the room. Heitzner follows, motioning for me to stay back before shutting the door firmly behind him. As a reporter, I can’t go any further.
Several minutes later, Heitzner emerges with a hushed update. There is no sign of anyone in the room other than the young woman who answered the door. But she's not the one in the ad.
“We do these probes based on believing the girl is underage and those pictures are the person you're going to meet,” Heitzner says. “In this case, it's a totally different person — something we commonly see.”
'You can't just walk up to people and ask, "Hey, are you being trafficked?"'
The officers go in and out of the room for several minutes. One carries in a care package, with clothing and toiletries. It’s part of the soft approach, to help put her at ease.
“You can't just walk up to people and ask, ‘Hey, are you being trafficked?,’ right? That's going to lead to zero success," says Heitzner. "Anyway, she's calm. She was having a sort of anxiety attack, but once she realized it’s police and no danger, things have settled.”
We just witnessed an intervention. The woman tells police she used to be trafficked, but insists she’s now an independent sex worker. The officers leave their contact information — they sometimes get calls weeks, months later.
On our way out, our crew notices a young man skulking in one of the corridors. He seems wary, on guard. He’s looking down at his phone, but glances over his shoulder at us several times. Heitzner notices him, too.
Heitzner says most hotel stings don’t reveal a clear cry for help. “If they’re being trafficked, they know their pimps are nearby — at the very least, he’s on the phone, he’s checking on them and controlling them in that way.”
The unit has nearly 160 investigations on the go, and in a situation like this, police can’t do anything more than offer help. Stings are only one way of finding victims.
Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes in Canada, and Toronto is the largest hub. While it is widely believed that trafficking involves people from foreign countries, 95 per cent of victims in the greater Toronto area, for example, are Canadian girls. Not only that, but at least half of them are from middle-class homes.
All of them are forced to perform sex acts for money — money they never see.
Sixty per cent of the unit’s victims are under 16 years old. The youngest they've found was 12, says Det.-Sgt. Nunzio Tramontozzi, who runs the unit. Tramontozzi is a veteran cop, trim, with ramrod-straight posture. He looks like actor Robert DeNiro.
“They are the girls next door,” says Tramontozzi, sitting at a desk crowded with family photos and stacks of manila folders. “This could happen to my daughter. They could be your daughter, they could be your niece, your granddaughter,” he says, his eyes flashing.
“They come from all walks of life, not just marginalized areas... they come from, you know, parents who are lawyers, doctors, police officers — so it doesn't discriminate at all.”
Since Toronto’s human trafficking unit was created in 2014, police have made more than 250 human-trafficking-related arrests and laid more than 1,700 charges. Tramontozzi says traffickers or pimps are usually young men, often engaged in crimes involving drugs and arms. They hunt for their victims at schools, malls, amusement parks and increasingly online.
“They know where to troll,” he says. “A girl who says on her Facebook account, ‘I'm not feeling so pretty today,’ they take advantage of that. They’ll say, ‘I wish you were my girlfriend. I think you look fine,’ and that's how it starts.”
Tramontozzi calls it the “luring-grooming process,” and says it involves exchanging phone numbers, meeting in person and starting to cultivate a “boyfriend-girlfriend type of relationship.” The courtship often continues by text, which deepens the connection.
“They start showering gifts on the girl, and then all of a sudden, she's hooked. She's got that thing that she really, really wants in life. And then at the end of the day, he will use that to manipulate her into doing anything he wants.”
The entire process, from luring to forced sex work, can take as little as two days. ‘It's a very small window,” Tramontozzi says, “but we see it.”
'At the end of the day, they're selling these girls a dream.'
He says the unit has dealt with more than 200 victims in the last three and a half years, and “the story's almost the same for every single one of them. You know, at the end of the day, they're selling these girls a dream.”
It certainly felt that way for Karly, a young woman who got caught up in this world.
“My life had never been better — that's what I felt like in that moment,” she says. “I have these people that are going to take care of me. I don't have to worry about anything. The best way I can describe it is I had hit the jackpot.”
Karly has long, straight blond hair and delicate features, and she looks much younger than her 29 years. She is a trafficking survivor, and wanted me to only use her first name. Her story spills out like an ugly yet riveting script, and you get the feeling in talking to her that were she to veer from that narrative, her composure would crack.
Karly was a runaway from northern Ontario who got hooked on heroin. Four years ago, while buying drugs, she inadvertently came into contact with traffickers who took her in, and took care of her.
“They asked me about my family. They asked me about my friends. They asked me why I was homeless. You know, they asked me about my hopes and dreams for the future. At the time, it just felt really good, you know — felt like these guys really were taking time out of their life to ask me about mine, you know, which was incredibly special. I felt so special.”
Four years ago, while buying drugs, Karly came into contact with traffickers who took her in. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Four years ago, while buying drugs, Karly came into contact with traffickers who took her in. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
The feeling didn’t last long.
“My honeymoon stage was maybe two days,” she says. “It jumped into a coercion and manipulation stage where, you know, they gave me all that love and attention and then they pulled it all away, and then they gave me all that love and attention and then they pulled it all away. So, it was like I was constantly walking on eggshells, and all I could think is, What did I do wrong?”
Whenever this happened, Karly was desperate to make it right again — as well as desperate for her next heroin fix. When her traffickers told her she owed them money for the drugs and a place to stay, she agreed to turn tricks.
“I had no control,” she says matter-of-factly. “I didn't have a cell phone, I didn't have access to the internet and I didn't have any money.” They took photos of her and posted an ad online with their cell number.
“They took the phone calls. They decided what services I would provide. They decided how many people I would see a day. They decided how much money I would charge.
“Half the time, I had no idea who was coming to my door or for what services,” she says. “I was being trafficked and had no idea there was a word for it. I thought human trafficking only happened in, you know, another country.”
Karly is now clean and out of the so-called game, but her story still defines her.
She currently works as an outreach worker for East Metro Youth Services, an agency that supports trafficking victims, but she also trains front-line police officers. Karly educates officers to look for signs that a young woman is not in control of her life. Potential victims are often flagged in what appear to be routine domestic disputes. Others, like Karly, are found in hotel rooms.
“I like to tell this story, especially when I'm talking to police officers,” Karly said recently to a packed room at Toronto’s 42 Division.
“I got out because of a police officer. And I think it's important to tell this story, because he did everything right. He booked a fake appointment, he showed his badge and he came in, and he sat there and he spoke to me like a human being. He didn't judge me, he didn't try to save and rescue me, he didn't tell me what I was doing was wrong. He sat there and he talked to me, he asked me about my life, he asked me about my family, my education, my hopes and dreams. He sat there and he talked to me the way he would talk to his sister or his daughter.”
'Supporting [the girls] is more important than just trying to catch the bad guy.'
Later on, she reflects on why police need to understand how they can be most effective.
“I think it's important that they know exactly what this looks like, the relational aspect of it, so they can best support [the girls] in a non-judgmental way, in a way that's not set out to ‘rescue’ them,” Karly says. “Not telling them what they’re doing is wrong. Supporting them is more important than just trying to catch the bad guy.”
Tramontozzi says that community outreach and education is vital.
“These girls are forced to have sex with up to 15 men a day,” he recently told a group of concerned citizens in a church basement in a leafy mid-town neighbourhood. People start to shift uncomfortably in their fold-up chairs.
“This crime is about two things and two things only,” he says, raising two fingers for emphasis. “Power over the victim and money.” Pimps make $250,000 a year off every victim, and they often have several girls or young women under their control — in what they call their "stables."
“We have pimps that are driving Bentleys, Ferraris, Maseratis,” Tramontozzi continues, his voice rising. “They're out there because they're making that much money.”
The event ends in subdued silence. As Tramontozzi gets ready to leave, he becomes reflective. “We need to do a better job in getting the word out so that we can help these victims. They're human beings. They're our children.”
It’s 2 p.m. on a Monday, and at Toronto police headquarters, the unit is preparing for another sting. This time, police are after clients — specifically, ones willing to buy sex from a minor. They have created a fake ad, and designated one of the officers to pose on their phone as an underage sex worker.
Det. Heitzner and his crew are out to choke the demand.
“It’s a triangle: victims, pimps, purchasers,” says Heitzner. “It's a two-way street. And the reality is, if you remove… this demand for it, then the supply doesn't need to exist.”
He admits to being “inundated” with reports of actual victims, but he says they have to balance doing those interventions with taking proactive investigative measures like they’re doing on this day.
As one of the other officers says, “they lead us in the same direction.”
A few moments later, the officers head out to an east-end hotel.
The team has booked a large suite, with two adjoining rooms. Several laptops are open, all tethered to the same web site officers scrolled through weeks ago looking for possible victims.
Their fake ad includes a photo and phone number for a girl claiming to be 20. The plan is to quickly inform anyone who reaches out that she is actually 17. In order to avoid accusations of entrapment during a criminal trial later on, the officers have to make such an age disclosure early on in any exchange.
Usually, the transaction ends there.
“Ninety nine percent of the time, most of them say no,” Heitzner says. The majority of people have "common sense," he says, and know that saying yes would be breaking the law. "And the risk of criminal consequence is, you know, a huge deterrent in itself, right?”
Police are waiting for a man who has responded to the ad and is on his way to the hotel.
He says it’s a successful operation “if 26 out of 28" potential clients back out. "And if two show up and they're arrested, that's what happens. But the goal isn't to come here and try to arrest as many people as possible. This isn't a virtue test.”
Police post the ad and ask me to leave the room. They tell me they’ll contact me if anyone reaches out. Two hours later, I receive a text. Police are waiting for a man who has responded to the ad and is on his way to the hotel.
In an exchange of text messages they’ve made it clear to him — twice — that the girl waiting in the hotel room is not 20, but 17.
The man has described himself as black and in his 40s.
Two undercover officers, a female and a male, wait in the lobby bar. When a man fitting the description arrives, one officer follows him upstairs while the other texts the team in the room that they’re on their way up.
As soon as the suspect steps through the hotel door, he is arrested without incident. Within a few minutes, officers discreetly escort him out the hotel’s back entrance and usher him into an unmarked vehicle in the parking lot. He’s whisked off to a nearby police station to be booked on charges of attempting to buy sex from a minor.
It’s 11 p.m, and the operation is over. Police consider it a success because of the arrest, and because so many other potential johns backed down when told they were engaging with a minor.
Still, there is no shortage of victims out there, and Karly has dedicated her life to helping them. A big part of that, she says, is loosening the psychological hold their traffickers have on them. Karly doesn’t believe her traffickers ever genuinely cared about her, but she still struggles with the fact that she fell for it.
“I felt that I should have known better. I should have been smarter than that, you know, I should have understood what they were doing,” she says. “There was a lot of self-blame. And there’s a lot of shame that goes along with it.”
Producer: Jennifer Barr | Photography: Evan Mitsui | Editing: Andre Mayer