Fifty people gave up their evening on Thursday to listen to a presentation about human trafficking that brought at least one 18-year-old to tears.

Tracy Crime Stoppers Inc. sponsored the hour-and-a-half-long event in the Community Room at West Valley Mall.

San Joaquin County Assistant District Attorney Suzanne Schultz, leader of a work group in the county’s Human Trafficking Task Force, explained why human trafficking and sexual slavery is now a $32 billion global business.

“You can only sell a drug one time. You can sell a human being over and over,” she told the group.

It’s a horror story that Shannon Jaramillo, mother of three daughters, only recently became aware of.

“It (previous Tracy Press coverage) brought a lot of attention to it. I didn’t realize that it was happening right here close to home,” she said. “One of the things I read online from (the Tracy Press) regarding the human trafficking was, a common conversation at the mall with someone saying, You have really nice nails.”

Shultz told the group that most often, predators approach girls as young as 8 by flattering them and providing initially positive attention.

Jaramillo said that happened to one of her daughters two years ago when she was just 15.

“My mom and my daughter went to Safeway. There were two gentlemen, one in a car. They were — what I would think is just picking up on my daughter, not thinking the human trafficking thing,” she said after the presentation.

“He was asking her, ‘What school do you go to? Oh, you’re pretty.’ He approached her like he knew her,” Jaramillo recounted. “Having my mom near here did not prevent this guy.”

She and her husband went back to the Safeway and the men were still there. She told the store manager what happened and then called police to report the suspicious men.

Schultz told the group that traffickers are sometimes friends or boyfriends who find girls and boys to victimize at the mall, at parties and in public at social events.

Millie Comber is a high school religion teacher and grandmother to seven. She attended the event to learn more about what she had read in the newspaper.

“I was really, really bothered. And I thought I was pretty aware of these things. There’s such an evil influence in this world that we don’t know about, because it comes so well disguised,” Comber said. “My oldest grandchild is 10, and I think, how can I protect them from this? She’s 10 and I’ve got to tell her stuff like this?”

Schultz said that sometimes, traffickers will offer a place to go if a child gets into a fight with parents.

That fact worried Jaramillo, whose daughters are 20, 17 and 14 years old.

“My concern is, when we get into normal arguments at home and my daughters want to run away or something — that’s a huge red flag for me that a close friend, or so-called friend, could be like, ‘Hey, come over,’” she said.

Schultz said there are signs for parents and friends to tell if someone is being courted or manipulated by a sex trafficker: if they are younger than 18 but not in school; if they have nothing; if they have multiple mobile phones; if they have a large amount of cash or hotel room keys; if they have fake identification; or if they are always tired or are bruised on their body.

An 18-year-old girl who attends school in Tracy but did not wish to be identified was visibly affected when talking about the warning signs after the presentation was over.

She had seen a version of the presentation before but said her peers didn’t know what to do with the information.

“This is still happening, and I saw this a year ago,” she said. “(My friends) didn’t necessarily write it off, but they felt like they couldn’t do anything about it, so it fell on the wayside.”

She said she felt that she had some responsibility to help girls who might be vulnerable to sexual traffickers.

“The most important thing is to recognize friends that are going through different things. Because if they’re acting weird and you can’t determine a good reason for it — my friends have parents troubles, divorces and things like that. But that’s a reason to be a little bit distressed while they’re at school. But if they’re just acting way out of sorts and you just write it off, then you could have saved them,” she said, before putting a hand to her face and turning to cry on her mother’s shoulder.

Jaramillo said she came get information about human trafficking so she could protect her daughters and their friends.

“There’s nothing horrible in our lifestyle or how we’re bringing up our children, but it doesn’t always just happen to the ones that have drug-addicted parents. It can happen to your typical (girl),” she said. “It’s scary. It can happen to anybody. So — paying attention to those red flags so that I can keep a closer eye on my kids but also inform them of it.”

Contact Michael Ellis Langley at mlangley@tracypress.com or 830-4231.

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