NWI serial killer targeted sex workers | WBEZ
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NWI serial killer targeted sex workers

Accused serial killer Darren Vann allegedly told police he “messed up” by killing his last victim in the Northwest Indiana city of Hammond instead of neighboring Gary.

But another “mistake” might’ve been taking the life of a woman who was actively in touch with someone at an online escort service.

A female associate of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy, referred to by police as the 'facilitator,' was texting with Hardy during her encounter with Vann at a motel last weekend. Hammond police chief John Doughty said at some point the facilitator became worried and contacted the police.

“Information was obtained from the facilitator that revealed a phone number that the Hammond police detectives were able to use to help locate the suspect,” Doughty announced at a press conference earlier this week.

That tip eventually led to Vann’s arrest in Gary the next day.

According to court documents at least two of Vann’s seven alleged victims were sex workers. Authorities say Vann targeted another prostitute in Texas in 2007, but that woman escaped.

Sex workers are often disconnected from society and don’t tend to trust the police. Officials in Northwest Indiana say the Vann case shows why that needs to change.

For instance, some of Vann’s alleged victims were not even reported missing.

Aubrey Lloyd, a local advocate of human trafficking victims, at the public library in Gary. She says police can do a better job of identifying women who are forced into sex trafficking. (WBEZ/Michael Puente)

“When I first started hearing about it really broke my heart. Sounds like no one really went looking for them,” said Aubrey Lloyd, a local advocate of human trafficking victims. “It’s a sad way to end your life. That was someone’s daughter at one point.”

Lloyd says she almost suffered the same fate as Hardy.

“I was assaulted by two men. Beaten very, very significantly and left for dead in a park. It’s such a dark world and you can easily get lost in it," she said.

When Lloyd was just 16, she spent a hellish year working as a sex worker against her will in Colorado.

Now, 35 and a resident of Northwest Indiana, Lloyd recalls being afraid that she would go missing and no one would care.

“There are definitely times when you feel like who is going to look for me? If something happened to me, no one would know where to find me, where to look for me or even how to identify me,” Lloyd said.

During her time as a sex worker, Lloyd said it was difficult to return to her single mom — who she was estranged from — or seek help from police.

“Why would I go try to get help from a cop when there’s a tendency or a possibility of me getting arrested?” she asked.

Lloyd says police need to better understand when a woman is a victim of sex trafficking and not simply a target for arrest.

“The parents file a missing, or runaway report, and then what happens with that? The police are just inundated with other things. They’re not following up on all these leads and you know, [the women] are just gone,” Lloyd said.

The Gary police department is notoriously under-resourced, and its job in this case was made more difficult due to the bodies being hidden among the city’s thousands of abandoned homes.

Still, many of these women operate in the shadows for a reason, and Gary mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson says that makes it tough to catch guys like Vann.

“It does make it difficult. And it sort of indicates he preyed on individuals that might be less likely to be reported missing,” Freeman-Wilson said this week. “One of the messages that we’re sending this week is the importance of being safe. You wanna be safe when you’re a citizen, but when you’re in a high risk profession, you want to heighten that safety.”

Freeman-Wilson says the city has reached out to those in sex work, by identifying them through the city’s Drug Court. 

“One of the things that we’ve seen through the drug treatment court, is a number of individuals who have been historically been sex workers who have been able to get treatment because we know there’s a high incidence of drug use in that group and to really address some of the traditional challenges that have lead them down that road,” Freeman-Wilson said.

Such treatment can build positive relationships between law enforcement and sex workers. And that could lead to information about those who prey on them, says Abby Kuzma, head of the Consumer Protection Division for the Indiana Attorney General’s office. She also heads the office’s human trafficking coordination.

“I think there is a learning curve here,” Kuzma said. “Law enforcement in Indiana are absolutely being trained about human trafficking but it’s going to take time.”

Kuzma says human trafficking of young teens is a growing problem not just in Indiana.

Reaching out to women is important, but Kuzma says so is quelling the demand for online sex services — like the kind used by Darren Vann.

“Until we get a handle on this demand issue, in terms of not recognizing the exploitation of human beings that goes on here, and individuals like the women who were identified as being murdered by this guy, this is going to continue to happen,” Kuzma said.

Meanwhile, at a candlelight vigil held Tuesday in nearby Crown Point, Ind., residents gathered at a church to remember victims of domestic abuse.

They also paid tribute to the seven women found dead earlier this week.

And they prayed that things will change so other women won’t fall through the cracks.

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