The text came through at 5:40 p.m. just before Christmas in 2012.
“I need help.”
The frightened 18-year-old was sending the message in secret. Her pimp, Tyrone Burton, was forcing her and her best friend to sell themselves for sex.
Starved of food and held against her will, she wasn’t reaching out to family, friends or even the police.
Instead, she sent the message to Dean, a “john” they trusted. It was one of several attempts she and a friend made to be rescued from the dangerous world of sex trafficking.
Before Burton, a notorious street-gang pimp in Toronto, coerced them into The Game, the young woman and her 19-year-old friend had been selling themselves as prostitutes for weekends of sex at Dean’s Kingston cottage, according to testimony at Burton’s trial.
He paid the teenagers seven hundred dollars each for weekends of sex with them both together.
The 46-year old Dean is a wealthy human resources director working for an international company in Toronto who conceded in court that the two girls’ ages combined together did not add up to his.
Dean is not this businessman’s real name, but the Star is choosing not to identify him because of police concerns that it could deter other johns from rescuing victims of sex trafficking.
With text messages, the pair reached out to Dean, saying they were being held in an apartment in Scarborough, but they didn’t know the address.
“I’m on the 11th floor. He’s in the hall. We can’t leave, please. He’s here. I’m not allowed to leave the room,” one of the young women sent Dean via text. The girls were forced to have sex with Burton each morning, then service clients, and have sex with him again at the end of the night.
When Dean got the message, he responded immediately.
“Unless I have an address and both of you are out front unharmed, I will call 911. You can tell him that.”
The two teens were lured into The Game by Burton when they had visited Toronto just before a scheduled weekend of sex with Dean.
Burton, who would eventually be convicted of trafficking, advertised them online and withheld their food and drinks until they had serviced a certain number of men and given him the money. They had to call him “Daddy,” kiss his pimp ring when entering or exiting a room and were banned from looking into the eyes of other people.
There had been other calls of help over the past week. Once, Dean met the girls at Toronto’s Union Station to pay a $400 debt he owed for a past encounter. At Burton’s trial, Dean told the court he had spotted a man “dressed right out of a movie like a gangster” hovering over the pair. The teens had looked pale and scared at the station.
Later that night, he sent them a text saying they should get into a taxi and come to his downtown condo and that he would pay the fare: “I don’t expect sex or anything in return,” he wrote.
None of his attempts to rescue the teens worked. Dean said he did his best to warn the young women about accepting drinks that could be spiked, told them to delete their text history and bought a disposable cellphone so he could call the number associated with their online ads to make sure “they were at least alive.”
When the two young women ran from their pimp the following week, the first person they called was Dean.
He arranged to meet them at the Fox and Fiddle in downtown Toronto. He was standing in the car park when they suddenly appeared, running toward him in tears.
The young women “were a mess emotionally,” Dean testified. They hadn’t eaten for days, so he bought them dinner and paid for them to stay in a hotel because they were too scared to be around men.
The next morning, Dean drove them to a police station and ultimately their testimony resulted in Burton, 31, becoming the first pimp to be convicted of sex trafficking in Toronto. The Crown is seeking to declare him a dangerous offender, which would put him behind bars indefinitely.
In all, Dean said he paid the two girls $5,600 for five weekends of sex. Reached by the Star, he refused to comment.
Dean is not the only john who has rescued girls from The Game.
One trafficked victim, Taylor, said she too was saved by a client. (Taylor is a pseudonym; she fears for her safety and does not want her real name published.)
Taylor grew up in Hamilton and had been trafficked to Niagara. She was turning tricks from a strip club when her pimp left to make a drug deal.
She confided in one of her regular clients and he told her he would go outside, start his car and sit in the parking lot until she could slip out, unnoticed.
About five minutes after he left, Taylor ran out of the club in her underwear and jumped into the john’s car. He drove her to a motel and paid for her room, groceries and clothes until she felt safe enough to leave.
Because these girls have been isolated from their families and friends, often johns are the only people they can talk to while under the strict control of pimps, police say.
Once a victim is rescued from The Game, social workers and police officers have to be on call 24/7. The Star heard from a number of officers and social workers who have answered crisis calls from victims at 3.a.m.
"These are somebody's daughters. I've had a few girls I've rescued and brought home with me. I've taught them how to cook, clean, dress and talk without slang. They call me 'Mumma Kat.' They're so broken it's like retraining a child." - Katarina MacLeod
Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star
One social worker, Katarina MacLeod, even knocked on a trafficker’s door and had a “screaming feud” with a pimp to try to help a young woman she knew was being trafficked earlier this year.
MacLeod, founder of the Rising Angels advocacy awareness organization for sex-trade workers, received a desperate call from the mother of the 22-year-old.
The mother, who lived in Barrie, said her daughter was being forced to work in the sex trade by her boyfriend. The teen had hidden a cellphone from her trafficker to keep in touch with her mother, but one day the pimp found it and disconnected the number. The mother knew her daughter would have been beaten badly, so she begged MacLeod to check that she was still alive.
After police rescued the young woman, she stayed with MacLeod but a few days later returned to her trafficker.
“It becomes a real passion for us to try and save these girls,” Toronto Police Sex Crimes Unit Inspector Joanna Beaven-Desjardins said.
“But even after we intervene, it’s like a roller-coaster. This is like a disease.”