Search for aspiring model exposes Denver's dark problem of sex trafficking and exploitation

Expert: Trafficking is happening in "plain sight"

DENVER - Investigators confirm to 7NEWS they are following up on new leads in the search for Kara Nichols, an aspiring model from Colorado Springs.

El Paso County Sheriff's investigators wouldn't say what the leads were, but the developments come nearly a week after the 19-year-old's family came forward pleading for the public's help finding their daughter.

 The 19-year-old has been missing for more than a month. Friends last saw her October 9th when Nichols was leaving her home. She had said she was going to Denver for a modeling gig. Nichols hasn't been seen since.

One aspect of the investigation is a fear Nichols may have fallen victim to what investigators call a dangerous subculture in Denver. It is one that involves luring potential victims with promises of jobs and other opportunities. Perpetrators only have intentions of turning the victims into a world of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

"It's absolutely happening in plain sight," said Emily Lafferrandre, an expert on the issue. "Everyone has seen a survivor or victim of trafficking. They just don't realize it."

Lafferrandre is a director at Prax(us), a Denver organization focused on helping victims of exploitation and trafficking. She said trafficking rings sometimes use modeling as a way of attracting potential victims. People at risk include runaway teens, women, men and members of the transgendered community.

"Folks are usually recruiting at bus stops and homeless shelters for people and making all these fantastic promises," Lafferrandre said. "Then when they're in these situations it's quite exploitive."

Perpetrators also use the internet to lure victims. "Customers" of the organized rings also use websites to communicate with one another. 7NEWS discovered some websites centered on the trafficking taking place in Colorado and Denver. We found posts from "customers," who use the sites to talk about and even "rate" victims.

Once in these complicated situations, Lafferrandre said victims often have difficulty getting out. Just like domestic violence situations, people who get sucked into the dark underground world go through cycles.

"There's a lot of trauma bonding and Stockholm syndrome that can occur where they believe that they love this person and this is the only person who has shown them love," she said.

There aren't reliable statistics on victims because they're within what is called a "hidden population." Experts and law enforcement officials admit it is a big and growing problem in Colorado. In fact, a study is currently underway in the area to get a better gauge of how many victims there are.

This year alone, Prax(us) has helped 70 people in Denver who are coming out of the trafficking or exploitive situations.

The FBI even has an investigative squad focused on investigating cases of child exploitation in Colorado.