It has been more than twenty years since Kimberly Ann McAndrew vanished after leaving her cashier job at a Canadian Tire in Halifax.
It was August 12, 1989 and in the months that followed, a small handful of local authorities would come to believe that the 19-year-old daughter of a retired RCMP officer had been kidnapped by pimps from the small community of North Preston. The rural cluster of dead-end roads about a half-hour northeast of Halifax was, as it seemingly continues to be, a largely ignored breeding ground for gangsters that cooked up a specialty in running girls.
Nearly 1,800 kilometres away, in what was becoming the epicenter of pimp crackdowns, Toronto Police Juvenile Task Force head Dave Perry was skeptical of the theory brewing among his East Coast counterparts. Girls aren’t just abducted into this game, Perry thought. He had seen how it worked in Toronto: Seduction, coercion, the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship that convinces vulnerable teens that they are fighting for corner space and selling their bodies for the good of the relationship.
Perry’s team had identified what they called The Triangle: Girls and young women were moved between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal at the hands of their pimps who took every penny earned on the corner. In the early 1990s, Nova Scotia became part of that equation.
“In Toronto, we were hearing a lot about these Halifax pimps and how violent they are and how they’re taking girls, moving them all across Canada, down to the United States,” Perry recalls.
In 1992, everything changed.
New Year’s Day was marked with the disappearance of 18-year-old Andrea Lynn King, a British Columbia teenager who flew to Halifax with hopes of hitchhiking across Canada. King called her sister from the airport and said she was heading to a hostel and would call the next day. She was never seen or heard from again. Months later, King’s mother flew to Toronto. She had heard about the work Perry was doing and was aware that girls had been taken from the Halifax area to work the streets of Toronto.
“What do you think?” Perry recalls the mother asking him. “I think your daughter’s dead,” he replied.
The year would end with the discovery of King’s skeletal remains in a wooded area of Lower Sackville, NS, but not before a cross-Canada campaign by her mother to find her.
Perry was sitting at home one September afternoon, hours ahead of a planned press conference with King’s mother, when he received a phone call that would solidify much of what he had heard about Nova Scotia pimps. A teenaged girl had just walked into the police station, terrified, saying she had been abducted in Montreal by pimps from North Preston and that she and others were being forced to prostitute in Toronto.
The teen's story led Perry’s team to two side-by-side rooms in a downtown hotel where they found a handful of Nova Scotia girls. “They were telling us about these pimps from North Preston,” he says. “We were told they were armed with a handgun and they had a stun gun they used on the girls.”
Perry went ahead with the King press conference. As he walked the streets with a mother looking for a daughter who was already dead, and with a news entourage following behind, he got another call. A van with Nova Scotia plates was being pursued by his colleagues. The pimp kingpin and several other North Preston pimps were soon in police bracelets. Hours later, Perry got another call, this time from a woman in Halifax who said her niece had been abducted and was being held in a Toronto apartment. More of North Preston’s pimps were arrested; another victim was found.
The tale of ruthless pimps from a tiny community in Nova Scotia was thrown into headlines across the country. A Halifax-area task force was formed. Dozens of pimps were arrested. Everything was moving ahead, but there was one ingredient missing: There was no national strategy formed to address sex trafficking in Canada.
Fast-forward two decades.
The sex trade is largely indoors. Police officers looking for victims need to do more than drag a net along street corners, for victims lie in motel rooms, massage parlours, escort agencies and strip clubs.
The surnames of the pimps arrested in the 1990s are once again on the dockets of Ontario courthouses. They are sons, nephews, cousins of their predecessors and they are popping up in the Greater Toronto Area, Niagara Falls and throughout Ontario. Though absent for a period of time in Montreal, police there recently started noticing North Preston pimping connections. Calgary and Vancouver are now home to them as well.
But they are no longer just young men from North Preston. For many, the turn of the century brought a new identity: North Preston’s Finest.
And their stock-in-trade is no longer just seen as pimping—under the Criminal Code, it is human trafficking.
“The media don't know anything about it. The Crown attorneys have all moved on to bigger and better things. The police officers have all changed. The political will has changed. So now it’s Canada's deep, dark secret if you will. Not just with the North Preston guys, but all the human trafficking that’s going on in this country. It’s indoors, out of sight, out of mind and it's not on the top of anybody's agenda right now as far as I know,” says Perry, who retired from policing and created Pickering-based Investigative Solutions Network Inc. “The Russian mafia runs girls, the Hells Angels runs girls. There's a lot of Asian human trafficking going on, locally and from abroad. It's everywhere now.”
The North Preston situation is a microcosm of Canada’s inattention to the issue. Provincially, few governments have acknowledged the problem. British Columbia and Alberta both have coalitions that bring together politicians, police and front-line service providers, while the Ontario government has made no indication that tackling human trafficking in a comprehensive way is a priority for the most populated province. Though home to the most trafficking cases, Ontario politicians have repeatedly turned a blind eye to the many human trafficking issues brought before them, such as the need for a police task force and appropriate victim services.
Federally, the issue has been championed several times by Winnipeg MP Joy Smith, whose calls for a national strategy to combat human trafficking have seemingly fallen on deaf ears. Without such a strategy, experts agree that provincial initiatives will fall short of what is needed for this complex problem.
A handful of police officers across the country are dripping with passion to stop sex trafficking, but many refer to the problem as being in its “infancy” stages. Having begun digging their heels into the issue years after the task forces ran out of money, the political will dissipated and the stories faded from the headlines.
Arrested, tried and convicted as their comrades were in the 1990s, North Preston traffickers continue to thrive in Ontario.
“I don't think they ever completely went away,” says Const. Jonathan Adams, who handles the North Preston’s Finest portfolio for the Peel Regional Police gang unit, west of Toronto. “It's just the next generation is kind of coming up.”
“Our area has been particularly attractive just because of the location—close to Toronto, you're close to all major highways, you can kind of live anonymously in a high-end condo in the city centre area or have girls in high-end condos in the city centre area,” Adams says. “It’s not like the buildings are full of the girls, but they have set up in Mississauga and we’re hearing from different sources that they are running a lot of girls still.”
“In Nova Scotia, you sell drugs and eventually when you’ve earned your stripes in North Preston, you graduate to Ontario and that’s where you start to do the real spade work of the gang, which is the running the girls and the drugs,” gang expert Michael Chettleburgh says. “Coming out of North Preston, you know how to fight, you know how to sell drugs, you know how to cut drugs, you know how to make crack cocaine…how to control and victimize women, how to recruit.”
While the Peel vice officers haven’t seen North Preston pimps much lately, they know the young men can more easily avoid police detection by using different tactics. For example, rather than driving victims to strip clubs for work, they are sending them in taxis. If the police presence gets too heavy in one area, they can have a victim working in another city overnight.
Too sophisticated to be called a street gang, but not sophisticated enough to be aligned with traditional organized crime, North Preston’s Finest have etched themselves out somewhere in between. “There is an organization to it, but it’s very loose,” Adams says.
Many of them are united by blood, but work independently, running circles of girls on their own unless they find themselves in a situation where they need to show a united front. Such a situation could mean intimidating a girl who is contemplating escape or getting money from a rival pimp who wants control of their “property.” Such money is generally referred to as a leaving fee—a lump sum that is paid to a pimp in exchange for a victim.
“You can’t say that everybody involved in pimping is working together…even in North Preston,” Adams says. “There’s a small minority of people in that town involved in the sex trade.”
Without a victim who is willing to sign a statement against her pimp, traffickers know it becomes more difficult for police and prosecutors to put them behind bars. And because recruiting and controlling victims often involves manipulation and threats, the flesh trade is seen as a safe way to make lots of money. Only when a victim builds the courage to go to police do the bad guys pay the consequences.
On June 28, 2007, a young Nova Scotia woman was kidnapped from an apartment in Toronto’s east end and brought to a Mississauga apartment where she was tied up at her hands and feet, gang raped, burned and sexually assaulted with a bottle by a group of young men believed to be associates or members of North Preston’s Finest. Though the human trafficking charges didn’t stick, investigators adamantly maintain that all of this was done to force the victim into prostitution.
“North Preston’s Finest has really made a specialty out of moving girls, but in collaboration, definitely, with organized crime,” Chettleburgh says. “They can't do this on their own.”
Traditionally, prostitution was run by the Outlaws motorcycle club from the area south of Hamilton to Niagara Falls. More recently, it has been Hells Angels’ territory, Chettleburgh says. In the Hamilton area, “you have more of your traditional mafia,” he says.
If a mid-level gangster like a North Preston’s Finest member wants to operate in a biker-run strip club, there is likely collaboration, Chettleburgh says.
Such collaboration hasn’t been seen in Peel, Acting Det. Mike Viozzi says. “Our clubs don't see bikers and if they are [there], they are so well hidden we don’t know about them.”
Adams agrees: “They [North Preston pimps] are generally operating on their own, that we can tell right now.”
Peel police have identified more than one hundred people who have moved through their region who are linked to North Preston’s Finest.
“We can't call them all North Preston’s Finest because not all of them are, but guys who are associates or involved in the sex trade, it’s just over a hundred guys that we’re hearing of,” Adams says. “Not every one of them is directly involved in the sex trade, but [they] are associated to and have been seen with guys who are directly involved in the sex trade.”
Whereas Bloods gang members wear red and Crips wear blue, distinguishing North Preston’s Finest members from associates can be difficult. Some members boldly display NPF tattoos on their necks.
North of Toronto, York Regional Police laid their first human trafficking charge in October 2009 against a young man with ties to Nova Scotia. The 24-year-old man was accused of forcing his girlfriend to strip and live under strict rules, then choking and beating her when she tried to escape.
“He’s not a member, but he had ties,” Det.-Sgt. Henry Deruiter says when asked about North Preston’s Finest.
The first human trafficking charge for Halton Regional Police also had those ties.
It was late 2008 and Guns and Gangs officers in Burlington had been watching a waterfront townhouse for about a year.
“The first set of tenants were guys that were identified as gang members from North Preston’s Finest and a couple of girls were also identified there as being sort of in the mix as well,” Det. Jeff Leder says. “They were working at some strip joints in Niagara and Greater Toronto.”
Within the year, the original tenants moved out and new tenants moved in. “These guys were more Jane and Finch type guys,” Leder says, referring to a northwest Toronto community riddled with street gangs. “We did some background on them and sure enough, they’re sort of doing the same thing: attending various strip joints, dropping unknown girls off at these clubs.” The girls were both local and from the East Coast, Leder says.
The two sets of tenants were believed to be linked through family—one of the previous North Preston tenants was believed to be a cousin of one of the new Jane and Finch guys, Leder says.
“We kind of portrayed that house as a stopping ground in Oakville-Burlington,” Leder says. “It was almost like a stopping point between Peel and Niagara where these guys were sleeping at night and we did see some out-of-town people from the East Coast staying there as well. We weren’t sure what the whole dynamics were at the house.”
In December 2008, the Lakeshore Rd. townhouse was raided after a 17-year-old girl told police she had been held there between forced shifts as an exotic dancer in Mississauga, only to be beaten when she tried to leave. A 19-year-old Nova Scotia man and 21-year-old Burlington resident were each slapped with several charges, including human trafficking. The following year, just as investigators anticipated a guilty plea from one of the men, the victim couldn’t be found to testify. The charges were thrown out.
“There’s the whole cloud of silence around the whole thing where the women are petrified of testifying or giving a statement to a law enforcement just to get the matters dealt with,” Adams says.
Vice officers in Peel have estimated that 90 per cent of exotic dancers in clubs across the Greater Toronto Area are trafficked.
As it stands, street-level pimps, mid-level criminals like North Preston’s Finest, Haitian gangsters largely operating out of Montreal and entrepreneurial individuals who possess the manipulation skills necessary to mold a vulnerable runaway into a sex slave are taking the brunt of the charges when it comes to sex trafficking in Ontario. However, law enforcement and human trafficking experts agree that more traditional organized crime such as the Asian and Russian mafia also have a hand in the business. Such a fact can’t be denied when looking at police operations over the last decade targeting Eastern European women working in local strip clubs and Asian women found in bawdy massage parlours.
According to the United Nations, human trafficking is the third most lucrative industry in the world, next only to the gun and drug trades. While some Canadian crime groups have their hands in all three, it seems more and more criminals are coming to the realization that it is much less risky to traffic only people.
“For the police to do a drug arrest, it’s easy for us in a sense,” Viozzi says. “We can go get the bad guy, we seize the drugs so we can put it in a locker for a year before court. We can’t do that with a [human trafficking] victim. Drugs don’t have to testify; they are what they are. We have to actually physically get that victim to court and that’s if we can find her in a year or two years.”
As more and more young men have come to realize, sex sells. It has become commonplace for traffickers to assign their victims quotas of $1,000 a night. If that comes too easily for a victim, it could be bumped to $1,500. Such is not out of the realm of possibility for a young woman forced to do sex acts in the VIP rooms of strip clubs, or post pictures of herself on Craigslist to advertise ‘round-the-clock work out of a motel room.
“It seems like there’s a lot of young guys, even Toronto guys…and young Toronto gang members getting into it as a way of making money and again, with little risk as far as detection by law enforcement,” Adams says. “It’s safer than the drug trade and the firearms trade.”
“There’s a lot of money to be made,” Viozzi says. “And it’s a lot easier [to do] and it’s harder to get caught. Nobody wants to rat. Nobody wants to talk.”
“Selling drugs can be dangerous,” he adds. “You [can] get shot, right? Moving a girl from one club to another club to make $1,000 is a lot easier than making a drug deal and getting ripped off or stepping on someone’s turf. When you've got a girl, you’ve just got to know that if that girl belongs to another pimp, not to step on that, and if you do, you’ve got to give him a payment. Drugs, I think, are a little bit more dangerous than moving girls.”
That's not to say drugs and guns aren’t in the picture. Peel’s second human trafficking conviction involved a young woman from Montreal who was forced to strip at clubs in Mississauga and the United States. When she threatened to call the police, her trafficker—who had ties to a Haitian gang in Montreal—brought in an associate who threatened her with scissors, a knife and a gun.
In November 2008, with NPF inked into his skin, a North Preston’s Finest member nodded to officers and a journalist sitting in the audience of a Brampton courtroom after pleading guilty to unlawfully possessing a prohibited weapon. He knew very well his human trafficking charges would be dropped in the weeks to come because the Crown didn’t have enough evidence for a conviction. The hunt for the man was sparked in 2007 after a young woman said she was befriended by him and then forced to prostitute and strip through threats of violence. When his BMW was pulled over the following year, he was found with a loaded .22-calibre revolver in his pants.
“We are finding guys are turning up with guns,” Adams says. “It goes with protection.”
Asked whether gangsters traditionally involved in moving guns and drugs are dropping those trades in exchange for human trafficking, Adams says: “I can't say for sure that they’re dropping them, but we have seen a few gang members or suspected gang members from other areas starting to become involved in the sex trade or try their hand at it.”
Just as they did in the early 1990s, police forces around Ontario have begun to realize the movements of traffickers across jurisdictional lines. Information sharing among vice and gang units is beginning to catch up with the fluid nature of the perpetrators they seek. However, a national strategy, officers agree, would help in their fight against human trafficking.
“A provincial task force is necessary, a national task force is even better,” York Regional Police Det. Thai Truong says.
In February 2007, a motion calling on the federal government to adopt a comprehensive strategy to combat human trafficking was passed by a unanimous vote in the House of Commons. More than three years later, despite repeated calls by Smith, police, front-line service providers and the media, there is still no strategy. Though Smith remains confident that a national plan will be crafted, no explanations have been provided by her colleagues as to why the issue continues to be seemingly ignored.
Why human trafficking is not at the forefronts of political platforms is a question mulled over with great frustration by those championing the cause on the ground, be they police, non-governmental organizations or front-line service providers. In Ontario, the issue becomes a hot potato quickly passed from one ministry to the next when a reporter goes looking for answers. Ironically, it is seemingly not sexy enough to receive the attention any given issue needs to effect change. Its victims are hidden, afraid to speak and servicing every sector of the population, including (but certainly not limited to) politicians, policemen, lawyers and judges.
One hundred years ago, Charles Nelson Crittenton, president of the National Florence Crittenton Mission in the United States, wrote of what was then referred to as the “white slave” traffic in The History of the Sex Trade: “But the thought that when one sees a woman in a life of sin, she is there because she likes it and wants to be, has become so deeply engraved upon the human mind that it is difficult to change it. Some people are conscientious in thinking this, because they are ignorant. Others know better, but in order that they may not feel called upon to take an active part against these conditions, try to salve their conscience by saying that a fallen girl cannot be helped—nothing can be done for them. And so it goes—anything to remove the responsibility of bettering conditions from their shoulders.”
In the same book, published in 1910, Cook County, Illinois Assistant State’s Attorney Clifford G. Roe notes: “Great armies like those of a generation ago cannot uproot this slavery, but the slavery of today must be eliminated by publicity, education, legislation and law enforcement.”
Halifax RCMP Insp. Brad Sullivan was a constable when he and his partner took the 1989 disappearance of Kimberly Ann McAndrew and pushed the Nova Scotia pimping problem into the spotlight.
“We really saw or had information that really led us to believe that it was something that needed to be looked at,” Sullivan says.
The work of Sullivan in Nova Scotia and Perry in Toronto, along with a handful of officers and prosecutors, put dozens of pimps behind bars on charges that would have included human trafficking if such a charge existed at the time. And yet, 20 years later, Canada stands in the so-called infancy stages.
“I would hate to say it fell off the books,” Sullivan says. “I think we were very successful in our tactical approach to it and as a result of that, we kind of incarcerated quite a few people and the problem was brought to a head and juvenile prostitution really kind of took a back burner for a number of years and people involved in the trade now, I would say they changed their mode of operation.”
Officers can’t simply reach out to victims on the streets of Toronto or Halifax anymore. They are inside, in the motel rooms, massage parlours, strip clubs and escort agencies.
“These guys have changed their operation so much. What I kind of see now is that if recruiting is taking place, it’s not in the same in-your-face kind of mannerism that it was back then,” Sullivan says. “Back then, we would see the girls on the street here. We would see them, but we don't see that now.”
And yet, charges in Ontario continue to pile up for young men from North Preston.
“This is a community in the middle of nowhere. It’s dark. The streets aren't lit. All the streets end up in dead ends. It’s remarkable. It’s just a remarkable community. I don’t think people can feel it, can touch it and frankly, [they] really don't care about it,” Chettleburgh says. “They kind of go, ‘It's not in my backyard, it doesn't affect me.’”
“That crew didn’t just arrive overnight after years of them kind of being under the fog. They've always been a force to be reckoned with,” Chettleburgh says of the North Preston’s Finest presence in Ontario. “I don't think people have adequately talked about it. All we keep hearing about is there’s this gang from Nova Scotia running girls, but why? Why?”
Perry can’t help but think that had a national strategy been put in place when sex trafficking was a hot item in the 1990s, pimps like those from North Preston wouldn'’t be profiting from the sex trade with the fluidity they enjoy today. Without that strategy, task force money ran out, media attention fluttered away. “And we all knew what would happen: These guys would get right back at it. That's exactly what they did.”
Child pornography became the hot item. “All the focus, money, attention got into that,” Perry says. “All these teenaged, marginalized kids…nobody was looking for them anymore.”
“If Canada wants to get serious about human trafficking, there has to be federal money inserted into this whole thing,” Perry says. “You could flip back the pages to when child pornography became the big item to investigate. It was the same comments: There’s no local strategy, there’s no national strategy, there’s no federal funding. Human trafficking is the same thing.”
Or you could flip back to the pages of Kimberly Ann McAndrew and Andrea Lynn King. Whether the young women were abducted and killed by pimps two decades ago may never be known. Their cases, like the human trafficking problem in Canada they helped to unveil, remain unsolved.