Before the body of Megan Waterman of Scarborough was found in Long Island, N.Y., along with the bodies of three other young women in December 2010, police in Maine were nearly as ignorant about sex trafficking as the public was.

“Sex trafficking? We’re in Maine,” Cumberland County Deputy District Attorney Megan Elam said, describing the sentiment among local law enforcement just a few years ago. “There’s a little shame going around among prosecutors and police officers about how naive we were.”

Police who knew Waterman before she was murdered at 22 were aware she worked as a stripper in Portland nightclubs, but they didn’t know that pimps, like the one she considered her boyfriend, Akeem Cruz, were targeting vulnerable women like her to recruit them for prostitution out of state.

Sex trafficking has been a little-understood crime in Maine, for a variety of reasons. Victims may be reluctant to talk to police for fear of prosecution, or may not recognize that they are victims, instead believing that the people who are exploiting them are boyfriends.

And because Maine’s population is small and relatively rural, trafficking has largely gone unnoticed by prosecutors, law enforcement and social service workers who pictured sex trafficking as large-scale operations involving many women who are brought from overseas and exploited in big cities. Until recently, they didn’t realize that sex trafficking often looks more like what happened to Waterman, a local woman tricked by a persuasive man who gave her drugs and brought her to an unfamiliar city.

That has started to change. Preble Street, the Portland social services agency, last month received $400,000 in federal funding to identify and help victims of sex trafficking in Maine. A bill introduced in the Legislature by Republican Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough sought to help victims of sex trafficking by suspending prostitution convictions. The bill, which has become something of a political football between legislative Republicans and Democrats, was rejected recently by the Legislative Council, one of nearly 300 bills that were not allowed, but Volk was encouraged to resubmit it for consideration.

The secretive nature of the crime means there are few reliable numbers to show exactly how prevalent sex trafficking is in Maine, and what it might look like.

“We have some numbers, but they’re not great,” said Jon Bradley, associate director of Preble Street, one of the key authors of the agency’s grant application to the Department of Justice.

There is no central database that tracks sex trafficking numbers in Maine. In his grant application, Bradley cited limited information from several sources:

Family Crisis Services, a domestic violence prevention agency in Portland, worked with 32 women involved in sex trafficking in 2012.

That same year, Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine had 10 clients who were sex trafficking victims.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Hotline, a phone line for everything from crises to general information, saw the number of calls from Maine double in recent years, from 22 in 2009 to 44 in 2012. During the same period, the hotline saw its call volume nationally go from 7,637 to 20,652. Human trafficking is an umbrella term that encompasses both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, usually of immigrants. Volk has said the hotline’s numbers are the ones she relied on to support her bill.

So far, social workers and police have relied more on the stories they hear on the street, mainly from women, a group that is targeted for exploitation, along with youths, the homeless and transgender people. Bradley said the reason so few reliable numbers exist is because few people were focused on the problem before 2011, and no central agency existed to compile numbers before Preble Street received the grant.

Michelle Lauture, a civilian working for the Portland Police Department at the Parkside Community Policing Center, said she has spoken to about 20 young women in the past two years who were being trafficked for sex.

“A lot of departments don’t understand the gravity of human trafficking. What we’re dealing with is girls being brought out of state or girls from out of state being brought here,” Lauture said.

She said one girl she spoke with was brought to Maine from New Hampshire. Her profile was listed on backpage.com – a classified ad website that also advertises sex for money – by a pimp from Boston who she believed was her boyfriend. Law enforcement officers working with Lauture to investigate sex trafficking revealed who they were when the girl met with them. They then persuaded her to call her pimp to join them to explain how their operation worked.

Preble Street relied heavily in its grant application on figures compiled from a survey conducted over two weeks in 2012. Preble Street staff surveyed 80 people at Preble Street’s Florence House for chronically homeless women and youths at Preble Street’s Teen Center. Staff workers distributed the five-page survey to a sampling of people who were receiving services at that time. About 77 percent of those surveyed were women. Their average age was 33.

“This is a snapshot. It is a moment in time,” professor Thomas McLaughlin of the University of New England’s School of Social Work said of the survey’s results, which he co-authored with Daniela Cameron, supervisor of Preble Street’s teen services.

The study found that 12 of the 80, about 15 percent, had been recruited to have sex with a stranger in exchange for money. Eleven people had traded sex for money, drugs or a safe place to stay. And 20 of those surveyed, or 26 percent, had been offered money in exchange for sex with a stranger.

“I think we got a good sample size here. I feel confident that the data we got back is pretty telling of what we had at that time,” said McLaughlin, who splits his time between teaching, research and social work services.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Victims of Crime selected Preble Street’s application for grant funding as one of 12 to be awarded a portion of $4,711,493. There were 77 applicants, the Office of Victims of Crime said in an emailed statement from its director, Joye Frost.

“Human trafficking is often difficult to identify and detect,” Frost said in the statement. “OVC was impressed with the commitment of the applicant to build upon and expand its current work. As well, OVC has never provided trafficking funding to a service provider in the state of Maine.”

Since receiving word of the grant, Preble Street has named Cameron to become coordinator of the Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition, a group of more than 20 organizations, including law enforcement and social service agencies. Cameron, who is continuing in her role of supervisor of Preble Street’s teen services until her replacement is hired, will act as a point of referral for all reported trafficking cases in Cumberland and York counties.

Cameron said it often takes someone trained to know what to look for in trafficking cases, to recognize signs that someone is a victim of sex trafficking.

“The amount of shame surrounding this is extremely immense,” Cameron said. “They are shamed by other youth. That really inhibits some of the work and healing because they don’t want to talk about it.”

Dianne “dee” Clarke, who was a child victim of sex trafficking, now works as an adult for Preble Street as an advocate to help other victims. Clarke was 12 years old when she went to a party in her native Boston and was tricked by a man who offered to buy her breakfast. Instead of breakfast, he took her to an apartment and turned her over to a man and woman who kept her as a prisoner. They charged strangers to have sex with her until she eventually escaped with another captive woman.

“The trauma of being trafficked and the shame for the things I was forced to do kept me vulnerable, and as a result I was victimized over and over,” Clarke said last month at Preble Street’s announcement of the federal grant.

Clarke said that after her escape, her family rejected her and she eventually wound up under the control of another pimp. She finally escaped for good when a man who cared for her took her away from Boston when she was 19 to live in Maine. It took her years, with help from counselors, to be able to talk about it. She is now 55.

Lauture, as a civilian member in the police department, said she, too, tries hard to get to know girls and women on the streets in hopes they will become comfortable confiding in her and will tell her details they might not tell a sworn police officer.

“This is about developing a relationship with someone, so that when something does happen that’s bad, they’ll talk to me,” Lauture said. “They’re not just addicts. They are not doing this because they love sex. People forget that they are someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece, someone’s cousin.”

In the most typical scenarios, pimps will target young women living in extreme poverty, enticing them with offers of shopping trips in cities like Boston. Once they get in the car and are removed from familiar ground, the girls receive nothing until they have sex with strangers for money. The girls, however, get none of the money. The pimp may later sell the girl to another pimp, who makes her work off the money he paid for her, Lauture said.

“Maine girls go for $3,500. They’re small town. They’re not worldly. They oftentimes come from broken homes, whether they have drug addiction or they suffered some kind of sexual abuse,” Lauture said, adding that girls from elsewhere are often sold for $1,000 less. “It’s all because these girls have been ‘seasoned.’ They’ve been beaten up by a boyfriend in the past. These girls in Maine, they’re vulnerable.”

That scenario was Waterman’s life, said her aunt, Elizabeth Meserve of Portland. Waterman had no relationship with her mother and was raised by her grandparents. She became a teenage mother herself, pregnant by a man who played no role in raising her daughter. She began working as a stripper to earn money.

Meserve said she learned only weeks before Waterman disappeared that her niece’s new boyfriend had been taking her to New York to prostitute her. But she learned that Cruz wasn’t the first man to do so.

“When I realized it was true about Akeem (Cruz), I called her up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And she said, ‘I don’t do this all the time. It’s just a couple of times,’” Meserve said, recalling one of their last conversations. “She wanted to stop. She wanted him to be her boyfriend.”

Waterman was last seen alive on June 5, 2010, at a hotel in Hauppauge, N.Y., where she was staying with Cruz. Her body was found months later near Gilgo Beach on Long Island’s south shore. Officials have since found the remains of at least 10 women associated with the sex trade who were killed in the area. They believe a serial killer may be responsible.

“She used to go to New York with Akeem every couple of weeks,” Meserve said. “Megan wasn’t a prostitute. She was prostituted. She had someone who abused her and threatened her.”

Cruz has been the only person convicted in connection with Waterman’s death. He is serving a three-year federal sentence for transporting Waterman and another woman across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.

Meserve now has partial guardianship of Waterman’s daughter, Liliana, who just turned 7. Liliana’s maternal grandparents take care of her during the week, and Meserve has her on the weekends. Meserve says Liliana remembers her mother often covered in bruises.

Elam, a top prosecutor in Maine’s biggest city, said she, too, was unaware sex trafficking was a problem in Maine until 2011, when police stumbled upon a prostitution ring being run by a Massachusetts woman after they were called to an apartment on Ocean Avenue in Portland for a reported stabbing.

The woman ultimately convicted of the stabbing, Tiana Clark, 30, of Medford, Mass., was using the apartment as a base to sell crack cocaine. She forced women who owed her for drugs into “debt bondage,” to work off their debt through prostitution, Elam said.

But even Clark was surprised when authorities accused her of sex trafficking, something she equated to smuggling girls aboard container ships from abroad to be sex slaves in the U.S., Elam said.

“People think of sex trafficking as people coming from Thailand,” she said. “It happens here, but it’s not uncommon for us to hear from girls who are from Maine who have been trafficked to Atlanta, New York. Sometimes they don’t know where they’re taken; they’re just taken a long way away.”

Clark, who is serving a five-year sentence in state prison, declined a request through the Department of Corrections to be interviewed.

“Statistics do not tell the entire story about the extent of the commercial sex industry in Maine,” Elam said. “Not even close.”

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan