Lisa met Lumpy online.
He reached out to the 14-year-old girl on social media after she posted about feeling lonely and bad about herself. He immediately made her feel better. Soon, they were communicating every day. Her parents were divorced, and her mom was working long hours.
Lumpy filled a void.
Their first date was magical. He took her to the airport where they watched planes landing and taking off. The girl fantasized about a different life. Lumpy, who got his nickname from all of the “lumps” of cash in his pocket, told her he could help her.
It was the two of them against the world, he said.
One night, Lisa snuck out of her home to meet Lumpy and never returned. She belonged to him now; no more nice guy.
Her new life entailed being sex trafficked to his friends and other paying customers. He kept all the money and held her captive through coercion and violence. This was her new life.
Back home, police cars hovered outside as her frantic mother searched for her lost daughter.
This is just one scenario of how human trafficking works and is the premise of part one of Radical Empathy’s“Trapped: A VR Detective Story” human trafficking educational training tool.
Using virtual reality technology to put the viewer in Lisa’s shoes, the immersive interactive training module toggles between Lisa’s past and present lives, from the computer in her childhood bedroom to the red dress hanging from the shower in Lumpy’s apartment to the cellphone in the kitchen she uses to hook up with buyers.
“We wanted it to be real but not triggering,” said Jacque Cain, who along with her husband Billy Jo run the Radical Empathy Foundation.
Billy Jo comes from a long career in the gaming industry, where he oversaw multiple games from concept to development.
For the past two years, the Austin, Texas-based couple have traveled all over the country to schools and conferences to share their interactive tool.
This week, they had their half-dozen virtual reality headsets set up in the Ramkota Hotel and Conference Center in Casper for the second annual The Greater Rockies Immersive Training on Exploitation and Trafficking (GRIT) hosted by Uprising, a Sheridan-based nonprofit specializing in human trafficking education and trainings.
This is the Cain’s second visit to GRIT on the invitation of Uprising Co-Founder and Executive Director Terri Markham, who uses the VR tool in their trainings.
Along with the VR program, Radical Empathy and partner company, PBJ Learning, also offer interactive online courses and a “Human Trafficking 101” certification course for teachers and other professionals.
The VR program took the Cains six years to produce and is still a work in progress with two additional modules planned to expand Lisa’s story to the hotel room where a crime is committed that a detective must solve.
The idea, Billy Jo said, is to create an interactive program to provide in-depth information about the nature of human trafficking, its prevalence, risk factors, vulnerabilities, red flags and responses.
“We want to educate as many people as possible to the nefarious nature of trafficking,” he said.
Wyoming’s Not Immune
It happens everywhere, including in Wyoming.
Last September, a Bangladeshi man was arrested on 13 counts of operating a child exploitation enterprise for sextorting hundreds of teens, including at least six in Wyoming.
Zobaidul Amin, a 24-year-old medical student, used social media apps such as Snapchat and Instagram to target, threaten and exploit his victims by grooming them on social media.
Amin targeted victims as young as 11 by posing as teenage boys or girls using fake photos, requesting they send nude photos in return. After receiving them, Amin then extorted the teens, threatening to expose the photos to the victims’ friends and followers on social media unless they provided additional sexually explicit photos or videos.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which led the investigation, called it one of its “most prolific and malicious sextortion schemes” to date.
It’s a lesson the Cains learned, that no one is immune to predators.
The Cains learned about grooming the hard way.
Grooming is the process by which a predator slowly gains the trust and cooperation of a victim through seemingly normal interactions, like offering gifts, compliments or paying them special attention.
In the Cain’s case, their two children, then 10 and 11, were propositioned by Billy Jo’s boss, a man he’d worked for in the gaming industry for years and who they considered almost like family.
The boss, they later learned, was a registered sex offender.
He attempted to groom the Cain’s young teens by offering them presents and trips in exchange for asking them questions about their genitalia. He gave the boy suggestions for online porn sites. He reached the children on the family’s business landline, which was normal for them to answer to take messages for their parents.
Luckily, the children told their parents about the phone calls before there was any hands-on contact.
“They were both separately approached by this guy,” Jacque said. “But we had taught them not to harbor any bad secrets. We said, ‘If it makes you feel bad, you don’t keep it a secret.’”
In the end, the Cains confronted Billy Jo’s boss but were unable to prosecute him because police said they couldn’t prove that he had masturbated while on the phone with their children.
Moreso, despite his crime going unpunished, the Cains were floored that they were caught so off guard and that they were unaware their kids were in danger.
“We’d never even heard about grooming,” Billy Jo said. “Once it happened, we read everything about it that we could find.”
The experience led to a little soul searching, including Billy Jo attending Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, where Native American tribal members came together to try to block the building of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in 2016.
“I went to Standing Rock and listened to the tribal leaders tell us how America has lied to them over and over and broken every treaty that exists,” he said. “Then they started talking about how when you go home, take this energy and power that you have brought to this movement home to your area.”
This advice resonated for Billy Jo, who decided to put his efforts toward educating people about the problem of missing and murdered indigenous people and human trafficking in general. From there, he discussed it with his wife, who was on board.
The couple then sold their 3,000-square foot home and moved into an apartment with Billy leaving the gaming industry to launch their nonprofit full-time.
“I didn’t know anything about trafficking,” Billy Jo said. “If we were going to go for this thing, that meant that I had to launch myself and everything I had into becoming an expert in this field.”
It took some time to form those alliances and partnerships – including with Uprising – but in the past two years, the Cains have logged thousands of miles on their car as they travel to conferences, schools and other events to educate teens and adults about human trafficking.
The virtual reality program has been an effective tool in Uprising’s trainings, Markham said, adding that, “The youth find it much more impactful than just presenting information.”
Billy Jo has also found that to be true in his experience. He’s watched a single mother break down in tears and run out, only to return to tell him that she believes that her daughter might be a grooming victim and that she needed to quit one of her three jobs to be more present.
In another instance, an 82-year-old man told Billy Jo that he’d been molested by his uncle as a boy.
“I was the first person he ever told,” Billy Jo said. “It was humbling.”
Most impactful is the reaction of teens, who seem to be visibly moved by what they are seeing, Billy Jo said. He credits the virtual reality software, which according to a Carnegie Mellon University study, is six times more effective than passive learning.
“They can really emphasize with what Lisa is going through,” he said. “The peer-to-peer relationship is super powerful. The fact that it’s a 14-year-old girl, children listen to that. They do not listen to adults. That’s just how it is.”
Jacque has a warning for other parents: Monitor your children’s phones and online activity, particularly gaming.
“Our children were approached on a landline, which are virtually nonexistent anymore,” she said. “Today, your child has that same thing in their pocket, all the time, around the clock. The largest and fastest growing population of predators are in video game chatrooms, where they are playing games with your child and talking to them without any supervision.”
It’s natural for children and teens to seek attention, particularly if the family is not spending enough time with them or paying attention.
“That’s just a human reality. It’s what makes us human,” she said. “And these people [predators] have developed this process over thousands of years and they are really good at it. They do it around the clock for a living. So, your child is going up against a professional predator.”
Despite the gravity of their mission, the Cains are increasingly more galvanized to reach as many people as they can to spread the message, even if it means logging hundreds of miles and sometimes sleeping in the back of their SUV when necessary.