When a pillow is all that stands between your unborn baby and the angry, knife-wielding mastermind of a prostitution ring, you know you're in a bad place.
For two students at Papillion-La Vista High School three years ago, that place was an apartment on Poppleton Avenue in Omaha, where the sex trafficker was a 6-foot, 300-pound madam.
The story of “Haley” and “Megan,” the Papillion-La Vista students, was told by an FBI agent during a presentation last month at the Sarpy County Courthouse on underage sex trafficking.
Special Agent Anna Brewer, head of the FBI's Great Plains Innocence Lost Task Force, said the case proves that Sarpy County is not immune from trafficking.
“Most people don't think that child prostitution happens in Papillion or in Sarpy County, or in Omaha for that matter,” she said. They think “it happens in New York and Chicago and the bigger cities.”
The trafficking ring, which ran from 2007 to 2010, was broken up by a task force consisting of the FBI and Police Departments in Omaha and Council Bluffs.
It was operated by Merrideth Crane-Horton; her husband, Nate Horton; Nate Horton's nephew, Ramon Heredia; and Ramon's wife, Katherine Heredia. All four were convicted of sex trafficking.
Three were given prison terms ranging from 11 to 17½ years. Katherine Heredia, whom the FBI considered a victim as well as a perpetrator, got three years and is scheduled for release after 18 months.
The convictions in 2011 were a long time coming, Brewer said, and did not come soon enough to prevent four years of what amounted to slavery. The ring trafficked about seven girls, all of whom were recruited by Ramon Heredia, who knew them socially.
Two victims — including Katherine Heredia, or “Kat” — spoke at Crane-Horton's sentencing.
“When I was 7 months' pregnant, she had threatened to cut my daughter out of me,” Heredia said. “She came at me with a knife, and I blocked it with a pillow.”
Brewer, 21 years with the FBI, arrived in Omaha in 2009 tasked with fighting child prostitution.
That started with posting Internet ads, making it clear that men were looking for underage girls. The supposed customer was, in fact, a law enforcement officer, and when Crane-Horton delivered two girls to the agreed address, the task force pounced.
Brewer said some girls trapped in the web of trafficking come from good families and simply make bad decisions. Others, she said, have few options.
A difficult home situation or mental disability makes them easy prey for pimps who promise them an apartment, food or a decent life, and will whisk them off to their supposed new life in the middle of the night.
Megan, Brewer said, knew Ramon personally and turned to him when she needed a place to stay.
He promised her an apartment, located at 31st Street and Poppleton Avenue, and confiscated her cellphone before locking the door and welcoming her to the sex trade.