Former Harvest Fellowship Church youth pastor participates in sting operations, finding missing people
By Chad Koenen
Caleb Monson and members of F.R.E.E. International never lose hope in finding victims of human trafficking—even if the very people they are trying to locate think there is no hope left. The New York Mills resident, who is the former youth pastor at Harvest Fellowship Church in Frazee, is entering his second year as a member of an organization attempting to provide a new sense of hope for victims in the human trafficking and sex trade industry. It’s not a job that comes without some challenges, but the end reward and giving people a second chance at life is something he cannot look past.
Monson joined F.R.E.E. (Find Restore Embrace Empower) in November 2019. He said COVID-19 changed some of the ways they searched for missing and exploited people. In years past, the group would organize large searches with community events that could attract hundreds of people—needless to say those large events were not held this year.
“COVID was an interesting year, because a lot of what we do is big event based,” he said. “We go and look for missing kids and we get 500 people to go out and look for them.”
Monson went on his first trip to fight trafficking in January 2019 when he joined his dad and brother to search for people being trafficked in the sex industry. The trip was eye opening as he saw the impact he could make by helping to rescue people being trafficked.
“I could fight this issue. I don’t have to be a law enforcement or a representative to change the law. You just have to be passionate to serve,” he said.
One of the key aspects of F.R.E.E. is to provide resources for local law enforcement to search for missing and exploited people. The group will work closely with law enforcement of small communities to help post decoy ads searching for people seeking out children for exploitation and lay all of the groundwork for law enforcement. The hope is to essentially provide a turn key sting operation for law enforcement at no charge. Without their help, many law enforcement agencies cannot perform the stings due to a lack of resources at their disposal.
“We want to come in and provide everything for them to make it happen,” he said.
A recent sting took place in the small town of Columbia, Miss., where F.R.E.E. partnered with law enforcement to conduct a sting. Over the course of two nights, 13 men showed up in a small town of just a few thousand people and 10 felony arrests were made during the operation.
“One (goal) is to get some guys off of the street that are going to exploit children,” said Monson “And in the small town of Columbia, Miss., (the law enforcement) talk about how it offends (them) that people think they can come to my town to exploit children.”
Monson said the sad part of the operation was how easy it was to get people to begin chatting with people they think are underage girls. During that sting in Columbia, Miss., the group had approximately 50 men chatting with a person they thought was an underage girl. Since the group is not associated with law enforcement, they can do a lot of the ground work and research to look for signs of exploitation. Their goal is to be that missing link for law enforcement.
“There is a missing link. Law enforcement knows it’s happening and it exists, but they don’t have credible intel to make the investigation happen,” he said. “What we do is we provide the missing link. We are not law enforcement. We are just regular people and grab the intel.”
One thing that really stood out to Monson about F.R.E.E. was the commitment to the rescued person long after they are saved. While some organizations pride themselves on just locating exploited people, Monson said F.R.E.E. is committed to rehabilitating and making sure the person can receive the help they need long after the organization leaves town.
“We want to make sure we are not just there for the day they are rescued, but the next step,” he said.
The headquarters for F.R.E.E. is in Las Vegas, Nev. Each Super Bowl weekend the organization holds a mass search for exploited people in Sin City and this year was no different. The organization focuses on finding 30 people in each city they go to, rather than attempt to find everyone at once. This way they can focus their resources on a more narrow search. The group has had quite a bit of luck over the years and found 15 of the 30 people they were searching for this year during Super Bowl weekend. That number is down a bit from years past as they usually locate 20-25 people during Super Bowl weekend.
Monson said the group lays the groundwork long before coming to town by chasing leads and searching for the exploited people. He said most of the people they are searching for are in plain sight, or are routinely seen in the community.
“You find what you are looking for. If you are looking for these kids they will be found. These kids are out and about if they are being trafficked.”Caleb Monson
Monson shared the story of a recent person who was found during a search. The girl suddenly went off of all social media platforms, but ended up posting a video on Instagram of her dancing in a hotel. The group of volunteers with F.R.E.E. were able to identify certain characteristics of the room and narrowed down the list of hotels to just six in all of Las Vegas.
“Within an hour we got it down to six hotels in Vegas of where she might be from a simple video,” he said.
The group began searching and eventually talked to a hotel worker who said they had recently just kicked the girl out of the hotel.
While Monson enjoys the chase and locating these exploited people, he said he is not one for combat or getting in the thick of the rescue mission. He prefers to do the groundwork and help after the person is located.
“I often tell people, some people like bullets flying past them, but I do not,” he said with a laugh.
While the group can immediately help children who are being trafficked, it isn’t as easy for adults. Monson said the group lays the groundwork and builds relationships with workers at places like illegal massage parlors. Members of F.R.E.E. will provide them with gift bags and try to build their trust over time. Many of the people who are in the country illegally were promised a better life in America, only to find themselves being exploited with little hope of getting out.
Monson said there is hope for these people and they should know there are people out there searching for them in order to give them a better life outside of being exploited. He tells the story about when another person was located and how shocked they were when they got into the mobile command center of F.R.E.E. to see everyone who was looking for the person.
“There were 40-50 people in the mobile units and she said ‘are all of these people here looking for me? I didn’t know anyone cared enough to look,’” Monson recalled. “That’s why we do it, for that one boy or girl who didn’t know people care enough to look.”
Most of the people who are rescued are transported to a group home specifically made for people who have been domestically abused. The average person is trafficked for seven years before they are found and can be sold up to 10 times per day. It takes about two years to get the victims back on their feet and begin to navigate the trama they endured through their time being trafficked.
“Many people think when you rescue someone they come running to you with open arms,” he said. “No, that’s not usually how it goes.”
When he isn’t busy working to locate and save exploited people, Monson raises money for his living expenses and the F.R.E.E. program. He spends many weekends preaching at churches and speaking to community groups about exploitation and how it can happen in communities of any size.
Monson said trafficking can include everything from a parent with a drug problem who trafficks their child to pay for their addiction and not necessarily people in a white van kidnapping a person.
After recently recording a message for a local group, Monson said he began thinking about the moments before a person is trafficked for the first time.
“The moment before (being trafficked). They have goals and ambitions in life. When they are trafficked all of that is stolen from them,” said Monson. “Can we bring these victims back to where they can dream again?”
Those who need help, or would like to report an exploited person, can call the national hot line at (888) 373-7888. For more information about F.R.E.E., or visit www.freeinternational.org