Major sporting events attract big money and big crowds. But Michael Ocello, who owns several Denver strip clubs and co-founded Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking, says they also attract a specific type of crime: men and women, girls and boys who are brought to Denver and forced to work as prostitutes.
"It's basically slavery," Ocello says. And on Sunday, when the Broncos take on the San Diego Chargers in Denver, Ocello's employees (read: strip club dancers, waitresses, etc.) intend to do something about it.
Like his St. Louis employees did during the World Series last year, Ocello's Denver employees -- "I would never call the ladies who work for us 'strippers,'" he says -- will be outside Mile High Stadium on Sunday, handing out trading cards printed especially for the game. On one side, the cards look like a vintage-y souvenir. On the other side, they proclaim that "Sex Trafficking Is Modern Day Slavery!" and include tips on how to spot a sex-trafficking victim. The cards also include phone numbers for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline.
Ocello is based in St. Louis, but he owns several Denver clubs, including the Diamond Cabaret, the Penthouse Club, La Boheme, PT's Showclub and PT's All Nude. He says he became more aware of sex trafficking three years ago after one of his clubs in the northeast was accused of participating in it. Although the club was cleared of all charges, Ocello says, the accusation bothered him -- so much so that he requested a meeting with the assistant secretary of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Torres.
"We were both blunt with each other," Ocello recall. While Torres suspected Ocello's clubs were involved in sex trafficking, Ocello insisted they were not. Prostitution is bad for business, he explained; strip clubs make more money the longer a patron stays in the club, buying food and drinks and dances. "If a guy comes in and gets a happy ending in fifteen minutes, he's not staying for that second drink," Ocello says.
But something Torres said during their meeting bothered Ocello. "He said, 'How do you know that when a girl leaves your club...she's not getting into a car with someone who's forcing her to be there?'" Ocello admitted that he didn't, and he vowed to become familiar with the signs of human trafficking and to educate his employees, too.
In 2010, he co-founded Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking, or COAST. To date, he says the organization has trained 4,000 people, including 500 in Denver, on recognizing the signs of sex trafficking. And it's worked, he says. Ocello gives a real-life example: Two women came into one of his clubs. One was big and bulky like a football player and the other looked like she was there to audition. The football-player woman did all of the talking and when the manager asked for their IDs, the bigger woman produced both of them. When the manager asked the other woman why she wanted to work there, she said, "My friend says this is where I need to work."
Those are all red flags, Ocello says -- red flags that his employees might have missed if it weren't for their training. The case was reported to law enforcement; he doesn't know if anyone was ever arrested or charged.
Even though not everyone approves of strip clubs, Ocello notes: "We are a legal business and as a legal part of the community, we want to make sure human trafficking doesn't come to our clubs."
COAST has printed similar cards for the National Western Stock Show, which starts on January 11 and runs through January 26. Keep reading to see a photo of that card.
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