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News 8 Investigates: Justice for Jeffrey

TOMAH, Wis. (WKBT) - Sex trafficking is the focus of a new effort by Wisconsin's Department of Justice.

As awareness of the crime grows, the assembly is currently working on new bills to help protect victims and prosecute abusers.

'News 8 Investigates' reported on the hidden and illicit nature of sex trafficking in our January report.

Three new bills introduced by the state assembly intend to help with this issue.

One bill authored by Representative Jill Billings from La Crosse will ensure minors may not be prosecuted for committing an act of prostitution. Which means disclosing any and all information won't be used against them.

Another bill will make soliciting a sexually explicit photo, recording or representation from a minor, a crime. 

Under current law, there is no penalty. 

The final bill increases the penalty for having sex with a person under the age of 18 from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class 1 felony.

It also states the prosecutor does not need to prove the person paying for sex was aware the survivor was under 18.

These bills are still pending and are waiting to be passed in the senate.

One Tomah mother says laws like these may have helped her 17-year-old son, who she believes was sex trafficked.

Looking through pictures of what would be a 19-year-old Jeffrey, Lisa McCormick is reminded each day her son will always be 17. 

"A part of you knows that that's going to happen someday, I never thought it would happen before my son turned 18."

September 30th of 2016, Jeffrey died of a heroin overdose. 

Three months after Jeffrey's death, Lisa learned he was sex trafficked. 

"As we were planning the funeral, somebody drove to the funeral home, and dropped off an envelope of photos, and on the outside of the envelope it says give to the McCormick family, these are photos of Jeffrey from the last few months of his life."

The funeral home warned Lisa the photos were graphic. It took her three months to build up the courage to finally look through them. 

"It was difficult to look at the photos."

Photos of Jeffrey show he was possibly under the influence, they show other men, but their faces are usually cropped out. 

They show what Lisa says is a vulnerable Jeffrey. She suggests it's the alleged traffickers way of showing they had power over her son. 

"That they were in control at all times that they had him."

She explains Jeffrey dealt with drug addiction for most of his teen years, going in and out of juvenile detention centers and running away from home was a habit. 

"He was struggling with different rehabs and hospitals and trying to figure out what to do. 

 At 17, Jeffrey started working at a night club in Madison, where she says he met his alleged traffickers. 

"When you find out how traffickers look for kids and look for young people it could be anywhere at anytime."

He developed a relationship with those men, who convinced him of a different way he could be making more money. 

"And when you're pretty down and out on your luck like Jeffrey was, you know he was barely making it on his own, of course he said yes."

Not long after he met the men who would soon become his alleged traffickers, Jeffrey's mom says his drug addiction was used against him, and he was forced to have sex with women he didn't know, in exchange for money. 

"These women paid for sex with him."

Money, he never kept. 

"They provided him with all new clothes, new shoes, lots of jewelry, cell phones, lots of drugs," she said.

Lisa says although Jeffrey didn't exactly say he was sex trafficked, he was open with her about some of the things he did and why he did them. 

"I didn't realize it was trafficking at that time, I thought it was just prostitution, I didn't realize the difference at that point."

She says she even heard from others, Jeffrey was being sold on craigslist. 

"He was being trafficked from Madison to Iowa."

At the time, she wasn't sure if Jeffrey was prostituting himself, so she worked closely with Madison detectives to determine whether he was sex trafficked.

According to Madison detectives, Jeffrey did admit he was ordered to have sex. He also admitted there was always something exchanged--whether it was drugs or money. 

"He told police that he had sex with at least ten women, that he had been beaten up twice, that he was abused, he had all the drugs he wanted, he had a place to live, a phone, they took care of him but he had been trafficked during that entire time frame."

But the information he provided detectives with, was limited and often times missing key parts. 

Madison police are aware of Jeffrey's alleged traffickers, because they are registered sex offenders. 

They had search warrants and phone records, but the process to prosecute suspects of sex trafficking, is different than charging someone as a sex offender. 

La Crosse District Attorney Tim Gruenke explains there are specific elements needed to prove to a jury. 

"The first is that people have to be engaged in some sort of a commercial sex act which is usually sex in exchange for money but it could be something else like drugs or really anything of value, the other element is that somebody is forcing somebody else to do that either by a threat, or an act of violence or by some of sort of coercion to get them kicked out of their housing or report them to human services, and the other thing is that the person doing the trafficking gets some benefit out of it so they get the money, the values the drugs, whatever."

These elements almost align in Jeffrey's case, but he's not here to fill the missing pieces, which means so long as it's his word against the traffickers, they are free and may be trafficking other children today. 

"So it would be difficult to have somebody testify to these things and be allowed to be cross examined so that might be the bar in this case, why it can't go forward," said Gruenke.

However, the new potential laws in Wisconsin's state assembly could prevent cases like Jeffrey's from continuing to happen.

"In the last couple of years there has been a big push to educate all of the people within the system, police, prosecutors, victim advocates. to try to recognize the signs of when something might be a little deeper than what it first appears," Gruenke said.

Life may not be the same now for Lisa, but she's finding purpose as she works with state representatives to raise awareness on sex trafficking. 

She says the efforts, in some way, will help bring justice for Jeffrey and other children who are sex trafficked in Wisconsin each year. 

"If we can use Jeffrey's story to share with other people, so that they don't have to go through what we went through."


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