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Man Charged With Sex Trafficking at Flying J in Altoona, Officials Warn Problem is Getting Worse

ALTOONA, Iowa  --  Police in Altoona have charged a Des Moines man with human trafficking. The suspect is accused of trying to force a woman into prostitution at an Altoona truck stop.

Police documents show the suspect in this case, 32-year-old Michael Nelson, allegedly fired a round in the air from a handgun when the victim told him she didn't want to solicit sex. After the gunshot, the woman got in the car and the suspect took her to the Flying J in Altoona.

Police say the two approached someone at the Flying J to solicit sex, and it was the prospective John who later called the police.

Police say the woman gave a description of Nelson, and officers found him nearby. They were able to locate Nelson's firearm and found that he was drunk, more than twice the legal limit. He was arrested for human trafficking, illegal carrying of a weapon, and OWI. Police say oftentimes victims of human trafficking aren't as helpful as in this instance.

“Typically these people that are putting them in these situations, that's how they get fed, that is where they get shelter, that's all stuff that we need, and it's probably something we need to address if we're going to help victims of this out,” said Altoona Police Chief Greg Stallman

The problem is getting worse.  According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Iowa saw 74 reported human trafficking cases in 2017; that number has grown every year since 2012. Experts say the growth is partly due to increased awareness for the signs of trafficking, but also because it's easier than ever for traffickers and their clients.

“The internet has become the place that buyers find their victims,” said Dr. George Belitsos.

Belitsos is the chairman for the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking and Slavery. During the 2018 legislative session, they were able to secure $150,000 from the legislature to fund the Iowa Office to Combat Human Trafficking after it went unfunded in 2017. Previously, the office was funded at $300,000.

The organization also secured funding to improve training for mandatory reporters to recognize the signs of human trafficking.

“There are so many children that are being abused and being lured into trafficking and are going unrecognized,” said Belitsos.

While the woman in this particular case was listed as age 18 or older, statistics show there were 23 cases involving minors in Iowa last year.

Belitsos says the legislature failed to pass a bill this session that would double the punishment for child traffickers from 10 years to 20. He also says they are working on a “safe harbor” bill, which would help prevent minors who are being trafficked from being charged with prostitution.

If you suspect human trafficking is taking place near you, call 911 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.