Retired NYPD detective continues to combat human trafficking in rural Minnesota

James Rothstein returned to his hometown, St. Martin, to continue to combat human trafficking of boys and girls in rural areas.
James Rothstein returned to his hometown, St. Martin, to continue to combat human trafficking of boys and girls in rural areas.

By Sheila McCoy, Staff Writer
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A high school in central Minnesota was contacted in 2015 with the warning that one of its female students was at risk to fall victim to human trafficking. The warning was given in person by retired New York City Police Department (NYPD) detective James Rothstein.

Rothstein said children and teenagers who are bullied are especially at risk, since they can be easier to “groom” into prostitution.

“Those are the ones to really look out for,” he said. “There’s no difference between wealthy and poor people.”

In the case of the bullied girl who was at risk, Rothstein said, despite the fact that the school tried everything staff could and also notified law enforcement, she was found working as a prostitute in South Dakota a year later.

Other warning signs Rothstein urges the general public to look out for that indicate a young person is at risk for being lured into prostitution or is already being exploited are behavioral changes, the person buying new, but inappropriate clothing, suddenly going from using a small bag to a large one and filling it with clothes and returning home late without an explanation as to where he or she has been.

Rothstein’s path into combating human trafficking began in 1966, when his captain with the NYPD assigned him to work prostitution and pedophilia. Eighth Avenue between 42nd and 50th streets in New York City (NYC) was known as the “Minnesota Strip” in that at any given time, over 400 girls from Minnesota were being exploited there.

“The captain decided I was going to take care of my own mess, since I was from Minnesota,” said Rothstein, who was born and raised in St. Martin.

Rothstein said that two years later, a NYPD police officer was stabbed to death by a pimp.

“When you kill a cop in New York, all hell breaks loose,” he said.

As a result of the murder, Rothstein was sent to work undercover to investigate and infiltrate prostitution and pedophilia rings.

Rothstein said that for the 12 years he worked undercover, one issue he continued to run into was different government agencies giving him the runaround or right out blocking him from doing his job. Many prominent figures stood to be compromised for using sexual services from prostitutes. Some, he said, were even into pedophilia.

Rothstein said human trafficking is going on more than ever now.

“It’s worse now than it was then,” he said.

Just a couple of years ago, he said, he was approached by a woman in Richmond who knew who he was and asked him for help.

“She said the pimps were holding her best friend’s kids hostage and were making her turn tricks (prostitute herself) and recruit 13- to 15-year-old girls along the Interstate 94 corridor in a 100 mile radius,” he said.

Rothstein said human trafficking is more prevalent than people would like to believe in the counties of Stearns, Morrison, Todd, Cass and Crow Wing.

While programs have been put in place to restore victims of human trafficking, Rothstein said that those kinds of programs don’t work without first getting rid of the pimps.

“The pimps go after them if they try to leave and get them back,” he said.

Rothstein said that they are also often brutally sexually assaulted and battered by several people as a means to discourage him or her to ever try to leave again.

In order for Minnesota to effectively combat human trafficking, Rothstein said an intelligence operation first has to be set up. It would enable detectives to work across jurisdictions rather than being restricted to one.

“The pimps move around so you have to be able to follow them,” he said.

Rothstein said that victims of human trafficking are often wrongfully classified as runways or homeless.

“By classifying them as that, they are not included in the crime statistics,” he said.

Since 2002, Rothstein has also served as mayor of St. Martin. On March 13, 2014, the city adopted a resolution on human trafficking and petitioned Gov. Mark Dayton to submit proposed legislation to the Minnesota State Legislature to amend the criminal code, calling for harsher penalties for traffickers, those engaging in the trade, anyone who interferes with an investigation. In addition, any government official who fails to act quickly once informed of an illegal activity would face felony charges.

Rothstein said he was recently contacted by the Governor’s Office and a meeting will ensue.