SAUGET, Ill. (KSDK) - Strip club owners maybe aren't the first people you think of when you hear of anti-sex trafficking advocates. They may not even be the last. But they may be among the first people to see a sex trafficking victim.
They've become the eyes and ears of federal agents on both sides of the Missouri river. St. Louis is on the sex trafficking highway between Kansas City and Chicago.
A strip club owner in Sauget, Illinois is leading the fight to stop the selling of women and children in the St. Louis area and around the country. His army of people, the workers in his clubs, is on the frontlines of a mission to save a life. It's a place where sexy sells that serves as the home of a movement called Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking (COAST).
"From the first person they meet in the parking lot, to the floor host inside, the person who collects the identification, the manager, the bartender, the waitress, have been trained to know what human trafficking looks like," said Mike Ocello, owner of the Penthouse nightclub and five others in the area. His company owns 18 more across the country.
"If a girl everyday says, 'Oh, my God, I need to make this much' or 'I don't want to go home,' then that's a warning sign," said a dancer who performs under the stage name "Cashmere." She strips at the Penthouse four days a week.
"People generally believe human trafficking is going on and it's widespread in the adult nightclubs. I believe they are mistaken," Ocello said. He started fighting the perception a few years ago.
"There's a perception that as a business owner I would want prostitution in my club, that's going to bring more people in my business. We make our money from selling admission, selling drinks, food; the girls do dances. If the guy comes in and encounters a prostitute, and has the happy ending, he's not staying for that second bottle of beer. He's going home. That's bad for business," he said.
Ocello said it's impossible for legitimate business owners to traffic in people. Trafficking requires force, coercion and fraud.
"These women, they decide when they're going to come to work, how long they're going to work, who they're going to dance for," he said.
Ocello became an advocate after one of the dancers in his clubs had an expired visa.
"Her and her boyfriend get into a fight and he turns her into immigration saying she's here illegally and she's working. An agent came in and thought we were involved in human trafficking and importing girls, it became a mess," he said.
Agents cleared Ocello's nightclubs of any wrong doing, but it was a turning point for him. He could not stop thinking about what could happen if undocumented women were sold into his clubs. He came up with a plan. He was able to arrange a meeting with former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations for ICE John Torres, who was admittedly skeptical when Ocello walked into his Washington, DC office.
"You could count me as part of the main stream of people who had the perception that a lot of illegal activity takes place in those types of clubs," Torres said.
Ocello convinced Torres and the federal government to work with him.
"We could provide training to his employees so they could recognize the signs of human trafficking and refer those cases back to us" said Torres. "I see a program that is successful in preventing human trafficking from taking place and protecting victims."
Three thousand strip club workers in 200 adult nightclubs from coast to coast learned what a sex trafficking victim looked like. They gave ICE agents enough ammunition to investigate several cases.
"This is about saving a life," Ocello said.
Saving lives is what Ocello is trying to do. He does it every day when he puts on the uniform and patrols the streets as a certified and commissioned police officer in the state of Illinois. He works for the Centreville Police Department.
Torres believes Ocello's plan could be a model for other companies.