PORTLAND -- Police call it a dirty secret that is drawing thousands of men a year to the city looking for one thing: underage girls for sex.
A dedicated group of undercover Portland police officers is cracking down harder than ever on child sex trafficking.
They said this trafficking is some of the worst in the country and it's happening right in front of our eyes.
“The sex industry in Portland is huge. On almost every corner is a porn shop, strip club, lingerie parlor. It definitely breeds itself,” said Officer Jeff Ruppel.
Police said it’s become so bad, they call it a tourist attraction.
“We have a lot of johns pick up a rental car and drive straight to the avenue and find a girl,” added Ruppel.
The avenue he’s talking about is Portland’s Northeast 82nd. For the first time, the Portland Police Bureau’s undercover prostitution division took KGW along to the front lines of their back-alley war.
“I know there are girls that are 14 that are walking 82nd,” said Ruppel.
That’s the average age in Portland a girl, barely out of puberty, will be forced to have sex with a grown man for the first time, he said.
Young women want their stories told.
“I’ve been doing this on and off since I was 13,” said “Lexi.” “I wanted to be a nurse and a teacher, not a heroin addict and a prostitute.”
The demand is insatiable.
“The minute we get one off the road, there’s another one we’ve never met before,” said Ruppel.
During the sting, police caught “Tony,” a 50-year-old grandfather who’s separated from his wife.
He admits to pulling over a prostitute on 82nd and giving her $130. He said he had never done anything like this before.
“I feel like I have no values, I’m feeling really bad that I got caught,” said Tony.
Throughout the day, undercover police tracked girls who looked underage. You could mistake them for high school students walking home, except that school got out hours ago.
“You’ll see them look down the side streets a lot to see if anyone pulls over for them,” said Ruppel.
Another mistake? Thinking any of these women are willing participants. They’re not, police said. Time and time again, their pimps are not far behind.
“That guy that’s showed them any love is that guy that’s forcing them to work,” Ruppel added.
Pimps lure young girls with the promises of love and money, but “Marie” explained what happens next.
“He started selling me to who he called his friends,” she said. Marie had been abused by her stepfather as a child. She eventually ran away and into the arms of a man more than twice her age.
“Before I knew it, I’m going in bedrooms. Sometimes they would bring shirts from their granddaughters and want me to wear them. I didn’t know I was worth more.”
Police met Christine after another bust that night. She started working when she was just 13. Christine is now 38.
“She described him as a 'gorilla pimp,' basically forcing her to be out, abusing her physically, probably sexually,” said Officer Mike Gallagher.
For most of these women, their fate is as hard as the looks on their faces.
“You’ll stop and talk to them 10, 15 times. There’s a lot of patience, a lot of getting yelled at, getting cussed at. Someday you hope they come around,” said. Ruppel. "Have the courage to come around to run for help."
“It’s survival at our lowest. Not any one of us would do this by choice,” said Lexi. On an average night, police can arrest upwards of a half-dozen men off 82nd.
This is a three-night investigation. On Tuesday, KGW looks into how this trafficking is moving off the streets and onto the Internet, where it's easier to hide these young girls.