By Ainsley Trunkhill / Managing Editor-Content
On a Friday night in November, a young Hutchinson Community College student arrived for her shift as a waitress at the Hutchinson Applebee’s, preparing herself for a busy night of serving after the Friday Night Lights from area high school football games.
High school students flooded the tables following the games, resulting in a hectic evening for the waitress. She didn’t realize at the time that she was in the presence of something more nefarious than high schoolers.
Two middle-aged men in coveralls sat at the bar all night, both potential suspects in a sex-trafficking ring, according to Hutchinson police who would later arrive on the scene. According to witnesses, one man was tall with brown eyes and was bald, while the other was shorter with brown, curly hair. They flirted with waitresses, attempted to talk to younger high school girls, and frequently snuck glances out the window.
“It was creepy,” said the waitress, whose name is being withheld to protect her identity. “Men always come and go and flirt with servers, but this felt more malicious.”
The men engaged in full-on conversations in a place of the usual small talk and preferred to stand rather than sit, which struck the servers as odd. Progressively, their questions transitioned to being more and more intrusive.
“It wasn’t just ‘how are you?’,” the waitress said. “I felt uncomfortable … it was definitely off.”
Their questions included relationship status, first and last name, height, and age. As directed during safety training, the waitress lied about her age.
The waitress claimed to be 17, to which the men replied, “That’s not a problem.”
Around 11:45 p.m., six Hutchinson police officers arrived at Applebee’s. The waitress watched as the men left through the back door and drove away in a white Chevy truck with a scratched and gray, vented trailer attached to the back.
“I felt relieved when the police came, but once (they) said who they were it was really scary,” the waitress said. “It showed the severity of the situation.”
According to the information the waitress received, the men had made stops around multiple bars in Hutchinson in search of sex trafficking victims, with a possible connection to several missing persons in Wichita as well.
This variety of crime, however, is not a unique instance, nor is it unique to Kansas. According to Wichita CBS affiliate KWCH, the Department of Homeland Security Investigations rescued 31 individuals from sex trafficking, 14 of those being missing children in June 2021. The offenders operated in Wichita, Independence, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan.
In 2022, the Hutchinson Police Department announced a “renewed focus on sex crimes,” according to KWCH. Despite their claims, sex crimes still remain, largely, underreported and teeming with corruption.
According to Rain, Abuse & Incest National Network, nationally one out of every six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, nine out of 10 victims of rape are women, and out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators will walk free. According to the Reno County Sex Offenders Registry, there are currently 198 registered sex offenders in Reno County, which is higher than the national average per capita. A source, who wished to remain anonymous and was a former 911 dispatcher with the City of Hutchinson, also suggests that the statistics regarding crime reduction could be altered in order to display the department favorably.
The Hutchinson Police Department was contacted several times for comment about recent incidents of sex trafficking in Hutchinson, but interview requests were declined.
While sex crime statistics are difficult to measure, cultural differences account for the significant disparity in the prosecution of these crimes and a lack of support from traditional law enforcement.
“A lot of crimes against women and children that are culture-specific, where male machismo takes precedence, is sometimes glossed over by law enforcement due to a language barrier or unwillingness of the victim to cooperate,” said the former dispatcher, who has chosen to remain anonymous because they aren’t authorized to speak about crimes. “These crimes aren’t as focused on by law enforcement because, in effect, it’s not white women being preyed upon.
“The advocacy part is also essential to assisting in prosecution of some of these crimes,” the former dispatcher said. “It is hard for women to report these things to men … It helps to have more females in law enforcement to help soften that situation a little more.”
BrightHouse is one place in Hutchinson that seeks to provide this kind of advocacy and support. They provide free, confidential service to anyone in Reno, Rice, Kingman and Harper counties in support of victims of sexual assault.
“HutchPD does some child safety stuff, but BrightHouse does more of the safe touch and safe date talks at schools to give children and young adults information about what is OK and what is not as far as your body (goes),” the former dispatcher said.
Resources such as BrightHouse serve to protect victims and prevent sex crimes, although the discourse continues to be inherently flawed.
“The whole discussion always has me up in arms because we live in an unfair world where women have to actively change everything they do to avoid being attacked and it’s still never good enough,” the former dispatcher said.
“There was a HutchCC track dude that was a serial rapist … he would assault girls at parties or invite them to his house (or) go to hang out at the girls’ houses and rape them,” the former dispatcher said. “That in and of itself is bullshit because what were those girls doing other than trying to make a friend or date an attractive, well-spoken, and charming man who was secretly a monster?”
At Applebee’s, the recent incident has forced female waitresses to pivot their nightly routines.
“(I) always walk out with a co-worker now,” the waitress said. “(There are) definitely more precautions … I used to not lock my apartment door, but ever since then, I lock my car, my door, (and) never give out my number to customers.
“Managers now talk with customers that make servers uncomfortable and they actually take customers out. They never did before, (but) you can’t be too sure.”
From their experience within law enforcement, the previous officer also provided some safety precautions for individuals. Their tips include always using the buddy system, checking in on one another when going somewhere, creating code words for uncomfortable situations, not accepting drinks or drugs from strangers, keeping your location on your phone, carrying an alarm or small weapon with you, and always trusting your gut.