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'The Big Search': Central Minnesota father, sons fight sex trafficking in Las Vegas

From left: Sheldon Monson stands with sons Eric and Caleb on their short-term mission trip to Las Vegas last week. The trio worked with FREE International to find missing and exploited youth in the city. Submitted photo1 / 2
Gift bags were one of the items delivered to massage parlors throughout Las Vegas as a way to get information out to those in the sex trafficking system. Submitted photo2 / 2

WADENA, Minn. — A Wadena father and two sons can now say they’ve visited nearly every massage parlor in Las Vegas.

While that’s not a feat many would hang their hat on, Sheldon Monson and his two sons, Eric and Caleb, completed the task in an effort to help those who are being sexually exploited.

The Monsons joined a team of over 250 volunteers, handed out over 10,000 flyers and helped find 13 missing children last week in Las Vegas. As of Feb. 5, that number rose to 15 found.

The mission, called “The Big Search,” was an effort to find 30 missing and exploited children in the city. The long list of missing children was mostly made up of teenagers, but a 3-year-old boy was also part of the search. The list included missing children that the local authorities had very little information about. In these cases, it requires boots on the ground, searching and asking everyone to be on the lookout.

When a teenager is taken or runs away in the Las Vegas area, there’s a very good chance they’ll be picked up within 24 hours and brought into the sex trafficking trade. With about 1.2 million people coming through Las Vegas every 10 days, it’s ground zero for sex trafficking, according to Sheldon Monson.

The Monsons left on the mission Jan. 28  to join up with Find Restore Embrace Empower International to learn about how they would help in the rescue. FREE International works with other groups to perform this search each year. The actual search took place from Jan. 31 - Feb. 2, and the Monsons attended various training exercises in the days leading up to it.

The search was long and exhausting, starting at about 9 a.m. and in some cases going until midnight Jan. 31 - Feb. 2. They walked the strip and open areas handing out flyers to let people know about the cause and information about the 30 youth they were searching for.

They also dropped off gift bags to workers at all the massage parlors in their database. Inside the gift bags was a card letting workers know the number they could call if they wanted to get out of their situation.

Other teams, made up of women, handled tasks like entering brothels outside of town. There, volunteers sought to share their ministry and offer guidance in getting out. They also worked on laptops communicating with girls being trafficked online in an effort to let them know that resources are available.

And according to FREE International, every 30 seconds, another person is added to the sex trafficking trade. The average girl being pulled in is 12-14 years old.

The sex trafficking world has a beautiful facade. In most cases you won’t even see it looking at the glitz and glamour of Vegas, the men said. But behind closed doors, it’s a multi-billion dollar industry, with a foundation built on trafficking children.

Aside from the missing children that were located, the Monsons found out that one 20-year-old girl that got a phone number handed to her made the call and was removed from her situation.

While the search was successful, learning about this corrupt world in the shadows was a mental drain.

“It’s so disheartening that there’s parts of our society participating, but it’s also nice to see that there are entities helping out,” Sheldon said.


FREE International lists several misconceptions that many people hold to be true about the children pulled into the sex trade. Some of those include:

  • They could have run away or asked for help. Many have their lives threatened to the point they feel there is no way out. 89 percent say they want to escape but had no other means of survival, according to FREE International data.

  • They should have known better. Many lack the knowledge of services and victims rights. Many are children.

  • They deserved it because they didn’t avoid the person. Sheldon shared that many of these are vulnerable children looking for a different life. Others are taken against their will.