- Associated Press - Saturday, November 24, 2018

DALLAS, S.D. (AP) - Merry Whitney thought she would make bank.

Such is the life of a freelance exotic dancer. Word of a big earner ripples through your informal network. You hear of a good place to make some money, and you go.

That’s how Whitney heard about a club in South Dakota, one open for only a few months a year: Frank Day’s Bar in Dallas, population 123.

For about three months of the year, from September to November, the bar and restaurant transform into a completely different establishment. Frank Day’s opens a short-term strip club, specifically catering to a rush of pheasant hunters who travel here from all over the country toting shotguns and cash to burn.

Pheasant hunting season was once a homespun South Dakota tradition. But increasingly it is a commercial enterprise, one that comes with a dark side: sex trafficking and pop-up strip clubs that cater to hunters here for a good time.

The hunting season’s dark side stands in stark contrast to South Dakota’s friendly, clean-cut image. It can be easy to overlook by small farm towns that increasingly rely on hosting a flood of rich pheasant hunters to offset losses from troubled agricultural markets.

Pop-up strip clubs, while legal, have their own place in the shadow. They can trap freelance dancers in a web of exorbitant fees, throwing them into debt and making them vulnerable to being illegally exploited by traffickers and hunters, the Argus Leader reported.

Frank Day’s Bar is only one such short-term, fully nude strip club. But the bar has become legendary as a South Dakota destination for groups of hunters, mostly male, sometimes wealthy, looking for after-dark entertainment.

For dancers, that’s an alluring jackpot. Whitney messaged and called Shelly Day, current owner of the bar founded by her father. She liked the bar owner. She planned a trip to Day’s bar.

“I wanted to work for her,” Whitney said. “I wanted to do well.”

When Whitney arrived in Dallas, just before hunting season, she was already in the hole.

It was the fees.

To sleep in a trailer provided by Day: $300 a week, up front. And then there were what Whitney saw as exorbitant house fees, money due each day out of each dancer’s tip stash started at $100 and went up as the hunting season hit. The fees blew Whitney away.

“It’s just really easy to get in the hole and not be able to get yourself out,” she said.

South Dakota’s two largest tourist events, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and pheasant hunting season, both have the ingredients that attract sex traffickers: lots of men a long way from home, looking for a good time, with money to spend.

South Dakota is dawning to the realization that human trafficking isn’t just a big-city problem. It’s essentially modern slavery that does happen in the state, as (usually) men, control and manipulate (usually) women and sell their bodies for sex.

It’s a shocking practice, one that can be masked as simply providing entertainment for hunters in remote communities.

“These small towns allow this to happen because it’s a social norm, right? ‘Boys will be boys,’ that’s what we tell ourselves,” said Tifanie Petro, co-chair of the South Dakota West River Human Trafficking Task Force. “There’s this social acceptance because, ‘that’s just what happens here, that’s just what goes on during the rally, or during the pheasant season.’”

Exotic dancing is legal. But in remote small towns, dark backrooms, and private lodges and trailers, the line to prostitution and trafficking can get blurry, then crossed. Dancers, trapped by fees or other debts, may feel no choice but to do whatever it takes to get paid.

Whitney lasted four days at Frank Day’s. She stayed in the owner’s rental trailer, which she called rundown and dirty. And then there was Day’s behavior.

“She was yelling a lot, and it was just unnecessary,” Whitney said. “She kept reminding me about how easily I could be replaced, like I meant nothing to her.”

Day’s verbal abuse didn’t stop, so Whitney did. She quit and left to work elsewhere. But not every dancer has that choice, she said.

Day’s behavior fit a pattern all too familiar to women who have found themselves at the mercy of those more interested in selling bodies than respecting workers who strip and dance for money, Whitney said.

“A lot of women, I feel, definitely stick around and stand for being treated like that, because a lot of women have low self-esteem, and that’s what pimps look for,” she said. “I’m sure that’s why Shelly thinks she can get away with it, because so many women are used to being treated so horribly.”

The Argus Leader visited Frank Day’s in September and spoke to Day for an article about the changes in pheasant season over the years. Day gave a tour of her establishment, but she chose not to walk through the back portion of the bar, saying the door to the back was locked.

The Argus Leader contacted Day for this article. Reached by phone, said she had no comment, said thank you, and hung up.

There shouldn’t be a lot of money to make in Dallas, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it town surrounded by rolling hills and farm fields.

But the community along U.S. Highway 18 in Gregory County claims valuable real estate. It sits amid pheasant country, home to a short-lived annual gold rush. Out-of-state hunters adding up to nearly half the county population drive and fly in this remote county.

No business exhibits the seasonal change in south-central South Dakota quite like Frank Day’s Bar.

A bucking bronco statue rears above the front entrance of the establishment, a maze-like cluster of interconnected buildings, fronted by a large, dusty parking lot just off the highway.

Inside, a neon sign behind the bar declares this the “No Wives Club - Corporate Headquarters.”

Dallas is the undisputed center of evening attraction for hunters at dozens of nearby hunting lodges.

“Hunt all day, play all night,” says a poster in a nearby lodge, advertising Frank Day‘s, and small buses from lodges near and far pull into the bar’s dirt parking lot, disgorging hunters.

Reportedly, one wealthy hunter once arrived via helicopter. His pilot landed in the field across the street from the bar. The pilot was sober. The hunter was not.

Dallas tells it all. There are people sleeping in their cars in Dallas on opening weekend. You can’t get in,” said Gregory County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, describing the rush of hunters to the county during the season. “Frank Day’s is the pulse of the people there, because you can’t get in the parking lot.”

Establishments like Frank Day’s are well-known in the pheasant hunting community. Maybe they’re not always spit-polished (“definitely a hole,” one online reviewer wrote about Frank Day’s in 2015), but word gets around: Here, it gets wild.

“Pheasant season brings young ladies from all over the states to this bar,” said another online reviewer in a February 2018 comment on Frank Day‘s. “They are a lot of fun. Stage tipping can get wooly (sic) as the stages are full nude with two-way contact.”

Contacted via email, Tatiana wouldn’t answer the Argus Leader’s questions. But, she wrote, said she would never go back because of what she says she experienced at the bar: Day’s practice of requiring up-front money and not refunding it if a dancer decided to leave early.

“That place makes the business of dancing/stripping look bad,” she wrote.

Sam is an exotic dancer at Frank Day’s this pheasant season. This is her third year at the bar, and she said her experiences were much different than that of Whitney and Tatiana. Sam, from West Palm Beach, Florida, doesn’t want to use her real name, a common move by dancers to protect themselves, she said.

There’s lots of money to be made in Dallas, she said. And now that she’s been at the bar for multiple seasons, she’s getting to know some of the regulars, both nearby residents and out-of-town hunters.

“Instead of the big city, it’s much homier. Everybody knows everybody,” she said. “It’s a big family instead of just co-workers. I enjoy that a lot.”

And the customers? Well, you have to be good about setting your own boundaries in terms of what you’ll do for them, she said. Customers at Frank Day’s are not as aggressive as clubs she’s worked at in large cities, she said. And she described Day’s fees as reasonable and comparable to clubs elsewhere.

“It’s not for everybody,” she said. “I think it’s a great place. I know other girls that come back year after year, and they think it’s a great place. But it’s not for everyone.”

Places like Frank Day’s Bar set off alarm bells for anti-human trafficking advocates.

These legal, short-term strip clubs, set up in remote areas to serve a horde of rich visitors, tick off all the boxes for those who traffic people.

“People of South Dakota don’t think it’s happening in their backyard, but it is,” said Lisa Heth, executive director of Wiconi Wawokiya, an organization in Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation that helps victims of domestic violence, sex assault and trafficking. She’s also executive director of the Pathfinder Center, an underfunded 14-room long-term shelter for human trafficking survivors that opened last year in central South Dakota, its exact location kept private for safety.

“In these small communities, a lot of them don’t think anything like that can happen,” Heth said. “But it is happening, because a lot of these traffickers, they know that. So they’re taking women to where the hunters are and trafficking them there.”

Trafficking has garnered increased attention from state officials and law enforcement in recent years. A state DCI trafficking sting at the Sturgis rally earlier this year resulted in six arrests. Federal prosecutors are pursuing charges against two men recently arrested for allegedly trafficking a minor. Governor-elect Kristi Noem co-sponsored multiple anti-trafficking measures while serving as the state’s lone representative in Congress.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline reports in 2017 it took in dozens of calls and identified 32 trafficked victims, 13 traffickers and nine businesses involved in trafficking in South Dakota, primarily sex trafficking. Its map of trafficking hotspots includes a dot that appears within Gregory County, home to Dallas.

Sex trafficking is extraordinarily hard to document and track because it is notoriously under-reported. Many aren’t aware of what to look for. Survivors and victims often don’t come forward, muzzled by a toxic brew of fear, shame, trauma and community indifference and shunning.

Kelly Patterson is a notable exception from the silence. She is a sex-trade survivor and wrote about her experiences and return to freedom in her book, “From Trafficked to Treasured,” which delves into the unique nature of trafficking in rural areas such as South Dakota. She now works as an advocate and counselor, and regularly presents on trafficking and its warning signs.

“You’re not going to see streetwalkers in rural America. Our cities are not big enough. They would be obviously recognized, turned in and stopped,” Patterson said. “Because it’s such a trafficking business, it has to look like something that blends in.”

The disguise, in this case: hunting season entertainment.

Whitney, the dancer who left Frank Day’s after her 2015 visit, said she’s never seen what she would define as human trafficking. Neither had Sam, the dancer currently working at Frank Day’s, who said she has witnessed it elsewhere.

“It’s very ‘come in, hang out at the bar, buy a few lap dances,’ that kind of deal,” she said, about the Dallas bar.

But Whitney said the economics of dancing at places like Frank Day’s creates an environment where the pressure is to do whatever it takes.

“When there such high fees, girls are willing to do more there,” she said, “Girls are going to do … a lot, in the back, you know? It really doesn’t surprise me, because fees are that high.”

So where are the police? Not at Frank Day’s in tiny Dallas, which has no police department - not unusual for a South Dakota town of its size.

In a September conversation with the Argus Leader about law enforcement during pheasant season, Lafe Gildemaster, police chief in the nearby town of Gregory, said he’s seldom involved with the bar, which he said is monitored by Gregory County Sheriff’s Office.

Gildemaster spends more time during the season helping hunters track down missing - and very expensive - hunting dogs. Hunting season is less rowdy than it used to be, he said.

“Quiet is good,” he said.

Local law enforcement did respond to multiple requests for comment over the past two weeks.

Follow-up attempts to contact Gildemaster on his office phone directed calls to his cellphone. All calls to his cellphone went unanswered and his voicemail inbox was full. Gregory County Sheriff Tim Drey didn’t respond to multiple attempts to contact him, including messages left over the phone with county dispatchers and to the sheriff office’s email.

Asked about a rumored prostitution sting at Frank Day’s last year, a representative for the state Department of Criminal Investigation issued this statement: “The DCI does a number of operations, but we do not confirm any details. The only time operation details are released is if there are arrests.”

For trafficking survivor advocates like Heth, of the Pathfinder Center, pheasant season isn’t the tradition-tinged seasonal activity that harms only birds. Trafficking ensnares South Dakota women as well. Native American women are heavily targeted.

“When it comes to pheasant season, I cringe, because hunting season is open on our women, as well,” she said.

And she’s got a message for pheasant hunters.

“Your main purpose is to hunt for pheasant, so hunt for pheasants. Leave our women alone.”

In small towns, explosive conversations are a mix of discretion and gossip.

It’s a stew that can be hard to explain to someone not from tiny community such as Dallas, or nearby Gregory, population 1,255.

Everyone loves to talk about the good things. The bad things? When you talk about those, you abide by unwritten code of partial silence, one that that incidentally provides cover for traffickers and others to exploit people in service of visitors looking for a good time.

Petro, co-chair of the West River Human Trafficking Task Force, knows the code. She grew up in Wall, population 766. The whispered conversations avoid the tough conversations: What’s really happening? How can we stop it? What should be done? Who is responsible?

“Everybody knows everybody’s business, but yet it’s nobody’s business,” she said. “We’re going to talk about it with the neighbor, but we’re not going to call law enforcement, because ‘it’s none of my business.’”

Dallas, in Gregory County, isn’t the only small town where this seems to be true. But it certainly fits the mold, said Tess Franzen, founder and executive director of Freedom’s Journey, a Rapid City based nonprofit organization that helps victims and survivors of human trafficking.

“It’s an old community. My family homesteaded just north of Dallas. That’s where our family homestead is. I have uncles that still live there. And they know people they grew up with that my grandpa grew up with,” she said. “It’s people that are deeply embedded in their community, and if there’s anything bad happening, they don’t talk about it.”

The Argus Leader visited Frank Day’s Bar in September, weeks before pheasant hunting season opening day, and spoke to Shelly Day about her business, as part of an in-depth piece about the changes in hunting season over the years.

Day talked at length about how busy the bar gets, but she was tight-lipped about the back rooms of her business - the dancers. After the interview, she offered a tour. But first, she said, she had to go check on something.

Day was gone for over 15 minutes before returning and guiding the Argus Leader through Frank Day’s kitchen and front bar and seating area, showing off historical photos, old cowboy boots and decades-worth of dusty memorabilia.

She ducked into a small room in the back, requesting no photos of the space. This was the original strip club set up by her father decades ago. Black painted walls. Mirrors. It was empty of people.

Down a back hallway stood a door. Behind the door was the back half of her business: an extensive space with stripper poles, couches for dances and more.

Behind that door was the nexus of late-night entertainment in south-central South Dakota’s pheasant hunting country.

Day tried the door. It was locked, she said. She acted surprised, then said there was no need to go through the door anyway.

Nothing to see here.

If you’re a victim of sex trafficking or suspect you have information related to sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888, text 233733 or go online to www.humantraffickinghotline.org.

___

Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com


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