By Ben Olson
Editor’s note: A couple weeks back, I ran into an old friend. We had worked together in Los Angeles years ago while I was still working in the film industry. Hailing from a small town in Michigan, he and I clicked and became close friends. We had built a strong bond in that large, dangerous city, so I was saddened when he left the city to travel the world. Just a few weeks ago, I was playing a gig with my band in Washington and ran into him randomly at the bar afterward. We hadn’t seen each other in years. We got to talking and I asked what he had been up to since we last spoke. The story he told was not what I was expecting. It is a story of violence, justice and innocence lost. It is a story that sheds light on the hidden world of human trafficking, and how one person tried to make a difference.
I have changed all the names and some other small bits of information for his protection (you’ll find out why), but everything else that follows is true. This is a no-holds-barred look at how human trafficking affected one Midwestern man, who has laid it all on the line to eradicate the worldwide abduction of children. This is the first part in a series of articles about this important issue. The next article will discuss how human trafficking affects us inside the United States. As the following tale is extremely graphic, reader discretion is advised.
Tom is from Michigan. After graduating high school he joined the military and spent four years serving his country before heading to Los Angeles to find work in the movies. Like many in his mid-twenties, Tom also wanted to travel the world. He saved his money and departed to Europe, backpacking his way east. He ended up living in Thailand and falling in love with it. Later, he traveled into Laos and Cambodia where Tom met Zee, the owner of a cozy little bar. Tom lived there for a year, learning the language and meeting the locals. Tom also met and became friends with an Englishman named Derek.
“Derek and I were having some beers one night and Zee came running up frantically,” Tom said. “There were these guerrillas from Laos that were hired by Chinese Triads who came into the [Cambodian] village and made an offer to the head of the tribe.”
The guerrillas said they needed young women and boys. They would take them from the village and provide them with a good education and teach them how to make a living so that they may send money back to their families. The mainly Buddhist tribe politely denied the guerrillas—they knew what these men wanted their children for, and none of it was good.
“It was then that guns were pulled,” said Tom. “They took the people they wanted, tossed them into trucks and left. Zee ended up having a sister and four cousins that were taken.”
When Zee came in frantically and told Tom and Derek about the situation, Tom’s first thought was how they could keep that from happening again.
“I kept thinking, ‘What if that was my wife or my baby sister they took?’” he said. “If that was my family, I would do whatever I had to do to get them back. I had to do something. I felt compelled. People think that just because it’s a third world country, that life isn’t as important as it is here in America. It’s just not true.”
Tom and Derek took action. They unwittingly entered the dangerous world of human trafficking. They pooled their money together—somewhere around five thousand dollars—and came up with a plan to get the children back.
“We rented a few vans and got ahold of some weapons,” said Tom. “Just that was crazy, buying weapons like that. We spent every penny on them and got some more people together. We were going to get them back.”
Tom and Derek, along with five others, joined forces. They were dedicated to finding and saving Zee’s family and other members of the tribe that were taken, as well as stopping this from happening again to other nearby tribes.
“There were three tribes close together, connected by this one road,” said Tom. “We knew they would try it again at another tribe, so we drove up to the second village and dug in.”
Tom and his group dug into a bank looking over the only road coming into the village. They rigged trees to fall in the road and prepared for a fight.
“It was surreal,” said Tom. “We waited two days for them, and when they finally showed up, we felled one of the trees across the road and stuck to our plan.”
Tom and his group took the traffickers by surprise, engaging in a firefight and killing several of the invaders. No children were taken that day.
“We took them by surprise from about 40 yards away,” said Tom. “Quite a few were killed. It’s like the first time I jumped [out of an airplane]. You’re scared and you’re unsure, but all of a sudden, you just do it. You jump. That’s what it was like. I had to build myself up to do it.”
The guerrillas came back a second time, however, and weren’t taken by surprise this time.
“They came back with .50 caliber machine guns and clay pots filled with homemade napalm,” said Tom. “They would toss these in the trees and fire rained down on us. We all got burned pretty bad.”
Two of Tom’s group were killed in this second attack—one was shot in the chest and died instantly, but another was shot in the stomach and needed medical attention right away. The nearest hospital was four hours away in Phnom Penh. They took the latter there, as he screamed in agony the whole trip, only to have him die on the front steps of the hospital.
“It was definitely the scariest thing I’d ever done in my life,” said Tom. “After that, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I could do it anymore.”
But when information came back that Zee’s family were held by a corrupt police detective at a mechanic’s shop in Phnom Penh, Tom and his band of defenders went into action again.
“There were a few different places they held them,” said Tom. “There were four or five guys in each place. You can’t just fire a gun in Phnom Penh. It would draw too much attention. So we went in with brass knuckles and knives and raided the place and got them out.”
Tom wore a headscarf to hide his identity as an American, but it was ripped off him during the fight that ensued.
“A kid ran up to me and snapped my photo with a camera phone, and two days later a wanted poster for me was all over,” said Tom.
During the fight, Tom was knocked down after being hit in the face with an blunt object.
“I woke up and saw that someone was stabbing me in the chest,” he said, lowering his collar to show me a three-inch scar below his throat. “I was lucky. He hit my sternum and the blade slid down and didn’t do too much damage.”
Despite the injuries, Tom and his men managed to free everyone from the trafficking ring—an astounding 75 people. Zee’s sister and four cousins who were initially taken were among those that were saved. They packed them into some rented vans like sardines and drove them to several different safe houses to get them out of danger.
“After the shit I saw, it got under my skin,” said Tom. “I saw some horrible things. Just horrible. There was a nine-year-old boy getting raped by two men. I don’t know how you can ever come back from that.”
For Tom, looking at the faces of those who had been kidnapped was like looking into an empty mask: “They just looked devastated. Gone. Even when we came to get them out, we had to prod them to move and get them to the safe houses, who rehabilitate them the best they can.”
Tom built a relationship with one safe house in particular, run by a Christian woman. But, he pointed out, “They don’t push Christianity on the Buddhists. They just want to help these kids get out, and they said they needed someone like me.”
With a wanted poster of him posted all over the city and country, Tom understood his time in Cambodia was coming to a close. When his English friend Derek was found murdered, he knew it was time to get out of the country.
“We smelled Derek’s body through his hotel door,” said Tom. “When we broke in, we found him. He’d been dead awhile. They tortured him. He had been crucified.”
Before leaving the country, Tom learned that the corrupt police detective who was the main instigator for the trafficking ring had been killed: “That detective isn’t around anymore,” said Tom.
Tom crossed into Thailand and was close to getting out of Southeast Asia. He was talking to his father on the phone when he heard a commotion outside his hotel.
“I told my dad ‘I think I’m getting kidnapped’,” Tom said. “I told him to call the U.S. Consulate and said not to tell my mom.”
Tom then hid his phone in his mattress to protect his family’s identity from the kidnappers and waited in the bathroom while they kicked down his door: “It was the only place I could defend myself one-on-one.”
When the men kicked in the door, Tom said it was a fight for his life.
“I got another knife in the arm and brought two of them down before the hotel owner and his sons came to break up the fight,” he said. “They saved my life.”
The Thai police came and hauled the invaders away and said for Tom to remain where he was so they could ask him some questions. Seizing his chance, Tom bailed immediately after they left and got on a plane shortly after, leaving the last three months behind him like a surreal dream.
“When I was on the plane, I wondered how I was going to live my life back in America,” he said. “I saw horrible shit happen to good people. It affected me. It changed me. And when I got back here, I saw that everybody was the same but I was different.”
Looking back, Tom said that he has no regrets for the experience: “I can always look back on my life and say I did something that mattered.”
Now, Tom is preparing to leave the U.S. again, this time bound for South Africa, where Rapha House—the safe house he built a relationship with in Cambodia—operates another branch. Where lesser men would vow never to enter that world again, especially after the trauma he had endured, Tom was heading right back into it.
“They got in contact with me and asked if I would head up a team down there in Africa,” said Tom. “It will probably be three months before I start working. I’ll have to make local contacts and brush up on the language.”
Tom said it would be much the same work, but hopefully without the violence: “I’ve broken bones, I’ve been stabbed, hit with brass knuckles. I’ve had to kill people. I can’t put my family through this again. Hopefully I’ll be building relationships and gathering info and I don’t have to go kicking down doors again.”
Though Tom’s family remains proud and supportive of their son, they can’t help but be scared for his safety.
“It’s not a normal thing,” said Tom. “They understand my feelings and I hope they know I’m going to be as safe as possible. This is the biggest evil I can ever think of—taking the most innocent of lives and completely destroying them. I just have to do something about it.”
Rapha House, based out of Missouri, owns safe houses all over the world. The Christian-affiliated organization is dedicated to “love, rescue and heal children who have been rescued from trafficking and sexual exploitation,” according to its website.
“Just because we don’t see this happening as much here in the States doesn’t mean it isn’t happening,” said Tom. “This happens everywhere in the world on a scale that people can’t comprehend. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. I put every cent I had into it, but I had all of these really rich friends who wouldn’t even donate $100 toward one of these safe houses. I couldn’t believe it.”
When asked why he allowed me to publish his story, Tom said, “I was on the fence about it, actually. Then I thought, maybe all that I have done won’t count for anything if I can’t raise awareness about what’s really going on. These safe houses need to be funded. They do such good work.”
If anyone is interested in donating to Rapha House to help eradicate human trafficking, please go to www.raphahouse.org.
For Tom, who unwittingly went from backpacking his way through Europe to braving gunfire and stabbings to save children from horrors we can only imagine, the cause of human trafficking has given him a new purpose in life. A purpose that he would give his life for.
“After the shit I saw, I’d gladly give up my life to save those kids,” said Tom. “If I don’t, who will?”