Amanda Marshall Cracks Down on Child Prostitution

Portland's top federal prosecutor goes after sex traffickers

By Nigel Duara October 11, 2012

Image: John Ritter

Christopher Wilmer (top to bottom), in 2012, 2010, and 2006

Christopher Cool Wilmer is six feet tall, 220 pounds. The 29-year-old has a criminal history that stretches back over a decade and includes a drive-by shooting, drugs, and assault. On the night of February 22, he allegedly checked a 16-year-old girl into a Motel 6 at SE 92nd Avenue and Stark, then departed. 

Later that night, the girl opened the door of her room to find two Portland cops. (The police reported that she was naked.) Inside the room, the police found a startled man—the girl’s alleged client. They also found Wilmer’s duffel bag.

Thanks to the name on the bags luggage tag, and video of him checking the girl into the motel, Washington state police ultimately tracked Wilmer down and sent him back to Portland. Until this particular arrest, Wilmer had always landed in the small-time world of county courts and “community corrections,” never serving time in prison. But this time, local authorities took a step that once would never have occurred to them in such a case: they called in prosecutors from Portland’s US Attorney’s office, members of the elite corps of lawyers who serve the attorney general and the president of the United States. Now the alleged pimp faces federal child sex trafficking charges, with the possibility of life in prison. (At press time, Wilmer is scheduled for trial on October 9, but delays are possible.) Several other Portland-area criminals are already doing federal time for various charges related to child sex trafficking. In March, for example, Stanley “Bug” Spriggs Jr. was sentenced to 16 years for pimping two minor girls.

As recently as 2006, the federal government filed zero indictments for child sex trafficking in Oregon. This year, however, the feds here have already charged eight men and two women with trafficking-related crimes, with more indictments likely before year’s end. Convictions in these cases would send the guilty parties away for long stints in places like California’s Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex or Oregon’s Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan.

In each case that ends with a perpetrator in federal prison, the convicted pimp will find himself right where Amanda Marshall, Oregon’s new and, in many ways, unlikely US attorney, wants him. 

United States attorney is the federal government’s top-ranking lawyer in a particular jurisdiction, defending the government in court and prosecuting federal crimes. The post dates to the earliest days of the republic and is among the most sought-after in law. While some of the nation’s 93 US attorneys serve in geographically smaller areas carved out of more populous states—California has four, for example—Amanda Marshall, who took office in October 2011 after a lengthy appointment process, is the one and only US attorney for Oregon. 


In a given day, the full range of human malfeasance might cross the 43-year-old Marshall’s desk. Some of the criminal cases her office handles have a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency (or could have inspired AMC’s meth drama Breaking Bad), like the four-year prosecution of a drug-world figure nicknamed “Don Prieto.” (At the conclusion of that case, the Don—real name: Enrique Orozco-Marin—was convicted of running hundreds of pounds of pseudoephedrine from Canada to the United States and sentenced to eight years.) The touchiest cases in her charge involve terrorism, such as the upcoming trial of Mohamed Mohamud, the Portlander whom the feds accuse of plotting to bomb the Pioneer Courthouse Square holiday tree lighting in 2010. (Mohamud’s lawyers are expected to argue that federal investigators entrapped him.) Then there’s the rote work of federal prosecution—felons with handguns, bank robbers, drug dealers—and representing the government’s side in civil lawsuits. Marshall also discovered some of the job’s more parochial political dimensions in September, when her office released an investigation of Portland cops’ treatment of mentally ill people that managed to anger both police officers and some police critics.

Yet even as they handle the nation’s endlessly complex legal business, Marshall and her colleagues across the country have the power to emphasize signature issues by choosing how their staff attorneys spend their time. A few transform the office into a bully pulpit. Preet Bharara, the US attorney for New York City and its environs, made Time’s cover (under the headline “This Man Is Busting Wall Street”) and that magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. The former US Attorney for the District of New Jersey delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention this summer, this time as Governor Chris Christie. 

Marshall says she has a few high-ranking priorities, national security among them. But one stands out as unusual for her position: child sex trafficking. In her short time so far, Marshall has directed her staff to get more busts, more indictments, and more convictions for a crime that typically victimizes teenage girls in metro areas. It’s very rare for a federal prosecutor to emphasize child sex trafficking, according to Lewis & Clark law professor Tung Yin, a close observer of federal law enforcement and a former clerk for several federal judges. Marshall has directed three attorneys to focus on the issue and integrated the fight against trafficking with her office’s anti-gang work: a significant upgrade in attention for a crime usually left to local cops and prosecutors. 

Marshall, who keeps her blonde hair long and straight and leans to the female Democrat power uniform of dark pantsuits and modest heels, talks like a proselytizer, arguing that the country’s gradual awakening to the realities of rape in the 1970s, of child abuse in the ’80s, and of domestic violence in the ’90s can happen now for child sex trafficking. “We have an opportunity to choose engagement over skepticism and defeat,” Marshall says. “We can grab this moment and show what can be done when we work together, when we put our communities and our children above ourselves.” Her face, broad and open by default, narrows, and her blue eyes glitter with intensity when she hits upon the subject.  

Though her office is technically nonpartisan, presidents choose US attorneys: since taking office in 2009, Barack Obama has nominated new people—including Marshall—to 90 of the 93 total positions. If elections have consequences, as politicians are fond of saying, Amanda Marshall’s current position is a direct result of Obama’s election four years ago. How long she keeps that position, and how much time she has to pursue pimps in Portland and elsewhere, can be counted as one of the innumerable questions decided on November 6. 

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As near as can be determined, Marshall is the only US attorney who spent part of her childhood in a commune and summer nights in her 30s as a cancan dancer.

“When the heroine comes out on the stage, the whole audience goes ‘Aah,’” Marshall says now, as she recalls her role in a Southern Oregon community theater’s revival of an 1890s melodrama. “And when the villain comes out on the stage, the whole audience goes ‘Boo, hiss.’” Marshall was one of the women in the halftime show—the dancing girls who pop in to kick up their heels between scenes. 

The typical US attorney has a story that does not include small-town dance revues, rather going something like this: Ivy League law school, clerkships for federal judges, a job in the private sector, then a return to public service, usually in a much nicer car. By comparison, Marshall’s path was grittier and twistier, though straightened and guided by ramrod ambition. In the five years she spent as a low-profile district attorney in Coos County, Marshall sometimes packed a gun. Today, she wields a different arsenal: more than 100 employees, including about 50 lawyers, in Portland, Eugene, and Medford. 

“The closest parallel outside of government,” according to Josh King, general counsel for Avvo, a company that rates lawyers, “would be if [an outsider] was suddenly named CEO of a several-
hundred-employee company.”


In the imposing Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse at SW Third Avenue and Salmon Street, everyone wears dark suits, ID is required, and metal detectors stand guard. It’s a taste of DC sterility, security, and self-importance imported to Portland’s soggy, self-effacing urban forest.

Six floors up in her spacious corner office, Marshall provides a stark, bouncing contrast to the lifeless, federal-issued environment. She is rarely still while speaking, clasping her hands to make a point, leaning into the arm of the couch when she throws her head back to unleash a throaty laugh. She exhibits a beat cop’s callused sensibility about messy, difficult issues. “If I’m philosopher queen, and I have all the money in the world,” she says, launching into a description of her dream strategy for combating human trafficking, which would involve making any minor victim of the crime who lacks a guardian a ward of the court. She then acknowledges that as of now, the government lacks the resources to do so. 

Her journey to the office sheds light both on her idealism and the hardheaded practicality that tempers it. She was conceived while her parents were serving in the Peace Corps in Guyana and was born in Washington, DC. Her parents split up when she was 5. Her mother was involved in Werner Erhard’s Erhard Seminars Training, or EST, ’70s-era workshops that promised to transform people through onstage confrontations and placed them in “EST holes,” a daylong exercise in cutting oneself off from the world. For a time in her childhood, Marshall lived in a communal house in DC.

“It was my normal,” Marshall says. “I don’t think it was most people’s normal.” 

With her mother preoccupied by national fundraising for an Erhard-connected foundation, Marshall focused on a different set of tasks: making dinner, helping take care of her sister, and steeling herself into a traditional American striver. Marshall made it through the University of Oregon on a combination of grants, loans, awards, and work-study jobs. She joined the debate team, where she met her future husband, and decided to focus on law, figuring it would just be a graduate form of debate. 

This bootstrapping background lends Marshall a particular toughness. To this day, she visibly tenses with disdain for the parent who called her when she declined to hire their progeny during her time as a lead prosecutor at the state Department of Justice’s child advocacy unit. “I think some kids are very limited by parents,” she says. Her two kids let themselves into the house after school with their own keys and get their homework done on their own—or don’t, and fail, and live with it. “They don’t need to win every race,” she says. 

For five years as a deputy district attorney in Coos Bay, she tried murders, arson, kidnappings, sex crimes, hate crimes, drug crimes, burglaries, robberies, and fraud. But she also found a specialty: domestic violence. She advocated for changing Oregon law to make domestic violence a more serious offense, and created a county prosecution unit dedicated to the issue. She then climbed a fairly well-worn career path, moving from the rural county office to the state’s Department of Justice in 2001. In that role, she oversaw the department’s child advocacy section. “God’s work,” she calls it now. 

This was not typical training for the job of US attorney, but when the post came open in 2009, she applied. Democratic presidents generally appoint Democratic attorneys, but within the world of politically connected Oregon prosecutors, Marshall was a relative nobody. The obvious favorite for the post was Dwight Holton, a polished attorney with deep Democratic Party connections,
who was already doing the job on an interim basis.

Openly campaigning for such a job is traditionally frowned upon, but Marshall brushed away custom. She even created a Facebook page promoting her own candidacy, a highly unusual move in such a situation, earning the private mockery of legal insiders and public ridicule by Willamette Week. Marshall traveled to Washington, DC, in late 2009 and tried (and in some cases, failed) to meet with every member of Oregon’s Democratic delegation. The most important of these was US Senator Ron Wyden, who would help draw up a selection committee of 13 people to vet candidates, then pass that committee’s choice to the president as Oregon’s preferred nominee.

“‘You know we’re not setting up meetings,’” Marshall says Wyden’s then-chief of staff, Josh Kardon, told her. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going. Can you get me a meeting?’” Another Wyden staffer now says Marshall was poised and comfortable with the senator. Although the meeting was atypical for the post, she came off well. 

 The morning of her interview with the committee—certainly one of the most important days of her life—Marshall woke up with an awful cold. Buoyed by Theraflu and chicken soup, she walked into a cold and dark federal building, and prevailed. A committee packed with figures from outside the Portland-based political-legal establishment—sheriffs and county DAs and Eastern Oregonians—endorsed her, and Wyden passed her name on to Obama. 

“She had certainly done her homework; she knew about the challenges of the office,” says Jennifer Kimble, a Democrat from Redmond who served on the committee. “Half my cases are child welfare cases. Amanda Marshall’s background—working in the child welfare system—was very important to me.”

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When Marshall took the job, one of her key moves involved the office’s longtime gang pro-secutor, a salt-and-pepper-haired former Dole-Kemp campaign staffer named Scott Kerin. Kerin projects a nice-guy demeanor—exactly what you’d expect from a self-described moderate—that belies a hard-line prosecutorial mentality. In his prior career in Portland, he prosecuted cocaine-dealing gang members, prisoners who assaulted corrections officers, and other hardened cons. Marshall told Kerin his duties would now have a new dimension: he would lead the office’s three-person team focused on child sex trafficking. 

The crime is a somewhat elusive phenomenon, periodically tracked by outraged TV news exposés but not any central statistical repository. In the broadest outlines, Kerin says, pimps, often working with criminal gangs, recruit young girls, either through force or the lure of money and drugs, to serve as prostitutes. They market their bodies both at the stereotypical seedy roadside motels and via the Internet. A West Coast “circuit” seems to exist, with victims and perpetrators moving between California, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Portland.


Now, Kerin’s phone might ring at 11:30 p.m. or 2 a.m., with a local cop from  Tigard, Beaverton, or east Portland on the other end giving him the details of a new child sex trafficking case. Kerin then says goodbye to his sleepy wife and climbs into his car. 

Progress is painfully slow and, legally, tackling this offense can seem more like counseling than gritty crime-busting. “The factor that makes the cases so hard to prosecute is ... you’ve got a real-life victim, and often there’s a relationship there,” Kerin says. “The girl is scared of the pimp. Or they love him. Even if you catch them, you still have a witness you need to testify.”

In the county courthouses where Marshall began her career, the state of Oregon prosecutes offenses against local law and order. To succeed in making child sex trafficking a federal case, Marshall and her prosecutors have to show, for every indictment, that somehow the interests of the United States of America are involved when a 14-year-old gets sold on SE 82nd Avenue. The fact that both highways and the Internet cross state lines provides a lever for federal intervention prosecutors might otherwise lack.

And then there are the intangible but real difficulties posed by a crime that springs from intractable human behavior—and that often stirs very little sympathy for the women caught up in the trade. This March, a judge unsealed the indictment against Wilmer. The move garnered almost no media attention apart from an 87-word piece on the Oregonian’s website. The first of 13 comments from readers: “My thing is if you want to be a slut, who am I to judge & if your [sic] stupid enough to sell your body & give it to someone else ... really thats [sic] just stupid on your part.”

Wilmer, and the teen girl’s alleged john arrested in the room at the Motel 6, joined a depressing litany of mugshots and names churned out by Portland prostitution arrests, of which there are at least 10 per month. In those mugshots, the customers are black, white, Asian, in their 20s, in their 60s, bearded, fat, skinny, bald. The women run the racial gamut, too, but overall, they recall exhausted Dust Bowl farmers from 1930s photographs: drawn and hungry, their mouths hard, their skin pocked, defiant chins up or resigned faces tilted to the side. While their true emotions can’t be known from photos, they look fed up, pissed off, or bored. Some bear purplish bruises fading to yellow. Many appear twice in a month, or more. None look surprised. They look like they’ve been doing this for years. 

Depending on the vicissitudes of national politics and local law enforcement, Amanda Marshall may not have long to help them, but she’s determined to try. “It’s kind of the way everything’s worked in my life,” she says. “It’s in front of me; I’m going to do it. I never do anything halfway.”

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