PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Researchers at Arizona State University say young people living on the streets are as likely to be trafficked for food, as they are for money. That is a startling conclusion from a recent yearly survey conducted by the Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research.
"So we're seeing that these homeless young people are already really vulnerable to exploiters, vulnerable to traffickers. And now we know that they're equally likely to be trafficked for food as they are for money," said Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, who is the director of the ASU office.
Roe-Sepowitz says this population is also a target for predators.
"Without question, I think the number of sex crimes against this population is underreported," said Roe-Sepowitz.
In October, Mesa police arrested Jason Vangundy on suspicion of child sex trafficking. Court paperwork alleges that he housed four runaway teenagers, that he transported them from his apartment to hotels and other locations for the purpose of prostitution, and that he received half of the proceeds as compensation for phones and shelter.
Police say Vangundy bought cell phones for all four victims to "conduct sexual acts with unknown men for money."
Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies arrested someone else over the summer, who they consider a super-predator.
Investigators say Robert Incorvaia was known on the street as "Rob the Rapist," and that he preyed on homeless women and prostitutes, as well as at least one teenager.
"He knows that that population is less likely to come forward to work with law enforcement to report the crime itself. So he is truly targeting and victimizing what is one of the most vulnerable populations in our society," said Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone.
Prosecutors charged him with 39 counts of sexual assault and kidnapping.
Investigators believe he targeted at least a dozen women from the 1990s to 2020. Court paperwork describes violent encounters between Icorvaia and his victims: choking one woman until she passed out, waking her by punching her in the face, sexually assaulting, then whipping her with a belt. The paperwork says he picked up a 15-year-old runaway, sexually assaulted her, hit her in the face, then tried to cut off her toes with pliers.
The first case came to investigators' attention in late February, and since then they have worked a series of of similar cases-- all involved reports of sexual assault and physical abuse initiated in the area of northwest Phoenix then carried out in the New River area.
"When you're out there, you don't believe that (police are) going to help you. You believe that you're just going to be targeted as another criminal and you're going to get in trouble," said one former prostitute, who agreed to speak to CBS 5 Investigates on the condition that we conceal her identity.
She says there is a lot of distrust between prostitutes and police and that it is common for women who are being trafficked on the street to get raped. She remembers what it was like the moment she realized a "John" intended to hurt her.
"Just a total adrenaline rush that you know you have to get away from this person, somehow. It's a very, very scary feeling, but you have to act calm at the same time," she said.
Advocates for the homeless and trafficked population say they hope these two high-profile cases will show victims that they can come forward and remind law enforcement officers that someone who might appear to be a street prostitute is likely also a crime victim.
"We're working on it. We have family advocacy centers and child advocacy centers and we're all starting to work together. But this type of predator is out there. And the victims are silenced by them, but they're also silenced by our community," said Roe-Sepowitz.