SUMMER, 13, WAS FOR SALE FOR $40. A BUBBLY, PONYTAILED GIRL FROM OKLAHOMA CITY, FOND OF VOLLEYBALL AND SPONGEBOB SquarePants, she found herself far from home and stranded at a truck stop along Texas's Interstate 40 on a chilly January night three years ago. In jeans and T-shirt, she walked to a strip of tarmac where several 18-wheelers were parked—an area known as "Party Row"—and waited for a trucker to flash his headlights. When one did, Summer pulled herself into the cab of his rig and, as the trucker casually watched a small TV, turned her first trick. "I was scared," she says, now 15, recalling the first of hundreds of forced encounters with truckers two or three times her age. "I didn't know how to get out of it. So I thought, 'Just do it, and don't cause problems.'"

Summer (not her real name) has decided to tell her story to shine light on a shameful crime—the sex trafficking of minors in the U.S. Investigators say there are likely hundreds of underage girls like Summer who have been lured to work as prostitutes in truck stops in Oklahoma, Washington, California and other states. "This isn't something that's happening on a distant shore, it's happening right in our communities," says Robert McCampbell, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma. "A family pulling into one of these truck stops wouldn't know this is going on. The truth is it's happening everywhere."

Last December, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced that more than 500 people have been arrested on child prostitution-related charges—and more than 200 children rescued—since a large-scale federal investigation called Innocence Lost began in 2003. A similar FBI sting operation in Oklahoma, code-named Stormy Nights, has so far resulted in the conviction of 14 traffickers, their victims mostly between the ages of 12 and 17. While the vast majority of truckers aren't involved in child prostitution, those who are often don't care how young the girls are, says Oklahoma City vice-squad investigator Ben Lacaze: "They know when a girl is 13 versus 20; these girls still talk about the same silly stuff most teenagers talk about." Adds Mike Beaver, an FBI special agent who has worked on Stormy Nights since 2003, both "the pimps and the johns are looking for the young ones because they're easily manipulated."

Summer's story shows just how easily a young girl can slip through the cracks. One of three daughters raised in an Oklahoma City suburb by Cindy, a school custodian, and Dennis, a handyman, she was 11 when she began using drugs. Then her father fell ill with cancer. "I felt confused and guilty," she says. "I thought I was the reason he was sick, because I was doing drugs." At 13, now with a methamphetamine habit, Summer dropped out of school. One afternoon, a man in his early 20s pulled alongside her in a car and asked if she'd like to go to a party. The girl in the passenger seat "looked around my age and was really pretty," says Summer. Once in the car, the pair offered Summer marijuana and alcohol. She didn't even notice that the man had driven over the state line into Texas. "That's when he said, 'We're gonna get a motel and she's going to take you out to a truck stop and you're going to get me some money,'" Summer recalls. "Once we found that first truck, I was on my own."

Prostitution is an open secret among the nomads of America's highways. Truck stops provide the perfect cover for young prostitutes, who sometimes solicit customers over CB radios ("commercial" is a favored code word for paid sex). With the pimps out of view in nearby motels, the girls cruise the dozens of rigs lined up in sprawling lots set away from the general parking. "You see the girls going from truck to truck," says Steven Maldonado, 48, a St. Louis-based trucker who prefers to park at rest areas to avoid the hassle of truck stop prostitutes. "I've had them knock on my door every 20 minutes when I'm trying to sleep for the night." When police or security hired by truck stop operators clamp down, the pimps simply move down the interstate.

Their victims have one thing in common: vulnerability. "We don't have happy, well-adjusted girls who end up doing this," says Robert McCampbell. "If no one gives you love or attention, the pimp starts looking pretty good."

Lisa was a 15-year-old sophomore at a Wichita, Kans., high school when a friend asked her if she wanted to meet Bobby Prince Jr., a handsome star of the school's football and track teams. "He was the most popular guy in school," says Lisa. She agreed to go on a day trip with him to Oklahoma City—and soon found herself in a car with his father, Bobby Prince Sr. "He said, 'I'm a pimp, and you're my 'ho and you're going to make me money,'" remembers Lisa, now 18. "My heart just sank. I didn't know what to think. I couldn't even cry."

Lisa spent the next four months working as a truck stop prostitute. When people ask her why she didn't just jump out of the car or run away, "I try to explain to them that it's not that easy. The guys have so much control over your mind. They scare you. They say things like, 'If you leave, I'll kill you and your family.'"

Caught in an FBI raid in 2004, both Princes pleaded guilty to sex-trafficking. FBI Special Agent Beaver testified at their detention hearing about how the younger Prince threatened the girls with a gun while his father once found another of their girls at a movie theater and choked her before dragging her across a parking lot to a car. Prince Sr. was sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison; Prince Jr. received five years and 10 months.

Jennifer, 19, remembers her first day on the streets. At 13 she began working to earn money for her family as a maid at a hotel, where an older coworker "told me she knew a great way to make money and everybody was doing it," says Jennifer. "She didn't specifically tell me what I'd be doing until her son brought me into the city." Later that day she was taken to a truck stop and handed baby wipes and condoms. "I was terrified," she says. "I didn't know what to do or what to say. I didn't talk, I just did as I was told." In the cab of a truck she had sex with a man in his 50s "who was fat and stunk," says Jennifer. "He told me how beautiful I was and tipped me an extra $20 [because it was my first time]." She says she was able to have sex with truckers over the next three months because "afterwards, what you did kind of goes away. You put it in the back of your mind and it stays locked there until you let it out."

Jennifer says she had sex with as many as 15 truckers a night, charging from $40 to $80 each. The girls hand all the money to a lead prostitute, who gives it to the pimp. In exchange the pimp pays for room and board and occasional perks. "You get to get your nails done, go tanning, get your hair done," says Linlee, 18, an Oklahoma City native who became a truck stop prostitute at 12. "I went shopping every day. That's why a lot of younger girls fall into it." At the same time the pimps don't allow the girls to make phone calls or leave the motels where they typically house them without supervision. "If I even talked about leaving, there would be a fight," says Linlee. Most pimps beat their girls; some tattoo them as a way of branding them, says the FBI's Beaver. "The girls are absolutely brainwashed. This is a business. It's not Pretty Woman."

Escaping from enforced prostitution can appear impossible. Pimps often tell the girls they've committed a crime, so going to the police is useless, or that their "families will reject them once they find out what they've been doing," says McCampbell, the former U.S. attorney. Lisa kept working as a prostitute even after the Princes were arrested. Finally the FBI pulled her off the streets and put her in a juvenile facility. Free of her drug habit and out of the business for the past two years, she now lives with her mother and has earned a GED. Linlee, too, is off the streets and living with her father; she, too, earned her GED. Still, her past haunts her. "I have a recurring dream where I'm walking with this girl and we're going to this big shed and there's a whole lot of guys in there," says Linlee. "I get pushed in, and that's it."

Summer's mother, Cindy, reported her daughter missing to police after Summer disappeared from the family house in January 2003. Although police investigated her as a runaway, it was up to Summer herself to escape from her keepers. Defying her pimp's orders when she was arrested in a sting, she gave police her real name and age and begged them to call her mother. Back at home, though, her life was still chaotic: Her father had died, and she was arrested for breaking into a home to get money to buy drugs. But seven months in a group home seems to have helped her get back on track. She works at a local fast-food restaurant, tending the front counter and the drive-through window. Her feet hurt after every shift, but, she says with a smile, "I'm making money legally." Looking back, what surprises her most about her ordeal "is that I made it out alive," she says. "I took so many turns and turns. I think I'm finally going down the right road. I was a victim, but I overcame that. Now I've become a survivor."

  • Contributors:
  • Darla Atlas/Oklahoma City,
  • Ellen Shapiro/New York City.