by Travis Mateer
Did you know last month was National Human Trafficking Prevention Month? Well, our politicians know, and these kind of commemorative designations for segments of time are usually great opportunities for those politicians to posture for local media.
I’ve been aware of human trafficking in Missoula since my time working at the local homeless shelter, something I referenced last April when I wiggled my way into a Zoom meeting where the Missing Indigenous Woman’s Task Force was giving an update on their work.
So, naturally, when I saw the headline about the Governor’s office announcing a partnership to combat human trafficking, I was very curious. From the link:
Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office announced on Monday a partnership between Town Pump and the LifeGuard Group to further address the human trafficking crisis in Montana.
Town Pump will display the LifeGuard Group’s human trafficking hotline in its locations across the state so victims can get support. The company is also giving a $30,000 grant to Lifeguard to support the organizations’s efforts to fight human trafficking, according to a Monday news release.
I wanted to get a better understanding of how this private sector “grant” from Town Pump was going to be used, so I went to the LifeGuard Group website. Would it go to the new safe house that should be open by now?
Wow, I thought, that’s a nice looking picture. Almost TOO nice. Almost Glacier Hope Homes nice.
Another thing that occurred to me is the funder of this new Missoula non-profit operates a gas station in Superior, Montana, where Rebekah Barsotti was last seen alive.
I wrote about Rebekah’s case in December, and have maintained contact with the family, so yesterday I decided to take a walk to the historic Florence building and see if I could find the office of the LifeGuard Group and ask them if they knew about the Rebekah Barsotti missing person case.
It took me a bit, but I finally located the office on the fourth floor.
I knocked on the door and a man with a long, dark beard answered the door. Another man was sitting at a computer behind him.
I introduced myself and gave the man my card, explaining that I’m a citizen journalist. I asked the man if he was familiar with the Rebekah Barsotti missing person case and if the organization had ever given this family desperate for answers any help.
Yes, he told me, in fact he went out there himself where Rebekah is suspected to have gone into the river to help search. I asked him if he could recall the date, but he could not. Then I asked him if he had a business card. Alas, the bearded dude didn’t even have a card he could give me.
Well, I said, I guess that’s something you can take care of with that $30,000 dollars from Town Pump. He replied that some cards were actually ordered and should arrive soon.
What I didn’t tell this bearded man (who never did give me his name) is that I had already spoken with Rebekah’s mom BEFORE knocking on his door, and she had told me very specifically that the LifeGuard Group DID NOT help their family search for Rebekah, despite multiple requests.
After the day’s activities, which included a BUNCH of calls I made after my curious interaction with bearded man, I took another look at LifeGuard’s website and noted its funders included the Gianforte Foundation AND the Dennis Washington Foundation.
This particular screenshot was quite difficult to capture, because the action of the graphic scrolled across the screen, so I had to wait to time it just right. Why am I sharing this detail? Because that scrolling graphic that’s difficult to read and capture is where that hotline is featured.
If the hotline is an intended feature for actual victims of human trafficking to find and utilize, the web designer sure is making it difficult.
I called 1-833-406-7867 around midnight and spoke with the volunteer who eventually answered my call. I identified myself as a journalist and asked if he could answer some basic questions. He said yes, but not for long, because he would need to get the line open.
Everyone answering the phone is a volunteer and goes through training. They have a resource list and give referrals. A lot of issues around housing come up.
I asked about the safe house at Crooked Tree Ranch and whether or not it’s open. He said no, he has heard maybe early spring. I thanked the man for his time.
After that I poked around a little more to see what I could find in this potential human-trafficking-industrial-complex. I picked another moving target from the sideways scrolling images and got to the contributors page of the American Unchained Project and look who I found:
It makes sense that Guy Baker would be involved in a media company that aims to “create media to equip every person to play a part in the fight against human trafficking”, considering his role in the piece of literary media penned by Jon Krakauer.
Ok, I thought, one more. What is this Sentinel Project?
I sure am glad I persevered through my fatigue as a cold wind blew outside because it was on this government website discussing the private sector beer distributors dedication to combatting human trafficking where I found the OG “Life Guard”, Lowell Hochhalter. From the link (emphasis NOT mine):
Following the lead of the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), which started a nationwide effort to help distributors understand human trafficking, identify the signs, and respond if they suspect trafficking is happening, MBWDA formed the Sentinel Project and partnered with The Lifeguard Group, a service provider in Missoula, to create an awareness and training video.
Attorney General Knudsen acknowledged The LifeGuard Group for its approach in fighting human trafficking and providing services to victims.
“The training The LifeGuard Group provides in Montana and beyond helps countless individuals across a multitude of industries to understand, identify, and report signs of trafficking. Their tireless efforts and commitment are remarkable, and I thank them for their hard work,” Attorney General Knudsen said.
“We are excited for this partnership with MBWDA and the Montana Attorney General’s Office. Building this collaborative effort coupled with the Montana Human Trafficking Hotline puts Montana at the forefront of this fight,” Lowell Hochhalter, founder and executive director of The LifeGuard Group, said.
I went back to the LifeGuard website to see if Hochhalter is still with the organization. Again, it wasn’t easy to find, but I found TWO Hochhalter’s and the identity of the bearded dude who allegedly helped search for Rebekah Barsotti.
One more piece of information that is VERY important, and this I found on Lowell Hochhalter’s Facebook page; he’s ALSO the chaplain for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department.
Ok, that’s all for now.