A documentary released this week by local police accountability group Citizens for Justice uncovers evidence that Columbia police ignored a human trafficking operation for more than 20 years in order to protect a confidential informant assisting them in the War on Drugs.
Local filmmaker Matt Akins and the group have produced a number of documentaries on law enforcement and civil rights issues over the years. In its latest project, titled “Police Protected Pimp,” Citizens for Justice take on one of the city’s most infamous sex traffickers, Barry Manthe, and presents a damming case that for almost three decades he eluded prosecution because of his relationship with Columbia police.
“The focus of the series is to expose the longstanding relationship between Barry Manthe and the Columbia Missouri Police Department, a relationship that allowed Barry to openly operate a drug-fueled human trafficking operation in exchange for the information he provided on fellow criminals in the Columbia underworld,” Akins said.
Columbia police did not respond to questions related to Manthe based on the documentary.
The documentary is available for viewing on the Citizens for Justice YouTube channel and features years of case records, as well as interviews with former sex workers, private investigators and police. Akins said he hopes it will draw public attention to larger problems of accountability in the department, whose actions or lack thereof in regards to Manthe he describes as “deplorable.”
“The actions that these ‘public servants’ took in protecting Barry Manthe’s grotesque human trafficking operation are deplorable,” Akins said. “The fact that it was allowed to continue for three decades, while collecting hundreds of police reports, demonstrates the problem is systemic, and not isolated to a few rogue officers.”
Akins says evidence shows that when some individual officers tried to inform their supervisors of what was happening at Manthe’s brothels over the years, their efforts, for reasons known only to police, were disregarded.
“Upstanding police officers like Keisha Edwards, detective Michael Himmel and Candy Cornman spent time, energy, and resources building compelling cases against Barry, only to have their reports proverbially thrown in the trash,” Akins said. “The department’s reaction to these officers’ efforts shows that, as a whole, this agency has abandoned their commitment to upholding the rule of law.”
The documentary, Akins said, also gives the sex workers of Manthe’s brothel a chance to tell their stories for the first time.
“Above all else, it tells the stories of women who had their lives ruined as the result of being trapped as sex slaves, while the people appointed to protect and serve them stood idly by,” Akins said. “The women who put their lives and reputations on the line to expose Barry and his relationship with the Columbia Police Department are owed an immense amount of respect and appreciation for the brave stance they’re taking.”
Columbia civil rights attorney Steve Wyse, Akins said, worked tirelessly to obtain records and interview trafficking victims and authorities to uncover police complicity with Manthe’s operations.
Wyse represented Kenneth Jones in a separate criminal case — Jones in December was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for sex trafficking of a minor in connection with Manthe’s operation on Vandiver Drive — and as he began investigating, he found inconsistencies in officer depositions when the subject of Manthe came up.
“I have always had a resentment for the dark compromisers in the War on Drugs,” Wyse said. “For a brief period of time I worked in a semi-covert status buying drugs for the Army, for a drug suppression team. During that time I was a true believer. Since then I’ve seen how harmful the war on drugs is and frankly the whole thing has corrupted our system. The fact a person who is involved in selling drugs and using the government as his own enforcement to keep his girls in line — the entire thing offends me on a core level.”
Journalism student Brittany Crocker also figures prominently in the video as she describes her investigation of Manthe’s operations leading up to his arrest by federal agents in March 2017. She and reporter Marisa Anz were the first to expose Manthe's connection to police and the depth of human trafficking taking place in Columbia.
“Brittany Crocker, a journalist who put her career on the line to initially break the story with the Columbia Missourian, was extremely helpful in sharing information she had recovered and acting as an ally to justice,” Akins said.
Crocker says in the video that Manthe actually operated in the sex trade since the 1980s in Boone County. Only after Boone County sheriff’s deputies began applying pressure to his criminal activity did he begin operating in Columbia.
He was arrested by Columbia police in September 1998 on suspicion of promoting prostitution but charges were not pursued, according to a past Tribune report. Following that arrest, throughout the years police responded to Manthe’s residences dozens of times for criminal activity, complaints prostitution was taking place and other incidents.
In multiple police reports between 1998 and 2014, officers stated they knew Manthe was promoting prostitution, yet no action was taken. While Manthe’s dealings with the now defunct website Backpage.com as a marketing channel for his illicit activities helped lead to his downfall, in the early years Manthe advertised in the classified section of the Tribune.
Tribune reporter T.J. Greaney in 2009 wrote an an article for the Tribune about the ads. Former Tribune Publisher Hank Waters said at the time he believed it’s not the paper’s job to decipher the intentions of advertisers.
Manthe was charged with promotion of prostitution in 2014 and through an agreement with prosecutors pleaded guilty to trespassing. It was not until the FBI began investigating the trafficking of an underage girl in June 2016 that Manthe apparently faced any real danger from law enforcement.
While Jones faced the most serious charges stemming from that indictment, Manthe and Ronald Clark, 67, were charged with use of the internet to promote an unlawful activity, by renting the house, collected a fee from the women, then using the money to pay for advertisements on the Backpage.com.
Ironically, in February 2017 about a month before his arrest, Manthe wrote a letter to the editor praising Columbia police for responding to an armed robbery at the brothel.
“Within days, with amazing police work, the cops had taken another dangerous predator off the streets,” Manthe stated. “The city should be proud of its police and the job they are doing. They truly are unsung heroes.”
Manthe and Clark are scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 24 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.