The invitation to come and hang out came via the Web.
The Ottawa Police Service says three girls aged 13 to 17 were lured by the seemingly festive tone of the message transmitted through social media, then trapped in a prostitution ring run by three other teenage girls. The only adults in the scheme, Staff Sergeant John McGetrick said, were the johns.
The alleged pimps were only "distantly known" to their victims, prompting police to warn parents to keep close tabs on their children's friends and their contacts on social media websites such as Facebook.
"We all know who our kids hang out with," Sgt. McGetrick said at a news conference on Tuesday. "But do we know who are their electronic contacts or friends?"
He said it is important for parents to make sure they know who is inviting their children to meet and where they are going, especially if the message is from a new acquaintance.
"If they are going to meet someone that you are not familiar with, ask them, 'How did you meet them?'" said Sgt. McGetrick, the manager of the sexual assault/child abuse section of the Ottawa force. "If I am a parent, I am going to have access to my kid's account and I'm going to read [their messages]. If they don't like it, that's unfortunate."
Sgt. McGetrick said the alleged victims were invited "to hang out" in a public place through a message that contained no obvious ill intent. The teenage girls were brought to a residence in a social-housing complex in south Ottawa, and then to another location to meet the clients.
Two 15-year-old girls have been arrested and charged in the national capital, and police are still on the lookout for a 17-year-old girl. The charges include human trafficking, robbery, procuring, forcible confinement, sexual assault, assault, uttering threats and abduction. One of the three girls is facing an additional charge of administering a noxious substance, suggesting that at least one victim was forced to ingest drugs or alcohol.
Ottawa police refused to release key details of the case, saying they do not want to "re-victimize" anyone, compromise the investigation of the johns or any other members of the ring, or identify the accused, who are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
"This one is shocking, the age of the victims and the age of the accused, it's terrible," Sgt. McGetrick said, calling the file "a tough one." "Our hearts go out to the victims."
The alleged crimes occurred in one of the rougher parts of Ottawa, in the southern edge of the city that is known for the gang activities of the Ledbury-Banff Crips. The events have shocked community groups that work to keep local youth away from street gangs, drugs and crime.
"We really don't know the whole story yet," said Andrea Thompson of the Confederation Court Community House. "It's not looking very nice right now, as a community as a whole, that nobody knew this was going on."
The community police centre is trying to find solutions to crime in the area, which is deemed a "high-priority neighbourhood" and one of the two main hot spots for street gangs in Ottawa. Constable Gary McCoy of the community police said the area has a growing "gang lifestyle" as some of the local kids feel the need to aggregate in clans or gangs to survive.
"There are a lot of predators, unfortunately, in the community looking out for vulnerable girls," he said. "If one girl is trapped in that world, to me, that's too much."
Ottawa police received three complaints of an alleged prostitution ring between May 19 and June 3, and quickly established a link. Still, Sgt. McGetrick said there is no evidence at this point of any link to street gangs or other criminal elements.
"That doesn't mean that won't become the case, but what I can tell you right now is that we don't have information in that regard," he said.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said it is important to keep the allegations in context.
"Like all cities and police services, the City of Ottawa and our Ottawa Police Service are engaged in the worldwide battle against human trafficking. The arrests and charges – nothing proved in court – serve as a reminder that we are not immune to global issues in our own community," he said in an email.