An actress sits on the edge of a mattress in a $59-a-night, hard-luck motel room, the grimy curtains drawn. Cobwebs cloud the splotchy ceiling, and the room smells of must and old smoke. In the bathroom, the floor tiles peel and lift at the edges, and beige streaks stain the tub and toilet.
Bulletproof vests hang on the backs of chairs, ready.
On the table are bags of beef jerky, barbecue potato chips, oranges. There are cans of Reign Total Body Fuel and enough bottles of water for everyone: two dozen law-enforcement officers from the local county sheriff’s department; two from outside agencies; an FBI agent; a couple of “chatters” and two civilian decoys who play the “bait”; a friend who is a former government investigator. And Marisol Nichols, star of the hit CW series Riverdale, which she’ll leave at the end of the fourth season; star of an upcoming Saw reboot called Spiral, out May 15; former star of the sixth season of 24; Chevy Chase’s daughter in Vegas Vacation way back when. She is not on a Hollywood set, but she is playing a role—the role of parent pimping out a child or, depending on what the situation calls for, the role of child being pimped out to a guy: a dirtbag on his way to a dismal motel to have sex with an 11-year-old girl who doesn’t exist.
The same age Nichols was when her life went to hell.
Nichols thumbs a message into a hook-up app popular among men seeking sex with children. In the message, she pretends to be the child’s father: “In town today/tonight only, need someone to educate son/daughter while I and ms watch.”
Educate is code for sex.
Online, she is a trafficker enticing adults who want to sleep with children. On the phone, she feigns the voice of a child, sounding drugged and sheepish.
“What do you like?” the men ask, thinking she is 13.
She giggles and stammers on cue.
Unlike the other roles she’s been cast in, Nichols isn’t being paid for this performance. She flew herself here, halfway across the country from her home in Los Angeles, to this midsize midwestern city for the two-day op. She has participated in a half dozen child-sex stings around the world over the last five years, always as a volunteer.
Each one is another battle in a war that might never end. These men—they’re everywhere, and you just try to pick them off one at a time. If these two days and all this manpower and all this expenditure of taxpayer money snags a single predator, it will have been worth it, because then that man won’t be able to make victims out of who knows how many children.
But these stings—they can get messy. Nichols doesn’t always agree with the tactics, and the men targeted are unpredictable. The efforts don’t always lead to an arrest.
Why bother? Child sex trafficking happens mostly overseas, in third-world countries with less gender parity. At least, that’s what many Americans would like to believe. The truth is, it is very much a U.S. epidemic. Nichols knows about the brutality that floats around the dark web. People don’t want to hear the dirty details, she warns. People don’t want to know about adults having sex with kids, the things they say they want to do to them. “Your mind protects you from that much evil.”
But Nichols, she looks evil in the eye. She has to. “If good people don’t know about it, it will keep happening, because good people are the only ones who will do anything about it,” she says. They’re the ones who, when faced with inhumanity, will try to stop it. Because you have to try, right? Even if it doesn’t work.
This one, though, feels good. So far.
Nichols dresses the part in case a perp glimpses her through the window. She’s 46 but, waif-like and five foot four with a hoodie over her head and a bedsheet draped across her shoulders, can pass for a teenager. Or she might wear her long, dark hair matted and put on a beer-soaked Mötley Crüe T-shirt, and suddenly she’s a young junkie mom prostituting her kid. She can play madam or victim.
On this morning, she wears a black baseball cap backwards, a black V-neck T-shirt, and bell-bottom jeans. She carries a pack of American Spirit cigarettes. She could be anyone. Most of these guys, she says, are “wimps.” Cowards. Sick men who want to take advantage of a girl. She remembers one sting in which she played a trafficker who sets up child sex parties. The target was 38, looked like a real estate agent or something, probably in a fraternity in college. “Looking the guy in the face,” she says, got her in her gut. “These guys look like normal people. And you’re pretending that you just happily and eagerly set up children for them to have sex with.” Nichols kept her cool throughout the interaction, but she adds: “To watch his eyes”—the way they lit up at the mention of an underage kid—“you want to kick him in the balls and beat the hell out of him.”
During her two-decade acting career, Nichols has appeared on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Cold Case. More than once, she’s played a cop. As part of her research for roles, she sometimes went on ride-alongs with homicide and narcotics detectives.
“It gave me mad respect for these guys,” she says. “It sparked my interest in the trafficking world, realizing and really being on the other side of the underbelly of society.”
Her career slowed around 2012, and she went through a two-and-a-half-year dry spell, but those police immersions stuck with her. She used her hiatus to throw herself into the world of human trafficking, learning everything she could, speaking with organizations and individuals who worked on the issue. She knew she wasn’t an A-list actor or even B-list. But she had access and connections, and the issue was so powerful. Why couldn’t she put on a red-carpet benefit? Not the kind she so often found herself at—designer clothes, canapés, nobody really knowing or caring much why they were there. Her mission would not be to attract celebrities to parties and hand them bullet points. She wanted it to be about real education and action.
She wanted to do something.
Nichols started her nonprofit, Foundation for a Slavery Free World, in 2014. In addition to her sting work, she speaks publicly on the topic, warning parents to monitor and restrict their kids’ social media. She describes how easily a young girl can get ensnared in a trafficking scheme: Predators go online and pretend to be kids from the neighboring junior high. They befriend a few mutual friends, add a few similar hobbies. They may target the girl who is posting “I hate my parents” and start to chat her up: “Hey, I saw you at the homecoming game.”
While looking for a keynote speaker for an awareness conference she was organizing, Nichols connected with a former special agent for the Department of Homeland Security who works privately on Internet crimes against kids and child sex tourism. He invited her to witness an undercover operation in Haiti a few months later. It involved a tip about a house that was involved in child organ trafficking. She hopped on the plane. She had passion, but she needed firsthand knowledge “to get some reality on this so I’m not just a talking head.”
On the way back from Haiti, investigators stopped over in another city to look into intelligence about an American man who liked to travel abroad for child sex parties. Nichols went too. The agent said to Nichols: “Hey, you’re an actress. Do you want to do an op?” Nichols said sure, and the agent told her, “Okay, here’s your backstory. Here’s the scene.”
Nichols went undercover with a camera and audio equipment to try to get information “so that he could lead us back to the next party that’s in Mexico, the next party that’s in the Dominican Republic, and introduce us to the traffickers,” she says. “I was pretending to be a girl who sets up the party.”
She still remembers that first time, how nervous she felt. “But honestly, as soon as we got the first guy, I was like, ‘Oh, let’s go.’ ”
She has met with police departments to see if they want to collaborate, showing them footage and success rates. Some have declined, citing concerns that she’s a civilian; online vigilante groups have been criticized for setting up pedophile sting operations. But Nichols keeps at it. She continues to partner with law-enforcement agencies that are open to working with someone whose day job often involves playing make-believe.
Being inside of the real-life scenes, she says, is surreal. Nichols remembers asking herself in the middle of her first sting, “What the hell did I get myself into? How the hell did I get here?”
Nichols and the team have been at the motel since just after 9 a.m. A dull yellow lamp glows, and the television plays on low volume, tuned to a Travel Channel show, A Haunting. Paranormal reenactments from real-life stories flash in the background.
Outside, there’s a Dollar Tree and a GameStop. At least five churches are within walking distance. Officers stake out parking spots where they sit with walkie-talkies inside vehicles with tinted windows and no AC running. The waits can stretch into the dark hours of night, and the undercover team cannot move about freely or leave the room frequently because it could tip off a perp who may be circling.
Catching pedophiles depends on technology—apps, chat rooms, the dark web—and the technology is ever changing. Five years ago, Nichols was part of an operation with detectives posting ads for sex with kids on Craigslist’s personals sections. “Within 15 minutes, we had 30 appointments,” she says. Then there was Backpage, “the freaking Disney World for pedophiles.”
It launched in 2004 as a classifieds site, but by 2010 Backpage had morphed into a worldwide hub for online personals and sex traffickers. The site was shut down in 2018, shortly after two federal laws passed making websites that allow sex trafficking to happen liable for hosting the crimes. Craigslist also took down its personals section in 2018 under mounting pressure, but experts say you can still go onto the site anytime and find coded ads selling young girls.
In one corner of the motel room where Nichols waits, a laptop is set up next to two walkie-talkies. Nichols works with an undercover agent to post ads on hookup sites known to be used by traffickers. Today the group posts on Backpagepro. Nichols says it uses “the exact same font as Backpage.” Colors, design, style. Everything.
She leans over the shoulder of a deputy and tells him what to type. There are two kids available for sex, their fake ad says: a girl and a boy, ages 12 and 13, traveling with an adult couple.
“You want them coming here?” the officer asks Nichols.
“Yep,” Nichols says, arms akimbo.
“And Mexican,” she says. “Both.”
“108? Or actually 102. It’s a kid.”
They pull up photos to add to the post. The images are not explicit; they depict innocence. One shows a girl with long black hair, in a plaid shirt, looking sullen and vulnerable. The other is a smiling blond boy who looks like he could be on a soccer team. Both are actually pictures of adult agents Nichols has worked alongside before. But the images have been aged down using a photo app that Nichols keeps on her iPhone. She demonstrates how, with a few swipes, she can take someone’s selfie and shave off 10, 20, 30 years.
The ad states the solicitor’s name is Bob. Age: 46. Price: $0. (Actual prices are negotiated over texts or phone calls.) Plus an email and phone number that belong to a law-enforcement-issued phone.
The deputy uploads the doctored images, and the ad goes live.
A pop-up appears: “You have a new message.” Within 15 minutes, there are 10 messages from interested parties.
“Discreet fit clean guy looking …”
“Daddy is ready to use you …”
“I am drug n disease free 5ft 11 inches, average build a little over 7 1/2 inches. I want to massage my hot hard throbbing …”
Nichols and other undercover agents scroll through the messages one by one, hitting reply. One solicitor—after learning that the person he thinks he is communicating with is underage—texts back: “Have you ever done anal?”
All morning, a phone chatter working with the sheriff’s department has been communicating with various men via texts. The chatter, sitting on a pink lawn chair, an American-flag blanket draped across her legs, scrolls through them, prepping Nichols before she gets on the phone.
“You’re 15,” she tells her.
“Where are my parents?” Nichols asks.
“Dad’s in jail. Mom’s strung out,” a deputy replies.
Nichols nods, sitting on a dusty air conditioner. Two female decoys sit on a nearby bed. Throughout the day, they have occasionally posed in photos with their faces blurred to draw men in. Some of these photos are sent via text by the chatters. Others end up in the online ads.
An FBI agent in the back of the room tracks cell-phone numbers, linking them to addresses and names. Three other deputies communicate via walkie-talkie with officers in the takedown room or with the lookout cars.
“Room 231,” an officer reminds Nichols. It’s a key piece of information. Room 231, next door, is equipped with a bulletproof wall and filled with officers prepared to apprehend predators. There are too many civilians in this room. It would be riskier to arrest the man in here if he is carrying a weapon.
“You want it on speaker, right?” Nichols asks.
The room falls silent as she dials.
On the first go, the person hangs up. Nichols calls back. This time, someone answers.
“Hello, hey,” Nichols says, sounding coy. “How are you?”
“Are you available?” he asks.
“I’m available, are you? I’m looking for fun, baby.”
“Do you have a picture?”
“Well, I sent you one.”
“I didn’t get it.”
“Oh, strange, okay. I’ll send it again if you want. Do you have one?”
He hangs up.
The morning moves slowly. Promising leads fizzle out. Many men chat simultaneously. Some end contact abruptly, nervous that they may be dealing with a sting. Others keep chatting, promising to visit the motel.
In one text conversation, a man sends a photo of himself in a pastel shirt and rectangle rimmed glasses, a closed-lipped grin showing his double chin. He writes that he is 52. He thinks he’s talking to someone who is 15.
Just before 2 p.m., surveillance officers notice a suspect approaching the motel. It’s one of the men the chatter was texting with earlier. Everyone stops talking. They hover around the door and wait for a sound from outside, listening on walkie-talkies.
“Knocking on the door,” an officer says, reporting on the activity in the next room.
A deputy near Nichols turns the knob, and sunlight pours in. There’s the suspect, a heavyset middle-aged man in a polo shirt. Officers already have him in custody.
“Got one,” the deputy says. “No struggle.”
When Nichols was 11, growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the mid-1980s, she went out with a friend and some older boys. “What the hell is an 11-year-old doing putting herself in a position at a party with a bunch of guys smoking pot and drinking alcohol?” she asks with a tinge of guilt that she’s carried with her ever since. “I mean, I drank almost an entire bottle of Seagram’s Seven.” Nichols knows what happened that night was not her fault, but she still has to remind herself.
“It ended up being my worst nightmare.” Nichols was raped by a few of the boys. The memories return in fragments: flashes of “waking up on a bed with no underwear on and everyone laughing.” After the rape, she says, “I remember being kicked on the sidewalk in my stomach in the middle of winter.” She recalls someone saying, “Get up, bitch.”
“It changed the entire trajectory of my life in a day.”
Everyone in town knew about it. Nichols started using drugs. “I did a lot of them,” she says. When she was 16, she found out that the father who raised her was not her biological dad. Her brothers were half siblings; the man Nichols thought she was related to had actually adopted her.
This only added to her emptiness. She continued using drugs into her 20s. “I would go to the city and scrape the [cocaine] block and weigh and measure and mix it,” she says. “I think I paid for coke like twice.” Most she got for free from older men.
She wasn’t in a drama club, didn’t go to acting school. “I was the kid who almost flunked out of high school for never showing up,” she says. When she started acting as a student at College of DuPage, a community college in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, it was at a point in her life when she was “just trying to survive.” She tried out for a play with a friend as a lark. She forgot the whole audition until a director called and said, “Why didn’t you come to callbacks?”
“I got a callback?” she blurted.
Nichols won a leading role. “These guys took a chance on me,” Nichols says of the two drama teachers who encouraged her. She eventually moved to Chicago and pursued acting, pumping gas and checking coats between auditions. She was cast in a pilot in 1995 and moved to Los Angeles. She made her movie debut in Vegas Vacation two years later.
In L.A., she found herself searching for something to fill the dark pit left over from her assault and her identity crisis and years of self-medicating. “I was reading Chicken Soup for the Soul, Buddha this, Zen that, The Way of the Warrior. I mean, everything under the sun, therapy, looking for answers,” she says. “Any kind of help.”
Nichols discovered the Church of Scientology in 1996 and began to study its belief systems. She credits the church for getting her off drugs and helping turn her life around. “Honestly, Scientology is what saved my freaking ass. I’d probably be dead.”
Among the many controversies surrounding Scientology, the most complicated for Nichols are accusations of sexual abuse, including a recent lawsuit filed by a former member alleging child abuse, human trafficking, and forced labor. But Nichols remains a vocal defender of the church and an active member. She does not believe the allegations made against the church, saying they “have been completely fabricated.”
“I get attacked for that all the time,” she says. “Whenever I post about my sex-trafficking work, [strangers on social media] go apeshit on me,” tweeting back with accusations of trafficking within Scientology. Nichols’s response: “You don’t have any idea what you are talking about. We’re not the church known for this sort of thing. Where’s the police charges? Where’s the evidence?”
She says Scientology has guided her and given her strength through years of emotional challenges. About nine years ago, her brother committed suicide. Last March, Nichols’s Riverdale costar Luke Perry died suddenly of a stroke. “My dad died three weeks before Luke’s death,” Nichols says of her adoptive father. After Perry died, “I didn’t leave the house for a week.”
Nichols also recently got divorced and bought a new house, investing in a high-end security system. She has dealt with a stalker in the past, but she’s more concerned about the sexual predators she’s helped put away trying to find her or her family. The stressors and traumas weigh on her, she says, even as the pings from men responding to her ads keep trickling in. “I keep myself busy with this.”
Nichols pulls out her phone and shows a photo of an unassuming guy. “Married, three kids … soccer coach.” He was, she adds, supposedly an “upstanding member of the community.” Nichols was part of the cohort that took him down. She recalls hearing his voice on the phone, how he talked about getting horny while watching his daughter and her friends play soccer. “We were dying to get him off the street.”
This kind of work, she says, makes it difficult to look at men the same again. “It’s hard to remember most men don’t do this.” What keeps her sane is her ability to step in and out of the role, go home, return to Riverdale, or take on a movie part. If working against sex trafficking was her full-time career, Nichols worries, “I would lose my faith in humanity.”
Something’s not right in the motel room.
Early on day one, Nichols notices deputies and undercover operatives listing themselves as adults in their online ads. Over the course of texts and conversations throughout the day, the chatters reveal, “Actually, I’m 15.”
Some of the sites require an age listing, and posts from people under 18 are not permitted. The sheriff’s department is fine with this tactic. This unit believes that with each arrest, word spreads that child predators are being targeted. This can deter others, officers explain, and can make a dent in the larger world of child sex abuse. Over the last year, officers in this region have made more than 60 arrests of church and business leaders, political candidates, corporate VPs, construction workers. But the team has come under fire by lawyers representing the arrestees, who claim officers have lured in people who thought they were communicating with adults. (Courts have upheld the methodology and enforcement tactics of the team.)
At the end of day one, Nichols heads back to another, nicer hotel five miles away to get some sleep. The next morning, she rejoins the team at a different motel, a box of Starbucks coffee for everyone in hand. But she’s in a more subdued mood. She and her law-enforcement partner have decided to separate from the group to catch their own predators using the kind of tactics they’ve employed in their past operations, coding the ads specifically to target men seeking children younger than 15 rather than posing as willing teens.
Child predators, Nichols says, “are all disgusting.” But her personal commitment is to stanch trafficking, to catch the “asshole that would show up knowing that this kid is being held against her will,” she says. “I go after those guys because, to me, they are the most dangerous.” These are also not the easiest ones to hunt, even though they are everywhere.
The lead deputies do not seem to mind when she starts her own operation, right in the same room. Instead, they appear welcoming of an alternative approach. If Nichols manages to lure predators with her methods, they will arrest and book them too.
“So we had like five responses so far,” Nichols tells a deputy, who helps her set up her ads.
“How do you word it?” asks the chatter from the previous day. She’s sitting at the head of a bed, listening to Nichols’s conversation while also conducting her own chats.
“Discreet, fun, hit me up,” Nichols replies.
“Now what do you do if they ask for nude photos?” she asks.
Nichols’s partner jumps in, explaining that he plays the pimp while Nichols plays the child: “I just get on the phone with them. I’m like, ‘Look, I’ve already gone too far, bro. You so easily could be a cop.’ ”
He nods toward Nichols. “The voice,” he says, referring to her acting skills, which make her sound like a preteen. That’s what gets them. “When she gets on,” he says, “it’s over.”
Nichols holds up footage of another operation in California as an example of a previous success. The team that day arrested a dozen people. Nichols remembers grimacing as men who thought she was underage got on the phone, asking to tie her up.
In one scene, you can see Nichols pacing around a dark motel room, her hair tangled and makeup smudges around her eyes. Her colleague is on the phone with a man with a gruff, eager-sounding voice. The man wants “proof of life.” He wants to know if the child is real. He wants to hear her voice.
“She’s right here,” says the agent, playing the dad-pimp. “Remember the guy you talked to before, sweetie? He’s on the phone.” The agent puts Nichols on speaker.
“Hey, how you doing?” the man asks.
“I’m good.” Nichols says, nervous and squeaky.
“You want me to come see you or what?”
“Yeah,” she says, giggling.
“We’ve trained her, dude, from a young age,” the agent tells him. “She knows what she’s doing. … Just tell her what you want her to do and she’ll do it.”
“How big are her tits?”
“She’s 13. Not very big.”
The caller hangs up. He’s on his way.
In the video, Nichols waits behind the door with armed police. One bald officer in a long beard tells his team, “Giving him instructions to come this way.”
The stranger approaches. “Police department!” Officers race through the door. “On the ground now!”
You can see a pot-bellied man in ripped-up jeans and dusty Nikes. They get him facedown, hands behind his back. His jeans are hanging off his waist even though he wears a belt, exposing the top of his rear end. Police lift him up, and for a moment he’s facing the open motel-room door.
Nichols stands in it. You want to kick him in the balls and beat the hell out of him. She watches police escort him away.
By the end of day two, the officers have arrested a dozen men, none from Nichols’s ads. She doesn’t seem disappointed. It can be a slog, but she tried. She did what she could, what she had to do. She is already planning her next operations. Some, she hopes, will be overseas. Others, here in the States.
As the sun sets and the officers pack up their gear, a call comes over the radio: a shooting outside of a local high school. The lead deputy tears across the parking lot in an SUV, stopping to alert the group that he’s heading over to the crime scene.
He motions for Nichols to get in if she wants to ride along. Nichols can’t help herself. She hops in the passenger seat. “We had a high-speed chase to the shooting!” Nichols writes later in a text message about the ride-along. “I love this stuff!” Every moment she spends with law enforcement is a firsthand lesson in human behavior. Material for her next performance.
This story appears in the May 2020 issue of Marie Claire.