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Friday, Dec 19, 2014
Crime & Courts

Survivor recalls road from strip club to sex slavery

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She was a single mom, a college student in her early 20s, overwhelmed with medical bills for her infant. She needed a way to make a lot of money.

Cocktail waitressing, bartending and working in a nightclub as a shot girl and a dancer provided some money, but not nearly enough.

Then she saw an ad looking for strippers: No experience necessary. Good money. Hiring right now.

She found herself contemplating what before was unthinkable.

“It was never an option until it was an option,” she said.

She went to the strip club in Pinellas County. It was several counties away from where she was living, and she figured no one who knew her would ever find out.

“My mentality was, 'I need to make money, and they're going to let me make money tonight.'”

She was hired immediately; she worked that same night. Knowing she was nervous, she said, the managers plied her with drinks and cocaine. She says it was the first time in her life she ever used cocaine.

She made a lot of money that first night, she says, and returned to work a second night.

Her life would never be the same.

Before the night was over, she would find herself under the control of a sex trafficker who brutalized her and forced her to sell herself for nearly a year. Before she could escape, she would lose almost everything — and nearly her life.

She is telling her story, she says, to help people understand what needs to be done to help prevent similar experiences to women who are recruited at strip clubs around the Tampa area. The Tribune is withholding her name because she has been the victim of sex crimes.

Based on her own experience, and the experiences of other survivors she's talked to, she says human trafficking is rampant in strip clubs; the owners, she says, are unwilling to curb it because it would cut too much into their bottom line.

Angelina Spencer, who speaks for COAST, Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking, said it's unfair to indict an entire industry. COAST, Spencer says, “was developed as a model to train, educate, report and rescue victims,” and provide tips to federal Homeland Security agents.

“The club operators who support COAST also support annual trainings, hanging anti-human-trafficking posters, conducting appropriate age verification and keeping copies of ID's on file,” Spencer said.

The woman who was trafficked welcomes these efforts by COAST, which she says are a step in the right direction. She said the clubs still need to do much more to stop trafficking before it happens.

As horrific as her experience was, it's not particularly unusual, according to Jeremy Lewis, executive director of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators. “Her case is consistent with other cases throughout the Tampa Bay area,” said Lewis, a retired Tampa area detective.

****

The club was dark and smoky. The music was loud; the lights reflected in the mirrors that lined the walls. The cocaine and alcohol lowered her inhibitions.

Until it was her turn to perform on stage, she worked the room, talking to customers who paid extra for her time and for lap dances.

One customer paid her special attention.

The sex trafficker was older than her, but not old, maybe in his mid-thirties. “He seemed totally normal,” she remembers. “He was so comfortable in the environment, and I totally wasn't. He knew the managers. He knew everybody in there.”

He bought her a drink, slipped her tips and started asking about her life. Getting paid to talk instead of giving lap dances was a relief, and she spilled her life story. He would later use what he learned against her.

He took her into one of the small booths they called VIP rooms, with only curtains in the doorways. Club rules said customers couldn't touch the dancers, but he did. “He started doing that to cross boundaries right away so that it was him being in control instead of me,” she said.

She told him to stop, but he didn't. She signaled for a bouncer to help her. No one did. In hindsight, she thinks the club management was working with him.

That night in the club, the woman says, the trafficker told her she could earn lots more money dancing nude at private parties; Pinellas County clubs weren't allowed to have full nudity. He would be her manager, and she could make $500 or $1,000 for an hour or less of work.

She says when he mentioned prostitution, she said no. “When I said there was no way I would ever do prostitution, that gave him an indicator of why he was going to have to break me.”

He told her he had a business nearby; they would walk there to talk. He gave her $500 and said he would give her another $500 after the party if she agreed to go.

When they got inside the business, she says, the man raped her.

She was scared and stoned. “Because it got so much worse,” she says, she doesn't remember all the details of what happened next.

He took her to a small room and locked the door. There were drinks he'd brought from the strip club, and cocaine. “There were men in there, and then he called more men, and he basically sold me in there.”

When she resisted, he would grab her by the throat and throw her against the wall. “Eventually, of course, I stopped saying no.”

“I was being raped the entire time I was in there,” she says. She doesn't remember how many men were there, but she says at least five. The attack, she says, went on for at least 12 hours.

The trafficker sat at his desk, watching and doing drugs. They gave her drugs, and she took them. “If you're getting raped all the time, you're going to take them because how else are you going to manage?”

He would decide whether to allow her to use the bathroom. When she asked to shower, he said no. Later, she was relieved when he told her she could. All she wanted to do was clean herself.

“As soon as I turned on the water, he was behind me already and proceeded to ridiculously rape and beat me,” she said. “He was slamming my head against the wall.”

She passed out.

When she woke up, he was using a chemical solution to clean her body and the shower walls. He dragged her back into the office, threw her on the floor and told her to have sex with another man.

A couple of men started taking turns with her, she said. She began to have a seizure.

The other man panicked, but the trafficker was calm. They talked about what to do with her body.

Eventually, she woke up again and most of the men were gone. The trafficker and another man had passed out.

She was naked and didn't have any of her belongings. She crawled around and found her car keys and ran.

He caught up with her, she says. He let her go, but not before telling her when and where she had to return.

“And then it just started, the whole kind of booking parties and the whole situation,” she says.

****

She knows many people won't understand why she didn't go to the police. In her mind, she says, she had been “broken.” She was grateful to have been allowed to live and go back to her baby. She thought she had gotten herself into trouble and that no one would listen to her. She was afraid he would kill her.

“I'm selling myself for money,” she said. “I do drugs all the time. I have a kid, and you're probably going to take away my kid. And by the way, I can't identify anyone, except my trafficker, and I'm too scared because he'll kill me if I give you his name.”

She started working parties, having sex for money and dancing in different strip clubs where her trafficker got the money.

The first party was in a gated community. Some of the homes were on the waterfront. One customer drove a Porsche.

But the money never materialized for her, she said — it went to her trafficker. If she tried to keep a tip, she was beaten. If she asked for a condom, she was beaten.

Along the way, she stopped going to school. She lost her car and her house. Over the course of about a year, she says, she caught a sexually transmitted disease and became pregnant at least twice. The result: One miscarriage, one abortion.

She said the trafficker used her need to be with her baby as leverage to get her to do what he wanted.

Once when she refused to go to a party, he sent two associates to beat her with a hammer. She can't remember how many times she ended up in the emergency room because of beatings or overdoses.

She eventually did find her way out. She says the tipping point happened when the trafficker beat and raped her at a motel where she had fled. Her baby was sleeping in the bed next to her.

When he dragged her into the shower and pushed her face into the water, she started thinking about what would happen to her child if she died.

“I literally had this whole process of thought while this was happening, like, OK, if he kills me in the shower, he's not going to take my kid because that would be a burden for him,” she said. “So he'll leave my kid there. I'll be dead in the bathroom. It sounds really weird, I know, but that was my thought process. He'll eventually leave and then eventually, housekeeping will come in” and take the baby somewhere safe.

But she didn't die. He beat her, cleaned everything and left.

“Something clicked in my brain,” she said. “That was sort of the beginning of the end.”

She began trying to run away more often; she went to police to report him for battery; she went to court to get a restraining order.

Eventually, she says, she thinks she became too much trouble, an annoyance, and her trafficker moved on.

She still didn't know how to live normally. She returned to work for a strip club and briefly worked for another pimp, who she said treated her well.

She says a detective eventually helped her understand what happened.

“I said, 'I guess I was a prostitute and I really never wanted to be.' And he looked at me and said, 'You were not a prostitute, you were exploited.' That was the first time it clicked in my head that I didn't want that and I didn't chose that, so that was really important for him to say that to me and pick up on all those things where your average cop would say, 'This is a drug-addicted stripper.'”

Eventually, she said, she quit stripping. She now has two children and is back in school.

She says she's trying to live a normal life.

 

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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