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Home / Articles / News / News /  One woman’s struggle to overcome a life of prostitution
. . . .
Tuesday, Apr 08, 2014

One woman’s struggle to overcome a life of prostitution

Meet ‘Jackie,’ one of the many faces of sex-trafficking

By Joshua Emerson Smith
IMG_2720 Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

Sitting on a couch in a thrift store in National City, Jackie tells a caseworker through a cell phone that her husband has to do more than just promise to get clean if he wants to have contact with her 6-month-old daughter.

"It's not about just enrolling," she says, looking for a misplaced pack of Newports—the one vice she hasn't kicked. "He needs to show some progress in the services before he's allowed to even get a visit."

Last winter, Jackie filed a restraining order against her husband. The two had been married for less than a year when one night he got high on painkillers and an argument turned violent. With her daughter screaming in the next room, he grabbed Jackie by the neck and squeezed. 

In December, Jackie violated the no-contact order by meeting with him to talk about getting back together. Staff at a transitional-housing facility where the couple had been staying saw them and reported it to authorities. As a result, Jackie lost custody of her daughter.

"I had to prove that I was doing [domestic-violence] classes before I could get my unsupervised [visits]," the 30-year-old says into the phone. "I had to do this and that before I could get my overnights. So he should have to do the same thing, you know?"

Recognizing that physical abuse and getting high weren't part of a healthy relationship is a new way of thinking for Jackie. In recent months, she's been attending daily drug-rehab meetings, and to get her daughter back, she enrolled in a class for domestic-violence victims. But she knows that's only a start.

For the last eight months, Jackie's been clawing her way out of San Diego's underground sex trade. A victim of sexual and psychological abuse from a young age, Jackie was recruited, manipulated and violently abused by several pimps. Over time, she became reliant on the sex industry for money and a sense of identity.

The underground commercial sex trade in San Diego, according to a study released in March by the Urban Institute, is a $96.6-million-a-year industry, surpassing illegal drugs as the top moneymaker for criminals in the region. Of eight major metropolitan areas studied, San Diego had the most gang involvement, with about half of all pimps associated with an organized street gang. Gang networks, which can stretch across state lines, follow a pattern of recruiting vulnerable girls directly from schools, foster homes and the streets.

The number of people who are trafficked for sex every year remains unknown. However, anecdotal evidence from law enforcement, news media and a spate of reports on the topic has raised awareness about pimping, especially of underage girls. Under federal and California law, pimping of a minor is considered sex trafficking, a crime that carries a mandatory sentence of 10 years to life in prison. 

However, for girls who have turned 18, force, fraud or coercion must be proved in order for a prostitute to be seen as a victim. That means a woman must be willing to testify in court and provide proof of abuse, such as medical records. Often, prostitutes caught up in the legal system end up facing criminal charges rather than risk retribution from a pimp.

During her time as a prostitute, Jackie met hundreds of other girls working in the area, some in their early teens, others in their late 40s. While many of these former acquaintances continued to work, Jackie finally decided she had had enough.

Through the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, a nonprofit for victims of sex trafficking, Jackie was able to find a secure place to live. However, like many former prostitutes, finding a straight job would prove more difficult. After applying for numerous positions at fast-food restaurants and retail stores, she thought she might get hired at McDonalds. But after a promising interview, the manager never called her back.

When she found out she didn't get the job, Jackie was disappointed but not surprised. She had no relevant job experience and was haunted by a long list of criminal charges. 

For the last 20 years, there's been only one thing on Jackie's résumé: Prostitute.

****

Jackie's mother Katherine hadn't come home in a few nights when Aaron called the 7-year-old into his bedroom. Living in his two-story house in Lakeland, Fla., Katherine, now about 30 years old, had been dating Aaron for several years. A carpenter, he provided for the family, and having never known her father, Jackie called him "Dad."

"What is that on TV?" Jackie said, walking into the room.

"Oh, that's just two women making love with a man," Aaron said sitting on the bed.

"Why do you have that on?" she asked.

"Because that's what I want you to do," he said. "I want you to make love to me."

That was the first of several times during the coming months that Aaron would molest Jackie. When Jackie told her mother, Katherine called her a "lying little whore." 

"He's such a nice man," she said. "He loves me."

Two years later, the relationship ended. Immediately, Katherine and Jackie moved into another man's one-bedroom flat with no air conditioning. Jackie, now 9, slept in the front room on a couch in the dank Florida heat. They received food stamps, but the refrigerator was almost always empty. Around this time, it became obvious that Katherine and her new boyfriend had a serious crack habit, and it wasn't long before Jackie could make a crack pipe for her mother out of a nail-polish or Jim Beam bottle.

Katherine worked a few shifts a week at a local bar, but most of her money came from prostitution. Before long, her customers started molesting Jackie. 

Katherine kept Jackie home from school out of fear that the authorities would discover the abuse, but Child Welfare Services eventually intervened, and before Jackie turned 10, her mother's parental rights were revoked and she was placed in foster care. That's when she started running away. For months at a time, she'd stay with Katherine before the authorities would catch up with her, and the cycle would start over. By age 11, Jackie was giving hand jobs for money. 

One day, Katherine took her daughter for a car ride.

"Babe, I'm on my monthly," she said. "I can't do anything, but we need the money." 

Jackie, 13 years old, was scared as Katherine tried to convince her to have sex with a stranger. "Just this one time. Just this one time. I promise you won't have to do it again."

Jackie watched her mother use the money to get high, and that one time turned into multiple times.

****

While there's no clear picture of how many juveniles like Jackie are sold for sex every year in the U.S., studies suggest the number is in the hundreds of thousands, according to a 2013 report from the California Child Welfare Council. Available data suggests that most children sold for sex have their first experience between ages 11 and 14 and have previously experienced extensive sexual abuse.

The vast majority of sex-trafficking victims remain hidden, as the crime is almost never reported to law enforcement, according to a 2013 report from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA). However, during the last decade, the issue has been increasingly recognized as a significant problem around the country.

While the number of shelters designed to serve this population has historically been limited, facilities around the U.S. have recently started opening up, according to the ICJIA report. As of 2012, there were 37 residential programs exclusively for trafficking victims. Of those facilities, 18 had opened in the previous five years. Those programs provided 682 beds, of which 438 were dedicated to minors.

At the time of the report, Florida was estimated to have about four residential programs, compared with California's 10. However, it's not clear how many such facilities were available in 1997, when Jackie, then 14, took up prostitution on her own and began regularly smoking crack to cope with the psychological challenges of the profession.

"It made me function better," she remembers. "It helped me mask the feelings."

Jackie's teen years unfolded in blur of dope, prostitution and running from the law. In the summer before she turned 18, she was locked up at a juvenile-detention facility when Katherine came to visit. In a private room, mother and daughter sat across from each other for the last time. Katherine gave her daughter a stuffed animal. Jackie sketched her mother's portrait. Katherine tried to apologize. She said she wanted to make a change.

Jackie harbored tremendous anger, as well as compassion for her mother, who was also placed in foster care at a young age after being neglected by her parents.

"I hated her, but I loved her, too," she recalls.

A month later, two police offers came to visit Jackie to say that her mother had died. Later, a counselor at the detention center told Jackie that her mother had been suffering from full-blown AIDS.

In late December, a few days before her birthday, Jackie was released from custody. Devastated by her mother's death, she tried to hang herself on a razor-wire fence. She survived but stopped eating and started experiencing seizures brought on by stress and drug use. It wasn't long before she tried to commit suicide again by using a beer bottle to cut her throat.

"I twisted, and I was this far away from my jugular," she remembers. "I was desperate for that. I didn't want to live anymore."

An adult, suffering from the trauma of molestation, drug abuse and losing her mother, she continued to prostitute to support herself. By the beginning of 2006, she'd racked up multiple felonies for solicitation and possession of cocaine, had done some jail time and a year in prison. 

In 2008, she gave birth to a son. The following year, the boy was placed with her half-brother in San Diego after Jackie was sentenced to a three-year stint in state prison on a drug charge. While incarcerated, despite the availability of drugs, she stayed sober, did rehab and parenting classes and got her GED. When she got out in the summer of 2011, she immediately jumped on a bus heading west to get her son back and turn her life around.

On the three-day journey, the 27-year-old turned a few tricks so she'd have money to get her new life started. With $3,000 in her pocket, she met her brother in downtown San Diego. He helped her get a bed at Rachel's Night Shelter for Women, run by Catholic Charities. With her money, she bought some new clothes and enrolled in several classes at a technical college. Within a few weeks, she started seeing a guy named Luke who worked across the street from the school.

****

On a hot summer day, riding the No. 15 bus from Downtown to North Park, Jackie was dressed for a date. But Luke looked serious when he started laying out a different plan.

"I'm going to give you your start points and your end points," Luke said. "I don't want you to go beyond those points. Come up with $500. Don't spend no money on anything."

When she confided her history to Luke a few days earlier, he'd hinted at how much money she could make prostituting in San Diego. But she had ignored him. Now he wasn't hinting anymore, and when they got to the bus stop under the big "The Boulevard" sign at El Cajon and Park boulevards, he told her to get off and start working.

She did. It was a rush walking the track again. If I make this money, he'll love me, she thought as she strolled down the street, known to local sex workers and law enforcement as The Blade.

"Instantly, my renegade personality kicked in," she recalls now. "I know I can make this $500 instantly. I didn't understand what he was getting at until I laid down in my bed that night and I realized that he was trying to force me to work."

During the next few weeks, Luke would slap her around when she went outside of her boundaries and threatened to beat her if she didn't produce her quota.

"Bitch, you better check in with me," he'd say. "You know I'm your daddy." At the end of the day, he'd put her back on the bus to the shelter.

Many girls recruited by pimps are looking for love and affection more than money, according to the Urban Institute study. Pimps routinely pose as romantic interests or father figures to exploit someone's emotional dependencies. However, once a girl starts working, pimps frequently use physical abuse as a means of control. To show ownership, pimps will go so far as to tattoo their name on a girl. 

Like many prostitutes, Jackie considered her pimp her boyfriend. However, that didn't last for long. One day, she came up with $1,500. Bringing it straight to Luke, she suggested they rent a place together. Instead, he took the money and got an apartment with another girl.

"Stay the hell away from me," she told him when she found out. "Don't contact me."

A few days later, She ran into Luke on the street Downtown. 

"Bitch, what are you doing running from me?" he said, punching her twice in the face. "I'll have my whole fucking clique beat your ass."

The next day, she fled the shelter and stayed with an acquaintance. Without a permanent place to stay, she continued prostituting to support herself. She also started smoking crack again and, by then, had been introduced to crystal meth.

That's how she met Mike—looking to score. He picked her up off the street and lured her back to a house to get high.

"You're too pretty to be getting hit," Mike said when Jackie told him about her situation. "I'm going to get you a place to stay. I don't want you Downtown."

Before long, Mike's boss, Carter, invited Jackie to stay in his one-bedroom apartment in North Park. Mike's brother Lucas and another prostitute slept in the front room.

"Look, mommy, you ain't got no place to stay," Carter said.

"No, I'm from Florida," she said. "I don't have no family here, other than my brother."

"I have this apartment for now," Carter said, "but in a few months, I'm supposed to get the other apartment next to this one, and when I get the other apartment, it'll be yours. I'll put your name on the lease, and it'll be your little place."

The first night she moved in, Carter posted an ad for Jackie on Backpage.com, and she started doing calls at the apartment. Then, quickly, she started prostituting in hotel rooms in San Diego, Chula Vista and National City.

Carter didn't allow Jackie to hold any money. Instead, he supplied her with drugs and food and took her shopping so she could stay dressed in heels and tight clothes. The money she made went to rent, food and repairs to Carter's Cadillac. But he also kept a bank account that she wasn't allowed to access.

At the time, Jackie brought in up to $2,000 a day, having sex with 10 to 15 guys a night. She justified the situation by considering Carter her boyfriend. Beyond turning tricks, Carter expected her to clean the house and have sex with him every night, whether she wanted to or not. Before long, Carter started beating her or had Lucas do it for him.

She worked the street until 4 in the afternoon then switched to the hotels and the Navy base at night. Days rolled into nights and nights into the mornings. She got very little sleep, stayed high on crystal and usually ate only once a day.

"I used to have two or three rooms for just one night," she remembers. "If I had military guys that didn't want to go on base, I would go to my nice hotel. If I had just some average John on the street looking for some sex, I'd take them to the lame hotel."

Carter controlled a few other prostitutes, but Jackie quickly became his top prostitute, recruiting, training and keeping tabs on the other girls. 

By August 2011, she was pregnant with twins by Carter.

"I was pumped up," she recalls. "I liked the situation. I didn't take into realization what the fuck was happening to me."

Eventually, Jackie lost touch with her brother, and her son was sent back to Florida to live with a cousin.

"I didn't come here planning on being sexually exploited," she says. "I came here with goals to go to college and get my son back."

In September, Carter took Jackie on a road trip to St. Louis to attend his family reunion. In front of all his relatives, he announced that Jackie was pregnant and then proposed to her. She accepted happily. Pictures were taken.

Later that night, Jackie said she didn't want to work, and Carter had his nephew beat her. She was used to getting hit a few times a month, but this infuriated her, partly because she was pregnant. Jackie ran away for a few nights but eventually came back. Carter beat her again to punish her. The St. Louis trip lasted more than a month, and Jackie prostituted the entire time.

"Those six weeks were the hardest time in my entire life," she says. "He made it seem like I was his wife. I was in love with this man, this pimp."

Back in San Diego, Carter had his name tattooed on Jackie's chest. She could barely sit still because of her crack and meth use, so Carter crushed up some painkillers in a glass of water and made her drink it. Then Lucas held her down while a guy with a makeshift tattoo gun branded her.

"I cared for him a lot," she says. "But I knew that if I didn't get away from him, he was going to kill me."

One day, she met a friend of Carter's named Max. He'd just been released from prison and took a liking to Jackie. 

"You need a change in lifestyle," he told her flirtatiously. About a week later, she ran away from Carter and asked Max to protect her. He agreed and paid Carter $1,500 to take control of Jackie. 

"I was so in depth with the idea that I was making so much money that I didn't want to give up the money, but I wanted to give up the pimp," she says.

****

dark, nervous feeling overtook Jackie when she saw the Cadillac rolling slowly down the street toward her. Frantically, she dialed Max's number, but he didn't answer. Lucas jumped out of the front seat, grabbed her and threw her in the back.

"You're going to learn, bitch, not to fucking leave me," Carter said. 

They drove Jackie back to their apartment, and as soon as she walked through the front door, Lucas kicked her in her back, knocking her into another room and slamming her into a metal bed frame. They kicked and punched her repeatedly. She heard several ribs crack.

Eventually, they let up, and she crawled into a closet and lay there crying with a broken jaw and several cracked teeth. 

"All I could think about was the fact that I was going to lose my babies," she recalls.

Several hours later, Carter came over and gave her a cigarette. "You can't go outside and smoke, but here's a damn cigarette, bitch. Blow it out the window."

She slept for a day-and-a-half. The evening of the second day, she told Carter that she'd go out and work and bring back some money. He agreed. She left the house, went to a corner market, borrowed a phone and called Max.

"I'm coming with my pistol, and I'm fixing to shoot that motherfucker," Max told her. "I'm going to kill him."

When Max picked her up, Jackie was losing amniotic fluid and large amounts of blood. He dropped her at a hospital but didn't stay, fearing the police. The doctors were able to stabilize her, but her twins didn't make it.

"They said the babies came out, took about a breath-and-a-half and died," she says.

A few weeks later, the cops picked up Jackie and Max in a sting operation. Eventually, they also picked up Carter and Lucas. In an interrogation, Jackie reported that not only had Carter and Lucas brutally beaten her, but Max had also routinely abused her when she didn't want to work, strangling her on several occasions.

Eventually, all three men were sentenced to multiple years in prison for pimping and pandering. Carter and Lucas were also charged with assault.

In recent years, regional law enforcement has cracked down on pimping and sex trafficking. In San Diego County, the District Attorney's office prosecuted 43 cases last year, up from just nine in 2009. In federal court in San Diego and Imperial counties, the number of individuals charged with sex trafficking during the last five years increased 1,000 percent, from just a few to a couple dozen cases, with scores of defendants.

In January, federal officials indicted 24 North Park gang members for conspiring to run a prostitution ring, stretching across 23 states. Of those charged, 14 face possible life sentences for charges that include trafficking of minors. Of 60 victims, 11 were underage, as young as 15.

However, such high-profile cases only scratch the surface of sex trafficking in San Diego. In most situations, there's often little evidence to document force, fraud or coercion. That was the case in Jackie's situation. There were no sex-trafficking charges, and she ended up doing six months in jail for prostitution and possession of cocaine.

Her deep-seated emotional vulnerability and early-childhood habituation to a life of prostitution prevented her from seeing herself as a victim. As a result, she remained susceptible to manipulation and abuse, seeing the beatings as part of a functional relationship. 

"Over the little bit of time that Max and I were together, I felt in love with him," she says.

Released from jail in the fall of 2012, Jackie kept prostituting for the next year. Tormented by what had happened, she used drugs heavily and attempted suicide several more times.

"I was suffering from three different types of addictions: the streets, coke and meth," she says.

****

Sitting on a bed in a motel, Jackie looked at her crack pipe and a bag of dope. She'd been trying to kick the drugs for the last few weeks. It was the summer of 2013, and she was seven months pregnant.

"I went to a doctor's appointment, and they said, 'You have two choices: die during birth or have a chance of living. Stop doing the dope or you're going to die,'" she recalls now. "I was like, Fuck, I don't want to be a murderer."

She walked into the bathroom and stood over the toilet, crushed the pipe and flushed the drugs. She stayed at the motel for a week, turning tricks and saving up cash. Then she walked away from her old life, moved into a St. Vincent de Paul transitional-housing unit and started a drug-rehab program.

In August, the baby was born.

"The day I gave birth to my daughter was the best day of my life," she says.

Earlier that year, she married a man she'd met at a drug house, and that winter he moved into the unit with them. However, he was still using heavy painkillers. One night, he got high and a fight turned violent. She had a no-contact order placed on him. 

When she violated the order by meeting him at the housing facility, Child Welfare Services took her daughter. To get her child back, Jackie enrolled in a class for domestic-violence victims. That's when she started confronting the psychological trauma that had defined her life from childhood. 

"I've chosen a lot of men in my life that meant no good for me, being blindsided by wanting to be loved," she reflects. "Had my daughter not been taken, I would still be living that same false lie that my husband is going to change, that's he's going to be a family man."

If she gets her daughter back, she's been offered a room at a transitional-housing facility that provides services for homeless mothers. She also qualified for financial aid to attend a nail-technician course starting in May.

However, Jackie knows one of her most difficult challenges is still ahead.

"Getting a job is not easy because of my record," she says. 

Amid law enforcement's war on sex trafficking, victims often get swept into the criminal-justice system, racking up convictions that prevent them from securing employment and safe housing. In response, the state of New York in 2010 passed the first law in the country allowing trafficking victims to vacate prostitution-related charges. Since then, 15 other states have enacted similar laws, including Florida, Washington, Nevada and Connecticut.

These "vacatur" laws have significantly helped trafficking survivors reintegrate into society and recover from post-traumatic stress, depression and severe anxiety, according to a study by City University of New York. However, during arrests and raids, law enforcement still struggle to identify and assist trafficking victims. Often, victims are repeatedly arrested for prostitution without being screened for trafficking.

Determined to reintegrate despite her criminal charges, Jackie continues to focus on her daughter.

"I can give her experiences I never got to have," she says. "I'll be able to take her to theme parks. I'll be able to take her to the beach. I can buy her gifts and toys that are new and not used. And it won't be dirty money."

Recently, Jackie has run into old acquaintances who've seemed surprised that she was still clean and not working the streets. For Jackie, it wasn't surprising. All she wanted was a life many people take for granted.

"I have people that love me today, but what I long for is to have my own little family—a husband, my baby, have a house, waking up every morning knowing I have to go to work and going to get my daughter from daycare. I just want a normal life."


Note to readers:
CityBeat honored a request to change the names of the people involved in this story.



Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.




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