BY LYNN OLDSHUE / firstname.lastname@example.org
My story is crazy. I still can’t believe sex trafficking happened to me or that people enslave young girls in Mobile.”
Michelle said this as she took a sip of coffee at her kitchen table. The house was clean, and all was quiet after she put her son down for a nap.
“But if it happened to me, it can happen to anyone.”
Michelle graduated from high school in Mobile County in 2002. She was a fun-loving soccer player with good grades, but struggled after her parents’ divorce when she was 13 years old. Using long-term relationships to fill the void, she discovered she was pregnant soon after graduation. Her son, Jake, was born and her boyfriend of three years became abusive. The relationship ended the day he threw a car seat across the room with their 3-month-old son still in it.
“That was the last time he touched either one of us,” she said. Michelle and Jake moved in with her dad and her younger brother and sister.
“I was 18 and a devastated mess, but my life was about to get much worse,” she said.
Lisa, Michelle’s sister, took her for a drive on a hot fall afternoon to cheer her up. When they stopped at a gas station to buy a drink, a man Michelle described as “tall, dark and handsome” opened the door for them. “Hello” turned to flirting and an invitation to follow him home.
His name was Todd, and he had recently moved to the Mobile area with his brothers, his mother and her girlfriend into a house five minutes from the gas station. The floors were unfinished, pet pit bulls were uncared for and the house was a mess. Still, Michelle gave Todd her number.
“The house was strange, but the conversation was normal and I was flattered by the attention,” she said. “At the time, I was dealing with a postpartum body, which was depressing because I had always been an athlete and in shape. I was also recovering from the rejection of an abusive, unfaithful relationship with my boyfriend. I felt gross in my skin and Todd made me feel not so gross.”
Michelle admits to ignoring the red flags from Todd and the warnings from her father as the relationship escalated quickly. Her new boyfriend was a few years older, brought her flowers and “treated her nice.” Her father saw him as dangerous and drew the line: Break up with Todd or move out.
“I knew my father wanted the best for me, and he was right, but I was rebellious and refused to listen,” she said. Todd and his mother invited Michelle and Jake to move into their extra room, offering to watch the baby while Michelle attended a local community college.
“I was determined to go to college, become a nurse and get on my feet,” Michelle said. “They offered to take care of me, and I didn’t have to worry about anything. Weird things started happening soon after we moved in.”
Attending college meant early morning drives of 45 miles. Some mornings Michelle missed class because her alarm didn’t go off or her car wouldn’t start. She later discovered Todd was turning off her alarm and removing the fuse in her car.
“They were slowly isolating me, cutting me off from friends, school and family,” she said. “At the same time they made me feel accepted, like they were the only ones who cared about this single mother. I was naive, and they were taking more control. They began introducing me to drugs as a way to ease my pain and worries. I learned later they were also calling my mother and father and telling them horrible things about me.”
The family introduced Michelle to well-dressed friends who drove new Cadillacs. After a month of paying no rent, the mother told her it was time to provide “financial help,” and invited the girl to join her as an escort for men needing a date to a wedding or dinner. The stylish friends stopping by were the higher levels of the escort service.
“She described it as going on dates with respectable men and most of the time there was no physical touch,” Michelle said. “She never used the words ‘prostitution’ or ‘sex’ and tried to make it sound classy, but I was grossed out and told her no.”
Angered by Michelle’s refusal to become an escort, Todd began controlling her phone and where she went. Fearing this change, she dropped Jake at her mother’s house for her to keep him temporarily. At times, Michelle lived in her car, parking it in driveways of vacant houses and sleeping in the backseat at night. Todd found her one night and busted the back windshield with a bottle. He also threatened her mother and child, filling her with fear and destroying the last security, safety and hope she had left. One rainy night, Michelle left her car and sought dry shelter in an abandoned house. There, she was raped by a man she described as a “crackhead.”
It was her first rape after meeting Todd.
The second rape occurred a short time later. Drugged by Todd, Michelle regained consciousness with numb arms and a naked man on top of her who “paid to rape me,” she said. “My body was defiled twice,” she said. “There was nothing more to lose. I agreed to be an escort to earn enough money to get away.”
The escort service was part of a sex-trafficking ring. Their training prepared her to be a date, not a prostitute, so she could avoid arrest. The first rule was never undress yourself; if he does it, that is on him. The second rule was that he lays the money on the table; taking it from him is prostitution. The third rule was to ask if he is a policeman; if he is, he has to tell you.
They replaced Michelle’s ID with a fake one that said she was 21. “Todd named me Laura because it was his oldest daughter’s name. They often told men I was 16.”
The calls came from escort service ads in the personal classifieds of the Press-Register. The escort agency’s name and number changed frequently for protection, but Michelle said the ads usually began with an “A” for placement at the top of the page.
Michelle searched the paper’s archives for classified ads that ran during her time. Between the columns for tree grinding/stump removal services and legal notices were ads for Vale’s Dating Service, AAA Sensational Private Dancers and Absolute Pleasures Dating Service. There was Casey’s Dating, DeLyla’s Playmates and Ebony’s Modeling with “morning specials.” Executive Escorts claimed “Mobile’s Most Beautiful Models” and Missy’s Lingerie Modeling offered “earlybird specials.” There was “Mardi Gras Romance with Guys and Dolls,” but no mention of sex.
“I knew there were other girls like me in our ring, but those escort ads showed that there were more girls and rings in town,” Michelle said. “The ads promised pleasure and fun. Age and body type were negotiated when men called the number. They didn’t care about who we were or how we got there, they just wanted us to be young and beautiful.”
Her first escort job was with a man who drove her to dinner in a Hummer and talked about hunting in Alaska and Africa. Returning to the motel room, he dropped the money on the table. Michelle thought the date ended with her clothes on, just like the family said it would.
He told her to take a shower and relax. He would tuck her in.
“I came out of the bathroom, and he told me to get undressed,” she said. Michelle told him this was her first time as an escort and she was uncomfortable doing anything more. “He said, ‘It is OK, I will be gentle,’” she said. “That man thought I was 16 and had no concerns about me.”
Reasoning that it couldn’t be worse than the rapes she had already been through, Michelle closed her eyes and got it over as fast as possible. As soon as he left, the family appeared and took the money. Michelle cried, but not from physical pain.
“They told me to go home and take a bath,” she said. “It would be OK.”
Michelle did this every day, three to six men a day, for over a year. “That was nothing compared to the other girls who were even more strung out, didn’t cause the drama I did and had been there much longer,” she said. The cost was $160 for 30 minutes or $200 for an hour for basic services, plus expenses and hotel costs. The money was split 60-40. Michelle got the smaller portion.
“I learned to do whatever I had to do to make the men hurry up and get it over with,” she said. “Just leave the money and go.”
The men paying for sex with a 16-year-old girl weren’t just the “weird ones,” Michelle said. They were doctors, lawyers, a former judge, a missionary and “rich, well-educated, influential men who did big things in our community.”
“Police officers who laid their money on the table and removed their clothes were not working a sting,” she said.
One of her regulars was a local high school principal who had her wear pigtails, she said.
“These men seeking to have sex with younger girls may appear to have it together on the outside, but they are dangerous and dark on the inside,” she said. “We were hired to serve drinks at community and business parties, but were expected to do much more.”
Mardi Gras was the busiest time of the year, with men coming to Mobile from across the country. “The celebration brings out the best and worst in people,” she said. “I didn’t sleep during those weeks. They told us Mardi Gras was big money, but I never saw it.”
Michelle described the years of her enslavement in the mid-2000s, as “days of daze” with “drama every day.” She was robbed several times and at risk of being killed at any time by the people over her. Todd stopped by the motel room before each john arrived, making sure she was there. Their relationship had become “toxic and violent.”
“At times, Todd beat me with the wooden coat hangers from the motel closet before the men arrived,” she said. “He burned me with cigarettes and cigars. I still have some of the scars.”
Michelle stopped eating and dropped from a size 16 to a size 6 in six months. The family hooked her on drugs, making her easier to control. “My mind and body were drained and I felt like a walking zombie,” she said. “I used to love the outdoors and colors, but everything turned gray. The drugs weren’t the escape I needed. I still remember it all.”
Michelle said she was “just one girl in a big ring.” Todd and his family were “at the bottom level.” Higher levels controlled more “families” like theirs. Michelle’s ring was run by a woman who she said was always nice to her, but there were more levels above her.
“They were organized and smart, scattering the girls around motels in Mobile and Baldwin counties and moving us often so we wouldn’t get caught,” Michelle said. “There were feuds between the rings but they usually stayed out of each other’s territory. It was a big business in Mobile and the beach areas in Gulf Shores and Pensacola where people go as tourists.”
The youngest girl Michelle met in the ring had just turned 15. “She was a gorgeous girl who looked older than 15 because she had been in this for so long, but they told men she was younger,” Michelle said. “They were extra careful not to get caught with her. The younger girls were worth the risk because they got more money. I never heard of anyone in our ring getting arrested or caught in a sting.”
On one occasion, Michelle called the police after being beat by a john who robbed her at a motel. She told the female officer she was raped, but Michelle said the officer replied that she shouldn’t have put herself in that situation.
“I thought she was right,” Michelle said. “I blamed everything on myself because I broke, and said I agreed to do this. I believed if I got out, my family would pay the price.”
Hopeless and ready for her life to end, Michelle’s father tried to help her by taking her to a women’s shelter, but it was full with a waiting list. Knowing Michelle was a drug addict and still with Todd, her father could not take her to his home and endanger her siblings. With nowhere to go, Michelle called a man in the ring to pick her up at a Waffle House.
“As my dad walked with me, he got a glimpse into how bad my life had become and he unknowingly delivered me to a man he would later realize was my pimp,” Michelle said, with tears in her blue eyes. “I believe he still has trouble forgiving himself for leaving me that night. They had been threatened by Todd and his family several times, and he was concerned for my brother and sister’s safety. He didn’t know what to do with me or how to help. I hate what I put my family through.”
“It was getting hot in Mobile and they began moving the girls to Pensacola,” she said. “Todd was driving me there when he got a drug call. The ring also sold drugs, but made much more money from trafficking girls because they sold us over and over with less risk of getting caught.”
Michelle’s intuition told her the call was from an undercover officer. They drove through a mall parking lot in Mobile on the way to a gas station, and she saw Lisa, her younger sister. Minutes later they were surrounded by police cars. Exhausted, she fell asleep in handcuffs in the back seat. “They found my fake ID. A charge of identity theft became my point of breaking free.”
Michelle didn’t realize that Lisa was the one who helped her break free. Police had notified Michelle’s family that they suspected she was part of a group breaking into cars at motels, and to let them know if they heard something. When Lisa happened to be walking into Babies “R” Us to buy a gift, she saw Todd and Michelle drive by and called the police.
“All we knew was that Michelle was with Todd and on drugs,” Lisa said. “She called me once and seemed to be asking for help, then said, ‘Nope. Never mind.’ She hung up. We are a family of tough love, and we prayed that one day she would hit bottom and come back.
“As she was arrested, I prayed rock bottom would be that night,” Lisa said.
Michelle was interrogated by an officer about robberies at motels, but she had no answers. She had been arrested once before, but Todd’s mother had bailed her out. “They thought they could buy themselves out of any situation,” Michelle said. “Todd had many past charges, and they associated me with him. I was scared to tell about the prostitution. There was no way I could ask for help.”
Calling her family was impossible. She remembered the number of Sam, a man who had been kind and had called her several times. Sam bailed her out and drove her away. Having detoxed from approximately three weeks in jail, Michelle said she began to feel emotions again. At a red light in the middle of the night, she looked at Sam and saw him in color.
“For the first time in almost two years, I had a little bit of hope,” she said. “We have been together from the moment he picked me up.”
At Sam’s apartment, Michelle slept on the bed and he slept on the couch. He provided a safe place for her to hide, listened to her stories and helped her find a job and a lawyer.
That lawyer was the first to say the phrase “sex trafficking.” Holding up a stack of papers, he read charges against Todd and his mother from arson and battery to drugs and burglary. Charges and warrants that “alluded to human trafficking and their control of other people,” Michelle explained. However, there was no charge for human trafficking because “they were careful not to get caught.” Todd was arrested this time on a drug paraphernalia charge, but also for warrants in other states. He later moved to Gulf Shores and then across the country.
Six years later, safe, married to Sam and the mother of a second child, Michelle watched an episode of “Cops” about human trafficking, expecting to see girls chained in a basement or brought in from another country. Instead, it was girls with stories like hers. “I realized that was me,” she said. “I made poor choices, but understood I didn’t choose to be a prostitute or to stay in the family. I was targeted and manipulated. I was in a delicate spot, and they got me.”
Michelle remembers walking along Airport Boulevard and in public places with bruises and black eyes from “getting beat all of the time.” She was 18 to 20 years old during those years, and looked even younger. No one asked if she was OK.
“Not once in this Bible Belt did anyone stop and ask if I needed help or if they could pray for me,” she said. “But my sister kept praying and God must have listened. We were on the way to Pensacola the night of the drug bust, and who knows where I would have been after that. It was God’s timing for my sister to save my life.”
Michelle went through years of counseling and still has nightmares, but she said Jesus is the reason for her freedom. Lisa said Michelle is now the one who keeps the family together with phone calls and dinners. She is the first to say, “I love you.”
A child’s voice calls from a back bedroom. Sam walks through the kitchen holding their young son who looks just like him. The boy holds out his arms for his mama to hold him.
Today, Michelle is surrounded by good people who are a positive influence in her life. Jake is driving and preparing for a military career after high school. Michelle holds her youngest child close as sunlight shines through her kitchen windows. Jake was about the same age the day she became free.
“I am telling my story because I want to help other victims,” she said. “I want them to know they can have moments like this.”
*All of the names in this story have been changed to protect the survivor and her family.
If you suspect human trafficking or need help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “help” to 233733 (BE FREE).
This is the fifth part of a six-part series on human trafficking in South Alabama.
The final installment, “A Vision of Hope,” will be in the July 3 issue of Lagniappe.
Lynn Oldshue is a Lagniappe contributing writer, who lives in Fairhope. She was recently awarded the 2019 Alabama Press Association Award for Best Feature Coverage for her 2018 Lagniappe series, “From Hell to Hope,” on domestic violence.
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