Illustration | Laura Mattei
By Lynn Oldshue
Hannah sat in the front office of a Baldwin County school, shaking. The Department of Human Resources was visiting her home. She was 13 and broke the major rule. Waiting in her chair, she feared her family would kill her. Her secret, however, would kill her if she kept it.
Sold sexually from the age of 6 by a family member for food and basic needs, Hannah was also sexually abused by other family members. The abuse went on for almost 10 years before she finally spoke out. She feared her family, but also feared foster care.
“Two generations of my family came through the foster system. They were my traffickers and abusers. I felt hopeless and lifeless,” she can vividly recall 18 years later.
That afternoon Hannah was taken from school to her first foster home. Crawling into bed with her shoes still on, she stared at the door.
“I had no idea what tomorrow would bring,” she said.
The Department of Human Resources removed Hannah from her abusive family, but abuse followed. Sexually abused in one foster home and physically abused and neglected in another, she learned the basic staples of human existence such as food and love were for other kids, never for her. After six years of placements, Hannah aged out of care at a group home. Her family, and the system in place to protect children, failed her and left her unprepared for the future.
An attempt at college was unsuccessful because Hannah had fallen behind many years before.
“It is hard to focus on math and science when you are fighting off adults, looking for food and wondering if you still have a home when you leave school,” she said. “I was trying to stay alive.”
Hannah had complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) with flashbacks and nightmares that became unbearable.
“No one understood me or the trauma I had been through,” Hannah said.
Crystal Yarbrough went through her own trauma of abuse and was called to work with women forced into sexual slavery. Yarbrough thought that meant selling everything, moving to Amsterdam and working in the red-light district where sex trafficking happened.
“I was shocked to learn sex trafficking happens in my own backyard in South Alabama,” she said. “It looks like my daughter, my niece, my cousin. It looks like every young woman in our community. I had to help.”
Yarbrough is the director of the Rose Center that opened in 2018 to serve human trafficking survivors in Mobile. She defines sex trafficking as any sex act in exchange for anything of value, including shelter, drugs or money.
“This has been going on in our communities for years, but we labeled it prostitution or bad kids and looked the other way,” Yarbrough said.
“Alabama is a microcosm for what is happening across the country,” said Chris Lim, director of the Alabama Uniform Integrated Human Trafficking Initiative at the University of Alabama. “It is not the movie ‘Taken,’ but something even worse. It begins with manipulating the hopes and desires of another individual. Exploiting their needs for love and attention.
“Familial trafficking and building up a relationship with the victim is one of the most prevalent forms of trafficking in Alabama,” Lim added. “South Alabama is behind the rest of the state in awareness and action.”
The Alabama Uniform Integrated Human Trafficking Initiative’s survey of front-line professionals across the state indicates there were 908 victims of human trafficking (sex and labor) in Alabama in 2017, including South Alabama. More than half were minors. Their research also shows that 5,000 victims are trafficked through Alabama every month. Some were advertised through the 641,000 online escort ads in 2017 on websites known for exploiting victims in Alabama.
“Sex trafficking is a billion-dollar industry because of the demand for sex with minors. Boys and girls are used to fulfill the sexual desires of men,” Susie Harvill, founder and CEO of Advocates For Freedom, said. “Twelve to 14 is the average age that a victim enters sex trafficking. Children are easy to lure, have more freedom on technology and are looking to fit in or be loved.”
Advocates For Freedom, an organization dedicated to ending the exploitation and sale of men, women and children is set to expand from Mississippi into South Alabama.
“Those who exploit children benefit financially in a crime that has a high profit on a reusable commodity and a low risk of detection,” Harvill continued. “The buyer who pays to rape returns home to his family, never thinking twice about the girl he bought or what he put her through.”
She said traffickers are more likely to get caught and prosecuted for selling drugs or guns than for selling a child.
The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) is a federal law that first began addressing human trafficking in the United States and methods for prevention, protection and prosecution. TVPA defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”
“Call it sexual slavery because that is what it is,” said U.S. Attorney for South Alabama Richard Moore. “Sexual slavery is one of the most frustrating crimes law enforcement goes after. We know it is happening in Mobile and Baldwin counties. We haven’t made a big arrest yet, but it is just a matter of time.”
Law enforcement says sexual slavery is hard to identify, charge and prosecute because cooperative victims are rare. Trained and threatened by the trafficker or pimp, victims are often unwilling to talk with police. Most say they are acting on their own. No victim, no crime. The trafficker may be a family member, a man she considers a boyfriend or the dealer who hooked her on drugs. She may be tattooed and branded with the mark of her trafficker or worse, never realize she is a victim.
Informed officers asking the right questions in a Louisiana jail saved Nadia Lee. Performing sex acts with men 15 to 25 times a day, and giving all of the money to her boyfriend under the threat of beatings, made Nadia a victim of sex trafficking. Not a supportive girlfriend.
Once an honors student who graduated ninth in her senior class at Lillie B. Williamson High School in Mobile, Nadia started smoking marijuana when she was 14 and the club life followed. She was 26 years old and on a binge when she met Pierre “Bruh” Braddy. They exchanged numbers and were on the fast track spending all of their time together. A few weeks later, Braddy asked Nadia to go to Florida with him, his brother, Willard “K.B.” Anthony, and his brother’s girlfriend.
Braddy told Nadia she didn’t need money; he would handle everything. That seemed like love, so she got in the car. A couple of hours later in Pensacola, Anthony pulled out a gun and forced Nadia to take pictures to advertise a “two-girl special” on Backpage, an online marketplace for prostitution that was shut down in 2018 by the Department of Justice for trafficking adults and minors. Braddy and Anthony, pimps from Jackson, Miss., forced Nadia to join their “family.”
“There is no way I wanted to do that, but I had two children at home,” she said. “I was scared of that gun in my face. I froze and did what they wanted me to do.
“Sex trafficking wasn’t talked about in Mobile and I had never heard of it,” Nadia said. “I was 26 when I became enslaved. I didn’t realize it was happening to me. My pimps put it in my head it was my idea to advertise myself on Backpage and dance in strip clubs; they just gave me the extra push.”
Victims of sexual slavery are also pushed with daily quotas. Required to bring in $1,000 to $1,500 a day with no days off and no pay, there were beatings on the days quota wasn’t made.
“I could not come back until I made the money,” she said. “We stopped at about three in the morning and then they fed us. Sometimes I kept enough money for a pack of cigarettes, but I would have made them almost $400,000 in a year if I had been in that long.”
The buyers did not care who Nadia was or what was happening to her, but she put on a happy face and gave each man what he paid for.
“It was rape and sexual assault over and over, but I acted like I cared for each one,” she said. “I would get beat for not giving the buyer what he wanted. I wondered what kind of man makes a call like this and why he wasn’t satisfied with his wife.”
Braddy and Anthony forced their captives to commit crimes, including kidnapping and armed robbery. Nadia recruited unsuspecting victims between Florida and New Orleans because “women trust other women who talk about an opportunity.” The family added a 17-year-old Mobile girl with a baby, both abandoned by her boyfriend after an argument.
“He drove off and left her with the baby and nowhere to go,” Nadia said. “My part was to make her feel comfortable while K.B. (Anthony) talked her into coming along with us.”
They were a family held together by fear and violence. Anthony hit Nadia on a night she stayed out too late. A new girl named Misty escaped by riding away with a john, but the pimps chased her down. Pointing his gun, Anthony forced Misty out of the car.
“They beat Misty and made the rest of us beat her and stomp on her,” Nadia said. “We broke some of her facial bones and Misty’s face was swollen the next morning. You do what you have to do to avoid getting beat yourself.”
A month after her trafficking began, the family was arrested in a prostitution sting in Harvey, La. Nadia went to Jefferson Davis Parish Jail where she told the officers prostitution was her idea because she always did what she wanted to do. Her “brother” was holding her money but he would give it back.
“The officer told me I had been trafficked by pimps and described the crimes I committed,” Nadia said. “He said it was time to decide if I wanted to get out of this life or not. He asked what the family had done for me while I was in jail. That got my attention. A trained policeman and task force asking the right questions saved my life.”
Nadia testified against Anthony in court.
“The trauma at the trial and reliving it again was through the roof,” she said. “I had a lot of support, but his lawyer tried to twist and turn and put it all on me like I this is what I wanted to do. Why do they put the victim through that? I felt like crap all over again. Even when it is over, it is always with you.”
Anthony was sentenced in 2016, to life in prison for two counts of aggravated rape, two counts of human trafficking, sexual battery, second-degree battery, aggravated battery and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to a Times-Picayune story.
Braddy, the “boyfriend,” got a plea deal with two 20-year sentences, but one day he will be free. Nadia fears revenge because she spoke out.
“It would be easier and safer to say I am done, avoid court and live my life,” she said. “But I have to speak out and give another victim the courage to take steps to a better life.”
Nadia briefly returned to Mobile, but felt the pull of her old life. She enrolled at Eden House, a recovery home in New Orleans, to break her drug addiction and start over with her children. Now in college, she works at Eden House as a survivor leader educating at-risk youth. She shared her story to protect her younger sisters and to let other girls in Mobile know sex trafficking is real.
“It is as close as the next guy in the club,” she said.
“Pimps and traffickers are traders who own and enslave human beings,” Melissa Farley, executive director of Prostitution Research & Education, said. “Sex buyers purchase these people. Pornography, prostitution and sex trafficking are all connected. They are driven by the same demand and thrive on the vulnerability of women. More than 80 percent of the time, women in the sex industry are under pimp control. That is sex trafficking.”
Pimps and traffickers enslaving human beings and delivering them to buyers is not new. On Feb. 20, 1954, an article in The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., told of a “white slave ring smashed by G-men (government men).” The accused used privately owned planes to fly women to motels and prostitution houses across the South, including Alabama. They lured women into prostitution with promises of marriage or “forced them into the practice with violence and physical control.” One victim was pistol-whipped, suffering body lacerations and broken ribs. Sixteen men were arrested.
Signs in rest stops and welcome centers along Interstate 10 in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama warn that every 30 seconds another person becomes a victim of human trafficking. The number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 888-373-7888, is on each sign.
“The majority of hotline calls from Alabama are for sex trafficking,” said Theresa Collier, an intelligence analyst for the Alabama Fusion Center that vets tips for the hotline. “They come from all over the state, including South Alabama.”
Sara called the National Human Trafficking Hotline when her daughter Olivia disappeared in 2014. At the kitchen table where her family ate meals together and played games, she told of her four children who graduated from a private school in Mobile. Sara thought they were a normal family.
She watched the movie “Taken” and thanked God that it happens “over there” in some other country and her kids were safe.
“That was naive because it happens right here,” she said. “Olivia would be 27 today. It has been five years since I have seen her.”
According to Sara, Olivia was immature for her age, lived at home and attended a local university her freshman year. She met her “boyfriend” in a study group and started dressing differently and coming home late at night. Her parents assumed the late hours and new clothes were part of being a college student with more freedom. But the “boyfriend” who hooked Olivia on video games was 34 and married. The relationship had to end.
Olivia talked of transferring to Auburn, and the “boyfriend” moved away. As one problem ended, a bigger problem surfaced. The “boyfriend” was a groomer and introduced Olivia to a predator-in-waiting in the game “Kingdoms of Camelot.”
Sara thought Olivia was safe in their house playing video games, but she was wrong. Olivia was passed in an online game from the man she thought was her boyfriend to the man who became her trafficker.
“Every predator has the key to your door when your kids are online,” Sara said. “There is no way to lock them out.”
Sara holds the last picture taken of Olivia. It was Christmas 2013 and Olivia was an honors student in her final year at Auburn. Sara points out the necklace with a wolf charm. A symbol of his control and a collar to be worn at all times.
“This was a smug-looking Olivia with a secret,” Sara explained. “We didn’t see she was becoming who he groomed her to be. Even her facial features changed during this time. Olivia has Asperger’s on the autism spectrum, but you would never know because she is high functioning and very intelligent. People with Asperger’s are victimized easily.”
The emails from Olivia’s predator began in October 2013 and became a diary of transformation. In only three months, Olivia changed from an aspiring young adult into a submissive child her predator called “Pup.” She called him “Papa.”
“We were lucky to find the hundreds of emails because they reveal the progression in less than two weeks between who she was and who she became,” Sara said. “There was a very strict order of life that included pornography. You can brainwash anyone in tiny, invisible steps. The Department of Justice uses Olivia’s case for training about coercion.”
An excerpt from one of the hundreds of emails “Papa” sent to Olivia read:
“You are MINE I take that very very seriously you have to take it just as seriously. I am the first and only person you come to when u have problems, fears or just someone to listen to you vent, and I am the only one that you come to if you need your other needs handled. I am your dominant, I am your brother I am your friend I’m also your owner. How can u be submissive to me when u can’t give up all the things that have hurt you and will continue to do so until u give me ALL of u inside and out. I am yours as long as you are mine I protect you I shield you from the world I love you and I will demand to control you as long as you reciprocate by letting me do those things without any fear. You are mine toy all of you.”
Commanded to study BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission and masochism) websites, Oliva wrote daily essays from Papa’s required reading about becoming submissive — training to allow others to have sex with her. She recorded her weight on the frame of her bathroom mirror each day. On a timed schedule at 7 a.m. and late at night, she sent three naked photos of herself bowing in three positions, breathing him in. He congratulated her each time she pushed loved ones away. Above all, she was to keep the relationship secret. His common-law wife and children were still unknown to her.
An excerpt from one of the emails Oliva sent to “Papa” read:
Started out as a brother I loved dearly then as we played more and more you became more of a lover than a brother but since I’ve started to get orders, you’re more of a daddy and my heart got scared and froze. I can tell the ice melts away every day as I realize more and more you’re not like my parents…When I started doing the morning thing when I kneel to you, you turned into like a god in my head that I was praying to which freaked me out, but I’m working on fixing that… I feel like its so much more complicated in my head than it needs to be. I feel like you should be a man I love and would do anything for.
In her last call home, Olivia asked for her father, refusing to talk with Sara. Olivia was withdrawing from classes and leaving the trailer she shared with her brother at Auburn to move away with a friend and establish the farm she always wanted. She told her family not to contact her because she was living her life on her own.
“Papa” picked up Olivia and drove her to his home in the Midwest. She walked out willingly, leaving behind everything her family gave her.
That phone call telling the family goodbye was the last time they heard from her. Under his control, Olivia worked at a fast food restaurant, the sole support of a household with six children and three adults. Olivia was 21 and the choice was hers. She was coerced, but there was nothing to charge “Papa” with.
The family followed law enforcement procedures and the case was investigated. Olivia was found, but refused to leave with the officer doing a wellness check. Coercion and grooming make it difficult for victims to answer questions from a uniformed officer they are trained not to trust. Olivia resisted. An adult, she could not legally be extracted. Sara said Olivia fell through the cracks of the legal system and wonders if someone specially trained in high-risk interviews could have gotten through to her daughter.
Sara cried every day the first year Olivia was missing and often drove down the road screaming: “She is gone, how do you not know? How can you keep going on with your day?” The FBI told her not to talk about her daughter.
“When people asked about Olivia, I deferred and dodged and talked about my other children,” she said. “But I kept everything. Every email I ever sent. I want Olivia to know how hard I fought for her.”
Olivia may never return, but Sara works to raise awareness of human trafficking and to bring other victims home.
Sara is a mother of a daughter who is a victim of human trafficking and a modern-day slave. “Olivia is covered and bound by invisible chains,” she said. “That is still hard to say, but there is great hope. God told me that one day I will be reunited be with Olivia. It may not be here on Earth, but I will be with her one day. Our job is to fight the darkness with encouragement and hope.”
Eye Heart World opened the Rose Center in Mobile one year ago to give that hope. The center is a daytime drop-in center for girls at risk for trafficking, or who have already been exploited. The center receives four to eight referrals a month, and those numbers are increasing with the training of law enforcement. Staff and volunteers provide support and services to help girls transition out of “the life.” Hannah was one of those girls.
“When I started at the Rose Center, I threw my life into their hands. I didn’t care if they helped or hurt me. I was done. But there I found love, safety, value and a future. They are helping me break the cycle of abuse so my children will not be the fourth generation in foster care. The Rose Center has become my family — my people I do life with. I’m so blessed and honored God brought me to them,” Hannah said.
Yarbrough, director of the Rose Center, says awareness of the issue is key.
“Girls are finding a new life at the Rose Center, but our community does not want to acknowledge sex trafficking is here,” Yarbrough said. “Some people shut down when I talk about it. It is spiritual warfare fighting for girls like Hannah, but I believe God is doing something big.
“We have to believe these girls are worth fighting for. This girl who believes she is hopeless, broken, and worthless could be your daughter or my daughter,” Yarbrough said.
*The names Hannah, Olivia and Sara are not their real names.
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 first part of a five-part series on human trafficking in South Alabama.
Read Part Two, “The Secrets Inside,” in the next issue of Lagniappe.
Lynn Oldshue is a Lagniappe contributing writer, who lives in Fairhope. She is the 2019 Alabama Press Association Best Feature Coverage award winner for her 2018 Lagniappe series, “From Hell to Hope,” on domestic violence.
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