Tonya spent night after night in different hotel rooms, with different men, all at the command of someone she once trusted. She was held against her will, beaten and made to feel like she had no other option at the time, all by the man she thought she loved.
She felt she deserved it. Tonya felt she couldn’t escape. Afraid and confused, she thought the emotional and physical abuse she endured was her own doing.
Tonya (a pseudonym) was a victim of human trafficking. “He made me feel like I was doing it because I loved him, and in the end, we’d have a really good [financial] reward,” Tonya said.
When Tonya was 13, she met Eddie (a pseudonym) at the apartment she was living in with her mother in the Dallas, Texas, area. His estranged wife was the property manager. Tonya was classmates with Eddie’s stepdaughter, so the two would often see each other at the apartment and in the local grocery store. It was there that the two first exchanged numbers.
“It was a casual relationship at first. You could see there was a mutual connection. I thought he was cute,” Tonya recalled. “I could tell he was really flirtatious with me. We would talk and flirt a lot, but it was not much more than that until we met again when I was 15.”
Things began to change one night when Tonya ran into Eddie at a bar. The two reconnected, the flirting picked up where it left off and Tonya went home with Eddie that night. Tonya was a runaway at the time, so she eventually moved in with Eddie and the two began a relationship.
It was a “normal” arrangement at first. Tonya would cook, clean and look after Eddie’s kids from time to time. However, it was when the two were at a party filled with alcohol and drugs that the relationship took a turn.
“He approached me and told me in so many words, ‘I want you to have sex with this guy for money,’” Tonya said. “I was very uncomfortable and I kept saying no, I didn’t want to do it. He kept telling me, ‘If you love me, you’ll do this. It’s just one thing. Just try it.’”
After nearly 30 more minutes of constant pressure, Tonya agreed to have sex with the man. What she thought would be a one-time thing became an everyday routine for the next few weeks. Night after night and bar after bar, Tonya would go out with Eddie while he advertised her to potential “suitors.” Tonya thought she loved him. She felt she could deal with the physical toll the trafficking took on her body. It turned out that the hardest part to deal with was the emotional and psychological effects.
“Being able to sleep with that many people and live with myself and get up every day and keep doing it and just lying there being helpless was so hard,” Tonya said.
Help eventually came for Tonya in the form of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent Keith Owens. The Grand Prairie, Texas police department had received a tip about Eddie’s crimes and passed the case on to HSI Dallas. Owens and his team took over, moved in and arrested Eddie.
Eddie pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison on May 29, 2015. During the sentencing hearing, Tonya had to testify. Having to hear and see the man who trafficked her was difficult, especially not knowing what the outcome would be and whether he would be convicted.
“Telling people publicly about what I’d been through made me feel more ashamed because I’d never told anyone or was open about it,” Tonya said. “Keith and [HSI Dallas special agent] Allison [Schaefer] were the only two people I’ve really told everything to.”
Tonya feels her life is a little better now. She doesn’t think or talk about what she’s been through and doesn’t want people to know that was once a part of her life. Her focus is on moving forward.
“I want to finish getting my GED and go to community college, take on journalism, go to college and study political science and pre-law,” she said. “I just want to live a normal life, accept my past and not run from it.”
Eventually, Tonya knows that she will have to talk about her experience again. If she has kids one day, she wants to be able to tell them what their mother went through. She wants them to know what to look out for and how to avoid going through something as awful as she did.
Until then, she passes along her words of encouragement to anyone who may be experiencing what she did. She wants any victims out there to know they are not alone.
“You’re worth something. You’re very important to someone,” Tonya said. “No matter what he says, it’s not true. You’re worth something.”
Part 1: The Beginning
It was just supposed to be something to make money, but it quickly turned into much more than she ever imagined. In part one, Tonya (a pseudonym) reveals how she initially became a victim of human trafficking.
Part 2: An Emotional Toll
Dealing with the physical toll the trafficking took on her body was “easy.” It turned out that the hardest part to deal with was the psychological effects. In part two, Tonya discusses the emotional toll of being a victim of human trafficking.
Part 3: A Painful Relief
Although she was ultimately able to “escape” from her trafficker, the experience of being a victim of human trafficking still haunted Tonya. In part three, she talks about the lingering pain that existed even after her ordeal was over.
Part 4: You Deserved It
Like many victims of human trafficking, Tonya felt that she deserved it. In part four, Tonya explains how she and many victims like her feel that way.
Part 5: Knowing What To Look For
What can be done to prevent human trafficking? How can potential victims protect themselves from perpetrators? In the final segment, Tonya discusses what potential victims should look out for, and what law enforcement officials need to do to combat human trafficking.