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.
The month of January has been designated by the White House as National Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month. Millions of women, men and children around the world are subjected to forced labor, domestic servitude, or the sex trade at the hands of human traffickers. A form of modern-day slavery, the inhumane practice of human trafficking takes place here in the United States as well.
Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes investigated by ICE. In its worst manifestation, human trafficking is akin to modern-day slavery. They are forced into prostitution, involuntary labor and other forms of servitude to repay debts – often incurred during entry into the United States.
ICE recognizes that severe consequences of human trafficking continue even after the perpetrators have been arrested and held accountable. ICE’s Victim Assistance Program helps coordinate services to help human trafficking victims, such as crisis intervention, counseling and emotional support.
Disclaimer: The following passages contain first-person accounts from victims of sex trafficking. Names have been altered to protect their identities. Homeland Security Investigations worked in collaboration with the FBI on their case.
“I was 17 around when I met ‘Robert.’ It started off with me and my friend meeting him for social purposes. It just went on for about nine months and we were living in different hotels the entire time and I don’t even remember how many men there were. I was a runaway and wasn’t living anywhere stable, so since I was underage most of the time, I sort of needed him in order to get hotels and move around.
I had already been a prostitute since I was 15 and I think I just didn’t even know what was right or wrong and how I should be treated. Towards the end, he held me against my will in a hostage situation and forced me to prostitute and took all the money and just beat me severely.
The last time I saw him, he was just beating me until he was absolutely tired. I was covered in bruises, my face was completely disfigured and it’s causing me issue with my back to this day because of the way he was beating me and torturing me. That was probably the worst. There was a client in the room and he was having an issue with something I couldn’t do because I was all beat up. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to do anything. He wanted the money back. When Robert and him were talking I ran out of the room and somehow was able to run faster than him.
I didn’t tell anyone. I kept it to myself until I got a call from the FBI that he’d been arrested for something else and asked would I talk. Having to go face everything and realize how serious everything was. For the longest time I didn’t even think it was that serious.
At the trial, it felt empowering to look at him the entire time. I’m sure it drove him crazy. He can never touch me but he had to look at me and listen and it made me feel good.
I had to learn that if I don’t at least have some kind of love and value for myself, no one ever will. My advice to other girls would be to let people help you. It’s not your fault and that you didn’t deserve it. It’s OK to be hurt about it because a lot of people will act like it never happened, because that’s what I was going to do too.
– “Laura” 21
“I was 15 at the time and was a runaway. ‘Tom’ wanted to be a pimp, so I would be in his room in his apartment and he would not let me go out for anything. He tried to intimidate me by threatening to beat me up if I tried to leave. I was scared of him so I wouldn’t leave. He would drop me off at a hotel while he went to work.
It lasted from March until June or July. Sometimes it would be every day, sometimes he would say, ‘not today, but tomorrow.’ Out of the week, maybe 4-5 times a week, I was with different men.
I just felt like that it was my fault and I deserved it and nobody would ever believe me or try to help me, so I just let them control how I thought about myself. They were always verbally abusive and putting you down and it got to the point that I actually started believing it. Just letting someone control your own freedom take over just what you do. I couldn’t leave the room. It was like ‘wow, I’m letting someone make me feel so scared.’
I never called the police because I felt it was my fault. I felt at the time like I had to stay. One day the FBI ended up coming to my house and contacted me because my name came up in their investigation.
You have to know your self-worth. It’s OK to ask for help. They don’t know they are a victim. They feel like it’s their fault. We are victims. You can have the worst past, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful future.”
– “April” 18