March 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It only took a couple weeks to transform a naive young woman from a suburban Omahan into a crack-smoking L.A. prostitute.

It all began in late September of 1998, the day Melissa Conover’s car broke down near 30th and Dodge streets. She was 21 years old at the time and going through a rebellious phase. She headed for the nearest pay telephone booth, to call for help from a gas station.

An unfamiliar man was sipping a beer nearby on the street corner. The friendly stranger struck up a conversation. He even offered to fix her car. Melissa was thrilled. She wouldn’t need to beg mom and dad for repairs.

They drove to a nearby house and parked. The man went inside, claiming he was going to grab his tools. Melissa waited in the car. When he returned, the man asked if she “smoked.”

“Weed?” she asked.

“Crack,” he said.

“No, absolutely not,” she remembers saying.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” he replied.

Suddenly, Melissa says, the once-friendly stranger scrambled to pin her body. He climbed on top of her. He forced her to inhale fumes from his crack pipe.

Thus began a three-month-long blur. She vaguely recalls passing Lincoln on I-80. She woke in Wyoming the next day. The West rolled by in scattershot visions. She was on the road to becoming another victim of human trafficking in the United States.

Worldwide, some 20.9 million human trafficking victims are trapped in modern-day slavery, according to the International Labour Organization. Their horrific experiences generate billions of dollars in profit for abductors and criminal syndicates.

But the scourge is not just a foreign phenomenon. In the United States, the anti-trafficking Polaris Project estimates “the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands” when estimates of sex trafficking and labor trafficking for adults and minors are aggregated. A 2015 study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors Ron Hampton and Dwayne Ball reported that an average of nearly 50 young Nebraska women are known to fall victim to sex trafficking every year, while the actual number is “certainly much higher.”

Victims like Melissa are increasingly speaking out. The Polaris Project reported that more than 1,600 survivors of human trafficking had reached out for help in 2015—a 24 percent increase from the previous year—based on statistics from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline and Polaris BeFree Textline.

For Melissa, the path to redemption—to becoming a survivor—has been an arduous journey.

From Wyoming, Melissa and her abductor traveled onward to California. He was “grooming” her, using drugs and violence to instill obedience. He threatened to harm her family if she fled. “I wasn’t allowed to be looking in any direction at another man; that was a violation,” she says. “I was not allowed to speak. He spoke for me. There were the beatings, the threats, the brainwashing.”

Her abductor morphed into her pimp at a truck stop in Oakland, California.

After going to the bathroom, she returned to the car. Her abductor introduced another man—a customer. Her abductor commanded her to go with the man, told her what she must do with the man, and told her how much the man needed to pay for her services.

Melissa says she refused. He threatened in response: “Either you’re going to do it, or you’re going to die.” She reassessed her situation. “Well, this is looking like a better option now,” she thought to herself.

She laughs nervously as she recalls the traumatic experience. Her bitter chuckle fades into a sigh of regret. “So I did, and I’ll say, that’s where the crack cocaine came into play for me as a lifesaving thing, because I was violating every moral fiber of the way I was raised.”

That was 17 years ago. In all, she spent three months working as a prostitute on the streets of California.

Melissa, now 38 years old, is telling her story to a reporter at a McDonalds on the edge of Bellevue. She hopes that sharing her experience will help other women and raise awareness about sex trafficking.

She is still grappling with the emotional and psychological trauma of prostitution. She credits her recovery to joining a support group with a local organization, Rejuvenating Women. According to Rejuvenating Women’s website, the non-denominational, non-profit organization is “a community of people dedicated to breaking down barriers of shame and guilt.”

Group meetings are steeped in evangelical faith, bible study, and sharing of experiences. Rejuvenating Women seeks to help women with issues ranging from trafficking to sexual abuse, molestation, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Melissa says the support group is “developed around God because he put us here, and he’s the one who can heal us.”

Although normally shy, Melissa says she has no problem opening up to the group, which averages about 10 women each meeting. “I finally felt like I had a group of sisters that understood,” she says.

Melissa has also begun volunteering with Bound No More, an Omaha area safe house for trafficking victims that is affiliated with Rejuvenating Women.

Melissa says she grew up in a deeply religious family. Their entire social life revolved around church. She attended Trinity Church Interdenominational (which later evolved into Lifegate Church in 2010). Her family went to Sunday service, Wednesday service, Thursday bible study, and her parents volunteered with one of the church’s youth groups.

During her abduction, Melissa’s parents knew she was in California. She says the trafficker forced her to call home, told her what to say, controlled her in every way imaginable. He took her to South Central Los Angeles after staying in Oakland a few weeks.

“In South Central, I was the only white person who was not in a police officer’s uniform that I saw,” she says. “He had me stand on the streets from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. Then, from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., I was panhandling. Every penny I brought in was to support that habit (for crack cocaine), and obviously it was more supporting his habit than it was mine, because I was, you know, not as important. I got the scraps, and he got the whatever.”

Once, a female police officer approached Melissa to ask if she really wanted to be working the streets. She glanced over at her pimp and thought, “My odds of getting extremely injured by the time she gets over here are very high.” So she responded, “Yup, I wanna be here.”

The trafficker eventually telephoned her parents directly to scam extra money, no longer using Melissa as the intermediary. “He said he was sick of me, wanted to send me home.” They sent a bus ticket and a $25 money order so she could return. That was his plan. “He shredded the ticket, threw it in the sewer and cashed in the money order,” she says.

“That was my ticket to freedom,” she says. In despair, she dug in the gutter for ticket scraps. They fought. He tried dragging her away. Then a police officer approached. The officer instructed them to leave the bus station because they were causing a disturbance.

Her nightmare continued until a chance encounter with an unlikely savior. A woman claiming to be a lesbian and high-ranking gang member expressed interest in Melissa. She paid for an hour with a $50 rock of crack cocaine. Melissa says she knew something was strange when the woman, disregarding their prior arrangement, rented the hourly motel room for two hours instead of one.

Melissa says she was pumped full of drugs. Amid the haze, she found herself telling the woman her life story. Outside, Melissa’s pimp grew impatient. He began honking the car horn. As the blaring intensified, her trick became an angel. The woman wanted her to escape. They slipped from the room without her pimp noticing. Then, client and victim walked some 70 blocks across town to Inglewood.

After stopping at a pay phone, Melissa says, the woman told her, “Well, hon, this is where our paths part. I highly suggest you call mommy and daddy and tell them to come get you.”

The woman, walked away and, for the first time in three months, Melissa was alone. She called home. Her parents arranged for a detective to deliver her to the nearest police precinct.

Grime coated her skin. She hadn’t bathed for a month or more. Her father flew immediately to Los Angeles to retrieve his distraught daughter. The following day, she flew back to Omaha. She had lost 75 pounds.

Then, yet another shock. Two weeks after her return, she found out she was pregnant. Her abductor was the baby’s father.

Considering her shattered health, doctors considered the pregnancy high risk. “I was devastated,” she says. “I was like, ‘God, what are you doing?’ I really felt like he was saying, ‘This isn’t punishment; this is a gift. This is what’s going to give you a reason to move on.’”

Her daughter, her Joy, is now 16 years old.

Melissa tried to press charges against the trafficker, but she quickly found herself in a jurisdictional quagmire. The Sarpy County Sheriff’s Department redirected her to Douglas County, which told her to contact the State of California, which told her to contact Nebraska, and so on. “They should have told me immediately to call the FBI because it was an interstate, inter-county issue, but they didn’t,” she says. Over and over she heard, “We can’t help you.”

She lived in fear. She also researched her abductor. When first they met at the Omaha pay phone, he had just arrived in town from Texas. At that time, he was on probation for kidnapping.

Melissa eventually learned that justice found the man in South Dakota, where he is now serving a life sentence stemming from a rape conviction.

Her own trials, though, were far from over. As with most victims of human trafficking, life didn’t magically right itself after rescue from life on the street.

Melissa floundered after returning home. Her parents would eventually take guardianship of their granddaughter, and Melissa began a 15-year-long, off-and-on relationship with a man whose own life soon spiraled into drug addiction. He would eventually persuade Melissa to return to the streets to finance his addiction.

“Once you get into prostitution, it’s very difficult to get out because you know if you really need some money, there is always that,” she says.

By 2008, a decade had passed since she was first forced into prostitution. The trade had moved into the Internet age. No more standing on corners. Her boyfriend would use social media to arrange her meetings with clients.

She picked up two charges during three years of local prostitution: one in Douglas County, another in Pottawattamie County. The 2008 Iowa bust was part of an undercover sting. The pimp-boyfriend was never implicated.

Her boyfriend would shame her for prostituting herself. At the same time, he wanted detailed breakdowns of sexual exchanges. “I love you, but you’re doing this,” he would say, admonishing her and then taking her money. She walked away from the toxic relationship only after a judge issued a protection order on her behalf.

Although the ex-boyfriend is currently in jail for assaulting another woman, Melissa says she fears for her safety when he is free. His release keeps moving forward, she says, and is scheduled for the coming August.

She has been to therapists for years. But she found the sessions unfulfilling. Then, a childhood friend invited her to a Christmas party for Rejuvenating Women. It was a meet and greet. Nothing serious.

“When I finally started to go (to support group meetings), it really started to give me purpose,” she says. “Everything that I had spent the past 17 years looking for fell into place as a survivor working on the side of survivors.”

You never know what you are capable of doing until you’re in a desperate situation,” says Julie Shrader, the founder of Rejuvenating Women, host of Melissa’s support group. Shrader also conducts community outreach, and she collaborates with anti-trafficking groups in Omaha and nationwide.

“They say the life expectancy of a prostitute is seven years, because they either O.D. on drugs, commit suicide, or they are murdered,” Shrader says, speaking from Rejuvenating Women’s office in a counseling facility beside Christ Community Church. A dry-erase board on her cubicle desk wall quotes the Bible (Ezekiel 34:16): “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed….”

While some trafficking victims are forced into prostitution, others may find themselves “choosing” to sell sexual services because of desperate circumstances. Shrader says that older prostitutes are usually “the girl who was 13 years old, and she’s just aged out of the system.”

“A lot of the girls who we have found who have ‘chosen’ [to be prostitutes] have parents who have tried to sell them; they have mom smoking a crack pipe on the couch and dad is in prison,” she says. “They do it out of desperation as well. So, they will run away from home because they are being molested. Maybe their mom’s boyfriend is molesting them. That’s what gets them out of the home. They end up on the streets, desperate, hungry. They’re tired, they need a place to sleep.”

While some sex trafficking victims come from troubled families, others come from ostensibly stable households (as with Melissa). The process of coercion to sell sex, however, is often more subtle than what Melissa endured.

“It usually starts by a guy who comes off as her boyfriend, who starts doting on her, buying her things, telling her she’s beautiful,” Shrader says. The girl hears, “You have beautiful hair, beautiful eyes, whatever,” and then she’s sucked under the control of the “Romeo pimp,” a term Shrader uses for a pimp who methodically targets victims through emotional manipulation.

“We have a girl who took a year [to prostitute herself]; a man was her friend for a year, and his whole intention was to get her out of the state to sell her for sex,” Shrader says, noting that the victims often believe they are in relationships without realizing the pimp has a “stable” of four other girls working for him, too.

Shrader says she began Rejuvenating Women in 2012, compelled by her own experience dropping out of high school, enduring homelessness and working as a stripper. She would later earn her GED, graduate from college, and marry. “When my life got better, when I became happy, I wanted other women to feel the same thing, and I wanted to figure out a way on how to help them,” she says.

Since 2015, Rejuvenating Women began partnering with the Omaha safe house Bound No More. Shrader says Bound No More is the only local safe house working exclusively with victims of trafficking.

Shrader has received threatening calls, texts, and e-mails from pimps seeking to recapture or simply terrorize former victims. Yet she remains resolute in her mission and even participates in community outreach. She explains that sex trafficking is modern day slavery.

“We go speak at different events and teach the public and hopefully change their mindset that these girls didn’t just wake up and decide to be a prostitute,” she says. “Nobody wants to be a prostitute.”

Rejuvenating Women is part of a growing anti-trafficking network in Omaha. Shrader says Omaha has become a lynchpin in human trafficking networks stretching from east to west coast on I-80. Mexican gangs have established a foothold in the city, too, funneling sex and labor trafficking victims back and forth on I-29 from Texas and across the border. Meanwhile, Omaha’s major events—such as the College World Series, Olympic Swim Trials, and Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholder meeting—draw an influx of tourists with a corresponding spike in demand for prostitutes both local and imported.

Local and federal momentum against human trafficking has been building since the turn of the millennium, when Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000.

Following the TVPA, lawmakers nationwide have begun to shift punitive focus away from prostitutes—the victims—to increase consequences for the traffickers, the pimps, and those soliciting sex.

Major anti-trafficking milestones for Nebraska followed in 2012 when Nebraska adopted two statutes to address human trafficking. Last May, the Unicameral added LR186 to “create a comprehensive approach to serving these victims” of human trafficking. Also, the addition of LB294 further revised statutes and strengthen penalties for human trafficking.

According to the TVPA, a human trafficking victim is anyone “induced to perform labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion.”

“I don’t think that either culturally or legally we are to the point yet that we can say that all individuals engaged in prostitution are victims of sex trafficking,” says Stephen Patrick O’Meara, coordinator of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force.

Drawing on his previous work experience as the main prosecutor for the Omaha Child Exploitation Task Force, O’Meara observed that, “I have yet to see the situation where a person engaged in prostitution is not a victim, and when I say victim, I mean that they give full legal consent to engaging in commercial sex acts for another person; for a pimp.”

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson appointed O’Meara to lead the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force last May. Five years earlier, he was involved in the FBI’s establishment of the Omaha Child Exploitation Task Force in conjunction with regional law enforcement offices and the U.S. Department of Justice.

O’Meara’s former colleagues made headlines in mid-October with Operation Cross Country IX, a weeklong nationwide bust that arrested 153 pimps and rescued 149 underage victims (including three male and three transgender victims). The youngest victim was 12 years old. Locally, the Omaha Child Exploitation Task Force arrested 21, including three pimps, and rescued two victims, the FBI announced on Oct. 13.

The following week, O’Meara unveiled the Attorney General’s Strategic Plan for combatting human trafficking. The plan featured a 69-page “Report and Recommendations Regarding Establishment of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force (NHTTF).”

A U.S. Department of Justice grant worth $1.5 million funded establishment of the task force; $600,000 went to the Attorney General for coordination with law enforcement and prosecution; $900,000 went to the Salvation Army for victim/survivor services. Omaha-based Alicia Webber is the Salvation Army’s Human Trafficking Task Force Coordinator, the trafficking survivor flipside to O’Meara’s role with enforcement and prosecution.

Some 50 agencies participated in producing the initial NHTTF report, O’Meara says. Now, many more—ranging from law enforcement departments, to social welfare organizations, to tribal governments, to hospitals—are actively engaged with the task force.

O’Meara, Webber, and other key stakeholders have been frequently traveling across Nebraska. They speak with city governments. They speak with hotel and hospitality services to explain the clues that trafficking could be occurring in their workplace. They speak with hospital staff and health care workers about the warning signs that a patient could be a victim of sex trafficking.

Aside from “trying to help victims of human trafficking” and “to investigate and prosecute the human traffickers,” O’Meara says the task force’s third emphasis is “to reduce demand, and the demand is 100 percent encapsulated in the buyer.”

“No buyers. No sex trafficking. That’s just the bottom line,” he says.

Melissa, the sex trafficking survivor with Rejuvenating Women, hopes Nebraska’s investment in combatting sex trafficking will prevent others from suffering what she endured. She also hopes that progressive-thinking lawmakers realize that adult victims deserve a chance to expunge prostitution offenses from criminal records.

O’Meara has heard the argument discussed. He says minors won’t be charged because they lack the ability to consent. When it comes to adults, he hopes that better trained officers will stop arresting trafficking victims confused for prostitutes.

In March of 2016, O’Meara says the task force will roll out formal training for law enforcement agencies across Nebraska. “The default position should be that we presume with a strong likelihood that persons engaged in prostitution are in fact victims,” he says.

Our society, he says, should stop blaming the victims.

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