Before beginning the search for easy clientele, Doug “D.T.” Russell prepped Brittany Michaels. He trained her on the basics of talking money. The language of the streets is something he learned from his mother.
The pair canvassed Barrington Ridge, a southwest Gainesville neighborhood. Brittany knocked on doors, ready to make a quick buck. D.T. stood behind her. Finally, someone opened their door.
“What’s up? Any business?” Brittany asked, tousling her hair.
“Sí mami, sí mami,” the stranger said. He grinned and eyed the 19-year-old.
He moved aside to let Brittany and D.T. into the two-bedroom trailer that housed eight undocumented men from Mexico. The air smelled of spiced beef and soaked corn husks that would soon be molded into tamales.
“Can I use your bathroom?” Brittany asked, needing a few minutes alone before getting started. She weaved through piles of dirty work boots and sweat-drenched long sleeve shirts strewn across the floor.
Brittany locked the door and perched on the toilet, opening a small plastic sack. She withdrew the last piece of crack from her stash and loaded it into a smoke-stained pipe. In less than a minute, she felt the rush.
Perking up, she left the bathroom and followed the first customer into a shared bedroom. She sprawled her 105-pound frame across the twin bed, lying flat on her back. Despite her inexperience, she refused to bend over. She needed to see the condom for herself.
In the other room, D.T. made himself comfortable on the couch. The young man drank a beer while she worked. His presence alone provided an air of protection, but Brittany had no problem clocking anyone who tried to pin her down.
“Wait,” she said to the stranger, stopping him as he began to remove his shirt. “Cash first.”
Less than three minutes later, the man left the room, zipping his fly. He tipped a paint-splattered hat to his roommate before the next in line rose to take his place. The routine continued as one after the other took their turns.
After the last man had been serviced, Brittany headed out with D.T., who asked her how much she made in the half hour. Brittany pulled the cash from her bra and fanned out 15 crumpled twenty dollar bills.
“Damn, baby, $300. Good work,” D.T. said, hugging her tight. “Now let’s go get that rock.”
Brittany is one of the many trafficking survivors held by the invisible chains of coercion. Twelve years of sex work and more than 50 arrests later, the 31-year-old enrolled in a local rehabilitation program, found a minimum-wage job at a fast food restaurant and is learning how to minister.
Despite her efforts, a criminal record makes it difficult to finalize her divorce from the streets. Like a lot of older survivors, she’s not eligible for government help because the majority of resources are allocated to minors. She’s never the first pick for a new job because most employers turn away applicants with records.
But, most importantly, she’s rarely recognized as a victim.
After years in the dark, local advocates, law enforcement, and government programs identified a number of factors that draw and tether someone to human trafficking. Alongside histories of early abuse, pimps, also known as handlers, play on an individual’s vulnerabilities and build a bond with him or her to gain control. This, experts say, is the cycle of abuse.
When Brittany was in elementary school, her mother worked long hours at three jobs. The family had a history of mood disorders, and it became difficult for the single mother to find common ground with her only child.
Small arguments escalated quickly. On bad days, she readied herself for the slap that would flash like a burn across her cheek. It didn’t take long for the 9-year-old to learn how to hit back.
After one blowout, Brittany was dropped off at her grandparents’ house. She plopped in front of the TV, burying the feeling that she had been discarded. Months would pass before the two would speak again.
Aside from church outings and movie nights, Brittany’s family kept her confined in their home. Her grandmother took her to the mall, but she grew sick of shoe-shopping. But at one point, she had enough shoes.
Brittany also spent time with her 24-year-old uncle, Brian. He visited once a week, showing interest in the now 10-year-old girl. Most days, the pair strolled through the woods and down to the lake. They sat on the dock, smoked cigarettes and watched people ride Jet Skis.
One afternoon, when the lake was empty, Brian looked at Brittany. Each finger, one by one, crept toward her. Slowly, he reached out and stroked her freckled cheek.
He pulled her closer and kissed her. Then he paused. He looked up and fingered the straps on her tank top. She kissed back.
A few months later, Brittany lost her virginity to a 16-year-old boy. She skipped class to smoke weed and drink beer. Law enforcement labeled her a truant.
So she ran away. She moved in with an 18-year-old boyfriend. At 14, trying to fulfill the expectations of feminine domesticity, she cooked, cleaned and hosted dinner guests.
One night, when her boyfriend and his friends bit into an undercooked chicken breast, her age became clearer. It was her first time making fried chicken, and the golden brown breading had obscured the raw, pink meat inside.
Most women in the sex industry were subjected to abuse or neglect as children, which can fundamentally influence their trajectories in life, said Sherry Kitchens, director of Gainesville’s Child Advocacy Center. She said while some kids are studying for a learner’s permit, others are focusing on finding their next meal.
“They are in a cycle of survival,” Kitchens said, “and the skills that they’ve learned are about that, rather than daily living and daily functioning in a normative situation.”
Kitchens has worked with ungovernable and truant children throughout her career. It took years, she said, for her to recognize that young girls labeled as troublemakers were actually lured into trafficking by more covert means than kidnapping or physical restraint. She and others — like law enforcement and government officials — came to realize that victims had been vulnerable for a long time.
“Being loved and cherished and cared for, the confidence that you build in your development as a child, they missed that somewhere,” Kitchens said. “A parent was absent, there wasn’t enough resources in the family for everyone to get their needs met… there’s a lot of reasons.”
“I have somebody that takes care of me.”
Brittany squabbled with D.T., and sometimes it got rough. She would let men suck on her toes and call her a “dirty bitch” during the day, because that night D.T. would pick up fresh rock.
He left Brittany in the car while he negotiated a deal.
Brittany hit the pipe a few times while D.T. drove home. The two slept in cars, pulled tricks and pawned stolen lawn equipment; but this week, the pair rented a room at a hotel on 13th Street.
Brittany collapsed on the bed. The energy she amassed from a five-day crack binge dwindled fast. She peeled off her clothes. D.T. lifted the sheet and slid in behind her.
“I love you,” D.T. whispered, as he cocooned her body and soul.
Before she crashed, Brittany reminded herself, “I’m high, I have somebody that takes care of me.” As long she did, it would be OK.
With little money to support their habit, Brittany and D.T. lived a life of crime. It was a mutual effort to survive. Trick, rob, smoke, crash, repeat. That’s the priority; that’s the mentality. That’s the cycle.
“I assure you there is not one active prostitute who chose that,” said Jennifer Beagle, director of a local women’s rehabilitation program. “She was influenced that this is OK, this is what you want, this will make you good money, this will provide for you.”
Experts like Kitchens call them Romeo pimps, and they use affection as a tool. Some men may start out as boyfriends, or even husbands, before suggesting sex work. They might select girls from social media profiles or sleuth around bus stations for runaways. They might have children with the women they profit from.
“It became an abuse thing, because they would lash out on me for [sex work],” Brittany remembered. “They still expected me to do it, but they hated that I did it. They hated themselves because they made me do it.”
And people can be manipulated or coerced through their drug addictions. In some cases, a man who keeps crack in his woman’s pipe, clothes on her back and a roof over her head will own her. Gifts like perfume and jewelry are also common.
But she believed they loved her. And at the end of the day the ultimate goal, Brittany said, was to be loved.
“Intimacy will make that woman feel like she’s a queen,” Brittany said. “You don’t want to give that up.”
One of the Lucky Ones
D.T. protected Brittany, and she never questioned his loyalty. Once, he soaked a rag in a bottle of cheap vodka, held a lighter to it and aimed it at another man’s car. No one dared to threaten her again.
She remained with D.T. until police officers uncovered the ring of stolen lawn equipment and sentenced him to prison for grand theft. The court released Brittany, a first offender, on probation.
She floated for a bit, working without a pimp and hopping from relationship to relationship with different men. She learned how to jump in and out of cars from a career prostitute in her 50s named Mom, who timed Brittany’s tricks. It took about 10 minutes for Brittany to ride around the block and return with $40.
A few years passed, and she decided against independent work. It was hard to make it on her own or with other women, who sometimes formed all-female unions. It was hard to keep her hotel bill paid. It was hard to finish school. It was hard because she smoked her money.
After an argument with a man named Wolf, Brittany dipped out and marched off down the street. That’s when Corey pulled up.
“Is that Britty Baby? What’s up, girl? You lookin’ real tired,” Corey shouted, rolling down the window.
“Come with me and I’ll give you somewhere to lie down,” he said. “You need to get off them feet.”
Corey was a good customer. He paid upfront and was generous with drugs, so Brittany stepped into the vehicle.
Within an hour, she had a new phone, a pack of cigarettes, a sack of dope and a place to stay.
He had someone drive Brittany and two others to Ocala to pull tricks. Brittany gave him every bit of profit.
He and his aids — non-prostitutes who didn’t use drugs and mainly drove him around — fronted money for the hotel. In most situations, he made her refer to him as “her peoples” to show his ownership.
Corey and his partner slept on the hotel’s pull-out couch and allowed Brittany to sleep in the bed. If she wanted to leave, she had to pass him to reach the exit.
She stayed with him for two months, until she began to see the signs. Once, stuck in a crack coma, Brittany vomited on herself and the couch. He ripped her off the sofa, threw her onto the ground, and made her mop it up. If she didn’t, he said, there would be consequences.
Brittany didn’t have to clean or cook, but once, she took Corey’s dog — which Brittany remembers was named Princess — for a walk. Princess, a white pitbull mix with black spots and glassy blue eyes, attracted attention from a neighbor.
“Hey, your dog is beautiful, what’s her name? Is she friendly? I love pitbulls,” he asked, kneeling down to pet her. Corey watched them from the window. A few minutes later, he and Brittany were nose-to-nose.
“What, you tryin’ to help him steal my dog?” he said, yanking her hair and slinging her down on the porch.
“No, he was just asking a question,” she said, pleading.
Towering over her crumpled form on the concrete, he held a gun to her temple and said, “If my dog gets stolen, bitch, I’m gonna kill you.”
Later that week, the police picked Brittany up and arrested her. Corey didn’t pay her bail.
She was free. She was one of the lucky ones.
Corey, who never showed remorse, abused more than 49 women who testified at his trial. A court sentenced him to 25 years in federal prison for human trafficking in January.
“He was one of the most violent traffickers around here. He pled guilty to human trafficking targeting older girls,” Jeff Vash, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent, said. “There’s a lot of older girls that had been abused early on, and this is their life now.”
First, Romeo pimps sniff out someone with vulnerabilities. Then, they build a relationship by filling a void or need, Kitchens said.
On the other hand, Gorilla pimping — characterized by grisly, physically abusive behaviors — can sometimes develop over time. It’s a seesaw of reward and punishment that creates a trauma bond centered around attachment and fear.
“He was very charming at first, but he’s just evil,” Brittany said. “I don’t know how he kept me for so long, but he makes it to where you don’t know how to leave.”
Making the Invisible Visible
For most people, human trafficking is an enigma. It’s hard to comprehend and even harder to recognize — except for those who have experienced it.
Jennifer Beagle directs one of the few rehab centers dedicated to vulnerable women in Gainesville. One Wednesday afternoon in January, she burst through the doors of House of Hope, a modest four-bedroom residence on East University Avenue, armed with a Mentos-white smile and a cheerful authority.
“Hey everyone, sorry I’m late,” Jennifer said, dropping a few bags on the computer desk in the foyer. “There’s so much to do and never enough time, but we keep it going, of course.”
Jennifer, a mother to five adopted children, one biological child and an endless number of women, is no stranger to the challenges of beating the cycle.
“You can’t do anything without a helping hand. You need accountability, you need relationships. You need strong friendships,” Jennifer said. “You need people who believe in you up front.”
An addict for over two decades, she’s accumulated a slew of charges that range from cocaine possession to writing worthless checks.
“You don’t know what it’s like to sleep out back of Five Star because you know at midnight, when they close, they’re going to throw the pizza in the garbage dump, and you get to eat tonight,” she said.
Like many sex workers, her homelessness stretched on for eight years. It’s part of a vicious cycle caused by toxic thinking developed at a young age, Jennifer said. All this can seem normal, she said, because you haven’t known anything else.
Sometimes, it just takes someone to reach out and care. When Brittany was on the streets, a local ministry called Created approached her. Alison Ungaro, the ministry’s leader, gifted her a Bible, which she has kept to this day. They kept in touch over the course of three years. Ungaro visited her in jail.
Encouragement and support are key, Jennifer said, but the healing process truly starts when survivors learn to look at their past in a new way. One of the first things she teaches is that a pimp is not a boyfriend. But even if victims return to their pimps, not yet convinced that they were in an exploitative situation, they’re always welcomed back.
“I’ll take you 100 times if I have to,” Jennifer said. “We have a God of endless chances, and if you’re not dead, and I’m not dead, there’s a purpose.”
Even after escaping human trafficking, victims must still fight for survival. Holding on to a home and a steady life pose constant challenges. Securing a solid income is difficult because most companies don’t employ people with criminal records.
Trish Kearney, intern at House of Hope, believes employers need to give these women a chance. She said they need to look past their criminal history, so they can live a life free from victimization. If not, they’re more likely to relapse into the life they knew.
“Having that job not only gives them the ability to take care of themselves, but also gives them a sense of pride. Somebody’s accepting them,” Kearney said. “When they get that chance, they’re not going to take it for granted.”
A Fresh Start
On a Wednesday evening, House of Hope residents gathered for group therapy. The women, ranging in age from college freshman to mid-life, settled across the two couches, waiting for Mama Jenn. A wax burner on the end table radiated a fragrant glow.
Brittany and another resident, Lena, spread out on the carpet, reclined against the sofa base and shared a bag of Doritos. The house cat, Leroy, wove between the two as they jokingly shooed him away.
Earlier in the week, Jennifer, who read the Bible 14 times while training to become a minister, hand-picked the scripture for the study.
Leroy selected a spot near a portable heater, lounging a few feet from the bookshelf that held Daily Christ and Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine. A bottom shelf was packed with games like Apples to Apples and Trivial Pursuit.
The study touched on one verse, Matthew 5:6-7, that always stood out to her.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.”
The translations in the King James Version differed slightly from the American Standard Version, so each person read their passage aloud. She focused on the deeper meaning of each word.
When asked about integrity, Alice, an ex-resident who isn’t ready to move back into the house but joins the group occasionally, perked up.
“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is looking,” Alice said. “I know that one.”
“I’m so tired,” Alice added, holding the attention. “My body and my soul are so tired.”
The women console one another in a way that only survivors understand, but after a few minutes of “Amen” and agreements, Jennifer shifts the conversation back to the Bible.
At the end of the session, Jennifer called for the women to pray for Alice. Jennifer placed a chair in the center of the room for Alice to sit in, and all the women surrounded her, closing their eyes and placing their palms on Alice’s body.
Through their fingertips, they pressed a collective force of strength.
Alice began to cry. After a few minutes she rose, looking restored.
In that moment, they knew that together they could grow. Together, they would beat this.
After the session ended, Brittany teased Lena and stroked Leroy’s fur. She went outside to smoke a cigarette. When she came back, she sat down on the couch. She began to speak.
“I am a survivor. I am a survivor of everything I’ve had to deal with. I’ve learned the best way to deal,” she said, then laughed. “Sometimes the best way to deal has not always been the legal way.”
Because of her record, and because she has to disclose her arrests, Brittany and other victims have a hard time finding stability. But it’s not in her nature to give up.
Instead, she’s looking forward. She hopes to pay off her debt to Santa Fe Community College, finish school Internet service technology and become a minister.
“Every time I’ve had a relapse, it’s because something major has happened in my life and I just want to run away from the feelings because feeling that pain or that hurt — I didn’t want to go through that,” Brittany said. She paused for a minute.
“I have a situation that is going on that’s really serious, and I’m dealing with it in this house,” she said.
“I’m not running away.”