OAKLAND COUNTY, Mich. – A Metro Detroit woman spoke with the Local 4 Defenders to expose a major flaw in the criminal system.
The woman is a survivor of human trafficking. She was trafficked for five days, escaped and then had to face criminal prosecution.
“I went to high school at Andover in Bloomfield Hills,” said the survivor, Leigh. “I was actually a very good teenager.”
Leigh is sharing what happened to her when she was 23 years old. She is keeping her identity private as she is a local mother who is still rebuilding her life.
“I just kind of always struggled with anxiety,” she said.
She remembers when she first tried Xanax in college.
“Eventually I went from Xanax to Oxycodone,” Leigh said. “Oxycodone became very expensive very quickly so I switched to heroin. Heroin was my drug of choice for a long time.”
Her parents put her in rehab, where she was in and out a few times.
“When I was in treatment, I latched onto another girl there who was kind of just in the same boat as me, who didn’t really want to be there,” Leigh said.
The girls left rehab together on a cold December day. They were walking on Michigan Avenue in Ann Arbor for about 45 minutes, wondering what to do next.
“Then, out of the blue, a van just pulled over with two guys in it and they asked if we needed a ride,” Leigh said. “I was super young and very naive and got in. So they said they would have jobs for us and they could get us a job. They asked if we wanted to work at a massage parlor and I was like, ‘No I’m not into that kind of thing. I don’t do that.’ And they said, ‘No, no, no, it’s nothing like that. It’s a legit place.’ They ended up telling us that they would get us a room for the night and we could pay them back when we started working.”
The young women were brought to a motel.
“So we got back to the hotel and they got us drugs and liquor and marijuana, heroin. Whatever we wanted,” Leigh said. “I literally was so intoxicated I don’t even remember anything from that night, really. I guess they got us very high and they were taking pictures of us and posting ads on Backpage. And there was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, nowhere to turn because one of them would stay in the bathroom the whole time.”
Leigh and her friend were raped numerous times.
Five days into her captivity, the girls were moved to a different motel. The men took them to the Red Roof Inn in Ann Arbor. Her captors forgot to move the phone in the room and Leigh was able to call her mother for help.
“And then finally I had the opportunity. She answered. I said, ‘Come to the Red Roof Inn in Ann Arbor. Be here at this time. Don’t be late and just stay in your car.’ And then I hung up.”
Later the 23-year-old was walking back to that hotel with her captors after a trip to McDonald’s for food.
“As soon as we were walking back up to the room, I walked all the way back up and then I just flew down the stairs and ran to her car and told her to go as fast as she could,” Leigh said.
Leigh and her mother took off. She called the police, who arrived to the motel where the men were arrested. Later, Leigh and her friend were arrested and charged with prostitution. Leigh served jail time and spent some time on probation.
“Just really blew me away as well. With the disrespect from the police that she got the blame. That she was the problem. It should have been stated as fact this was human trafficking and not anything else,” Leigh’s father said.
Leigh said her life was a mess. She wasn’t able to get a job because she had a prostitution record and she had legal bills and nowhere to turn for help.
“I was literally just scrolling through my phone on the Channel 4 app, watching news segments and you had done a segment. It was about the Joseph Project, and it was another one of your segments and it was about how they help victims of human trafficking with pro bono legal work,” Leigh said. “I didn’t even believe it was real because it just seemed like way too good to be true. I wanted the charge off my record. When I had talked to Nate (Knapper), he said that I qualified and there’s a law in Michigan that if you’re a victim of human trafficking, you cannot be criminally charged with a crime.”
Nate Knapper is the director of the Joseph Project, which is a nonprofit that provides free legal help to human trafficking survivors who have been charged with a crime.
“Initially, you might look at a situation like this and you think, ‘Well, this is just a person who was an addict who then went willingly into a room and circumstances kind of unfolded from there.’ But the reality is somebody can be wrestling with an addiction but that does not give another person the right to exploit them. That is always against the law and that’s what happened here.”
Leigh’s record has been cleared. She has a job, a child and a new life.
“I just I feel so much better about myself and I feel like I have my dignity back and self-respect,” Leigh said.