La Center teen tells of her escape from sex traffickers

  • Sun Apr 4th, 2010 9:15pm
  • News

By Kathie Durbin The Columbian

VANCOUVER, Wash. — To Brianna, a sweet-faced honor student and athlete, it started as a lark: A spur-of-the-moment drive to Seattle in December to party with two college-age guys she barely knew. They had shown up at the La Center restaurant where she worked just after her 18th birthday.

“They were very well-dressed. They had diamond jewelry and multiple cell phones. They were driving a Mercedes,” she recalled.

They told her she was “better than this small town.”

Brianna took her dad’s car and drove to Seattle for the day, telling her parents she was hanging out with friends. Once she arrived, her new friends persuaded her to stay overnight at their house and offered her a bedroom.

“It was a beautiful bed with a hot pink cover,” Brianna told an interviewer in January. “Now I know that is a very similar setup to what they use in child pornography. It’s very likely I would have been filmed in that room.”

Brianna, who asked that her last name not be used, told her story to The Columbian newspaper Thursday before going to Olympia for a celebration of a legislative victory that has special meaning for her.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed Senate Bill 6476, which increases penalties for sex traffickers and makes their victims under 18 eligible for crime victims’ compensation, safe shelter and counseling.

Brianna and her parents accompanied former congresswoman Linda Smith of Vancouver, who founded Shared Hope International to rescue young victims of sex trafficking.

Brianna narrowly escaped that fate.

Back in December, she agreed to dance at a Seattle strip club for two nights. She gave the men who had lured her there most of the money she was paid. They persuaded her to drain her bank account and turn that money over to them, too.

“They said, ‘Just give it to us. We’ll take care of you,”’ Brianna recalled.

There was talk of going to Phoenix to catch some winter sun. There was talk of how much money she could make if she chose to.

“They said, ‘Go off your looks, you look really young,”’ she said. “I told them I would never do anything like prostitution.”

Three days passed. Brianna’s cell phone was dying, and she didn’t have her charger.

She knew she was in deep trouble with her dad and needed to return his car. Somehow she got hold of an ex-boyfriend and asked if he could drive her back to Kelso after she dropped the car off at home. Her “friends” would pick her up there.

Something didn’t sound right to this ex-boyfriend. He called his parents. As it happened, his dad had heard Linda Smith speak at a Rotary Club meeting. The father also knew Vancouver Police Lt. John Chapman, who had been working closely with Smith to identify members of sex-trafficking networks active in Clark County.

Smith got the call at home in the middle of the night. It was the Saturday before Christmas.

Brianna’s mother was frantic. Her daughter wouldn’t answer her text messages. Then a sister told her that she had quit her job. “I was frightened,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Brianna was unaware of any of this when she showed up at her ex-boyfriend’s place.

“When I stepped into his apartment, he locked the door and said, ‘You aren’t going anywhere,”’ she recalled. “I wasn’t believing a word he was saying. I said, ‘I’m leaving.’ Then his parents showed up. Then my mom showed up. Then Linda Smith showed up. It was like, ‘Where’s Obama?”’

Before long, Smith was sitting beside Brianna, explaining some things, like what it means to be “turned” by a pimp.

With no car, no functioning cell phone and no money, she would have been broke, and no one would know where she was or how to find her.

She had been fingerprinted before dancing in the strip club; that marked her as a stripper/prostitute in the eyes of the police.

Phoenix is a hub for sex-trafficking, a place where young girls are in high demand.

“That night she would have been gone,” Smith said.

At first Brianna found it hard to believe. Then she remembered some weird moments.

One of the men had told her the bedroom with the pink bed was his daughter’s, “but there weren’t any toys around,” she said. It was creepy, and she refused to sleep in it.

When she asked where the men got all their money, they told her it was “an inheritance.”

But it was when Smith showed her the Las Vegas phone numbers on her cell phone log that she realized how close she had come.

“I was just walking blindly into this trap,” she said.

Today, Brianna is back in the Running Start program at La Center High and grateful for whatever guardian angels happened to be looking out for her that December night.

She hopes her story will serve as a cautionary tale for other teenagers.

As for Linda Smith, she says she has learned some things from Brianna too. Until recently, her focus in rescuing victims of sex trafficking has been on very young teens. “I used to say the vulnerability was highest among those 11 to 14,” she said.

Now she sees young women of 18 or 19 — smart, successful, on the brink of adulthood and independence — as equally vulnerable, and deserving of society’s protection.

Sex predators “are harvesting that desire that young women have to be independent,” she said. “They want a purpose, they want to be free.”