By Jen Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
There’s a myth that human trafficking victims are snatched from parking lots or off the streets by nefarious figures in dark vans with tinted windows.
In reality, that myth couldn’t be further from the truth, something Wyoming resident Charlie knows all too well.
Charlie, who chose only to be identified by his first name and to keep his location in Wyoming confidential for the sake of protecting his identity, was just a boy when his parents began trafficking him.
The situation isn’t unusual. According to a 2020 study by Polaris, a national nonprofit organization, 42% of human trafficking victims were trafficked by family members or caregivers, while another 39% were trafficked by an intimate partner or spouse.
Charlie’s abuse began before he was trafficked, when he was assaulted by his paternal grandfather as a boy.
When he brought it up to his father, he accused Charlie of lying and told him to never bring it up again. His mother also dissuaded Charlie from reporting the abuse to authorities.
“I remember distinctly what she said,” Charlie told Cowboy State Daily. “She told me that these things sometimes just happen, so I needed to get over it and not make a big deal.”
By that point, Charlie was confused, but took his parents’ comments to heart.
From there, it got worse.
After his parents divorced, Charlie’s mom married a man in a motorcycle gang. Both his mother and stepfather took drugs, and at some point, got in financial trouble with the gang. To pay off their debts, his mother offered up Charlie, then 8 years old.
He remembers making three separate trips to the motorcycle gang’s clubhouse so six or seven of the gang’s members could have their way with the young boy in a back room. After three visits, the debt was paid off.
Both his mother and step-father were in the room when the abuse occurred.
Not long after, Charlie’s mom and new father once again got into trouble with the gang, but this time, it was severe enough to force them to move to Las Vegas. Once there, his mom and stepfather split up, so Charlie was on his own with his mom and younger brother, who he believes was never abused.
Meanwhile, his mom still had a bad drug addiction. To get her fix, she would routinely go to Fremont Street on the Las Vegas Strip to find a dealer, offering up Charlie as payment. He was also trafficked to pay their mortgage.
By then Charlie was 13 and his mother would have to pin his arms down to make him submit to the abuse.
Running Away From Home
Finally, by 16, Charlie had had enough.
“I knew I needed to leave home,” he said, “because I was going to end up locked up in an insane asylum or worse.”
At that time, Charlie was in a relationship with an older woman who allowed him to move in with her. From there, he never looked back.
At some point, his mom kicked drugs and turned her life around, eventually becoming an over-the-road trucker. His brother still lives with her and watches her pets when she’s on the road.
Charlie occasionally takes his mom’s phone calls, though to date, she’s never brought up the abuse or offered any apologies.
Today, at 26, Charlie is happily married with his own business.
Since running away from home, Charlie has had his own share of trouble, including an accident in the military that led to several serious medical issues.
He was also sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier, which was his tipping point, in his words, as all the repressed memories of his childhood came to an ugly head. He was struggling until someone recommended the excellent services of a VA hospital in Wyoming, so he moved to take advantage of those resources.
He credits both the hospital and his wife for saving his life, though the scars remain.
“It’s been hard to gain back a sense of safety and trust or power over my life once that occurred,” he said.
As part of his ongoing recovery, Charlie is volunteers with two different nonprofit organizations to help runaways and those struggling with mental health issues.
He is also working to raise awareness about human trafficking, leading him to share his story for the first time.
You’re Not Alone
The lesson he would like other victims to take from his struggle is that they’re not alone and it’s never too late to get help.
In the meantime, he continues his journey to heal. At this point, he said he’s gone from victim to survivor and would like to eventually become “a thriver.”
“I want to tell other survivors to have fun and enjoy their lives but to be careful,” he said. “This doesn’t define you, and there are resources to help.”
Sheridan Non-Profit Leading Charge
Stories like Charlie’s are well known to Terri Markham, a co-founder and co-director of Uprising Wyoming who has been on the forefront of educating professionals and the public about the dangers of human trafficking.
Since starting the nonprofit nearly three years ago, Markham has led the charge in shedding light on the danger of human trafficking in the state.
Markham’s organization has been busy training law enforcement officers and front-line professionals about human trafficking, even staging actual sting operations such as one in Sweetwater County that led to the arrest of a former legislator on charges of solicitation.
Markham also spends a lot of time with young people educating them about trafficking and the dangers lurking online.
Part of her efforts have been aimed at educating people about the fact that trafficking occurs everywhere, including in Wyoming.
First Human Trafficking Conference
In May, her agency will be hosting the state’s first-ever human trafficking conference in Sheridan. The Greater Rockies Immersive Training on Exploitation and Trafficking (GRIT) conference will bring together law enforcement, members of the justice system, victim advocates, service providers and healthcare and residential care workers for an immersive, hands-on conference in which they’ll participate in mock real-life scenarios.
A conference of this magnitude was a dream come true for Markham. She was approached by the Hughes Charitable Foundation, which had heard about her work, with an offer of support for a statewide conference.
“At first, I thought I was being punked,” Markham said, laughing. “This is not usually how it works. Typically, there’s a long application process for a grant, but they came to us. It was phenomenal.”
The funding from the foundation has allowed her to host the three-day conference and book six top voices in the field.
Speakers will include Joseph Scaramucci from Texas, who has worked both state and federal investigations as a task force officer with Homeland Security and who has also led multiple training sessions with law enforcement throughout Wyoming. Other speakers include members of law enforcement, academia, the legal community and multiple trafficking survivors.
The conference will include two days of presentations and discussions followed by a third day in which small groups will conduct mock trafficking operations to practice what they’ve learned.
Increasingly, Markham is working to bring various groups, such as law enforcement, health care, victims advocates and those working in residential services, together form inter-agency partnerships to help combat trafficking.
The conference will be the first of several annual conferences to come, Markham said.
Other sponsors for the event include the Wyoming Attorney General’s Division of Victims Services.
The conference takes place May 2 – 4 in Sheridan. For more information or to sign up, see Uprising Wyoming or contact Markham at (307) 655-7511.