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By Jen Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
He was by far the coolest guy at the party, and Michelle was thrilled that he noticed her. She was a shy teenager and he made her feel special.
“Of all the people at the party, he paid attention to me,” said Michelle, who’s identified with just her middle name to protect her identity. “Everyone wanted to talk to him because he was from the ‘big city.’”
The 20-year-old told Michelle he was from St. Paul, Minnesota, and was in Casper, Wyoming, for a few weeks visiting family, where she lived. This made him exotic, Michelle said, as did the fact that he was well dressed and claimed to be an up-and-coming rapper.
At the time, Michelle was 17, a high school senior with a part-time job at Kmart and the added responsibility of helping to care for her disabled mother.
One thing led to another, and soon Michelle and the out-of-town guy were dating. About a month later, however, he told her he was heading back home to Minnesota, but the two could stay in touch and maybe visit one another in the future.
She was devastated.
Convinced To Run Away
About two weeks after he’d returned home, Michelle discovered she was pregnant.
She told the guy, and he told her to run away to be with him in Minnesota. He was excited, he said. He promised to take care of her and the baby and was eager for them to be family.
Before she came, however, she’d have to do him a favor to earn gas money for the trip, and to buy clothes and other items for the baby. He asked her to go with his buddy to deliver cocaine to a buyer. She wasn’t thrilled with the request but felt stuck.
It only got worse from there.
Unbeknownst to Michelle, the drugs were fake, which the buyer also noticed. The driver took the guy’s $1,200 anyway, tasing him and speeding away.
Michelle was horrified, but she’d deal with this drug-deal-gone-wrong later.
At the time, she took the money the driver handed her, and over the next few days slowly packed her car with her belongings. She told her mom she was spending the weekend with a friend; her mom didn’t ask questions and let her go.
Her boyfriend was happy to see Michelle when she arrived at his house in St. Paul and made her feel at home.
“The first night was great,” she said. “All the promises and bliss, and here we go.”
He convinced Michelle to ditch her phone because he said her family would come looking for her as soon as they realized she was gone. He also asked her to hand over any money left over from the drug deal.
When she woke up the next day, her boyfriend was in the living room with three buddies. That’s when she noticed a change in his attitude.
Gone was the sweet guy with whom she’d just spent the night. This guy demanded she drive he and his friends around town in her car so they could do errands.
She tried to blow it off and convince herself he was just showing off in front of her friends. Then later that night, he had her pull into an empty parking lot and asked her to get out of the car.
A Life Forever Changed
That’s when the four men beat her until she was unconscious, then put her in the backseat of the car.
From there, her life forever changed. She woke up naked in a locked closet. It was pitch dark, and she could hear the faint moans of other woman somewhere in the house. Her first reaction was to bang on the door and demand to be let out. She was scared and had lost her bearings.
Her “boyfriend” came running.
“At this point, he was a totally different person,” Michelle recalled. “He looked at me like I was just an object, like our past as a couple never happened. It was completely discombobulating.”
He told her she now belonged to him.
The next time the closet door opened, she was brought out to have sex with a paying customer. Afterward, she was hosed off and shoved back in the closet where she was forced to go to the bathroom in a corner and eat the rare leftover scraps of French fries or cheeseburgers he gave her.
Michelle lost all sense of time. The house was always noisy, and people came and went at all times. If she complained or tried to fight back, she would be beaten. She felt the fight leach out of her.
“I was on autopilot,” she said. “I felt like a shadow or ghost. I mentally turned off. It was all survival mode at that point.”
Sometimes, Michelle randomly checked the door handle to see if it was locked, and one morning it wasn’t.
She cracked the door and could see her abuser passed out on a bed with her car keys beside his hand. She tried to formulate a plan, watched for movement, then decided to crawl quietly toward the bed where she snatched the keys and took off running.
He caught up with her at the door, and the pair physically fought as they tumbled down the stairs to the first-floor landing. They continued fighting out the front door when he suddenly stopped and let her go, backing up into the house.
She tore across the yard naked in the bright sun as she ran to her car, which was parked out front. She got in and drove off, finding a big T-shirt inside it to put on.
She drove until she felt like she was far enough away from the house that her captor couldn’t catch her before stopping at a payphone to call her mother.
She needed to come home, Michelle told her mom, and asked her to wire money. Her mom directed her to a nearby Western Union and didn’t ask any questions.
Michelle said she had no idea how long she’d been in that house but would later learn it had been about three weeks.
On her way back to Casper, her abuser tried to contact her on her new cellphone. He was back to acting the role of the sweet boyfriend, inquiring about her safety and that of the baby’s. She responded that she’d lost the baby and never wanted to see him again.
Today, Michelle’s 31 and the mother of four children between ages 7 to 15. She’s married and living in Sheridan. She also volunteers at Uprising, a nonprofit focused on human trafficking awareness and education, where she shares her story on request with teens around Wyoming.
One of the first questions teens ask is whether she saw the warning signs. Her answer is brief: No.
Part of that is because as a teenager, her brain was not developed enough to make sound decisions or understand the implications or consequences. Moreso, nothing in Michelle’s world to that point had prepared her to deal with a person who would want to hurt her.
“I was too young to see those red flags,” she said. “It’s easy to manipulate a young person through the grooming process.”
It’s taken her more than 20 years to get to this point.
When she escaped, she didn’t tell anyone what she had endured in that house in Minnesota – not even her mother. Nor did she go to the police. She was scared, so her mother sent her to live in California with a family friend where she was able to earn a GED and hide from the world.
Her inability to deal with her trauma led to more poor choices and consequences.
Finally three years ago, she went to a therapist and confessed to her now-husband what she went through at age 17.
It Happens Here
Michelle has since learned her experience is not unique. According to a 2022 report by the Department of Homeland Security, an estimated 25 million people were trafficked worldwide in 2021 at an estimated profit of around $150 billion.
In Wyoming, these figures are harder to pin down as most sex trafficking cases are misidentified as prostitution and many are federally prosecuted when traffickers cross state lines.
According to the Human Trafficking Hotline, which accepts tips and provides referrals for services, 68 people in Wyoming contacted the hotline in 2021. Of these calls, 13 cases were identified involving 22 victims statewide.
Michelle is often asked by teens why she didn’t press charges against her trafficker. The truth is, it hadn’t dawned on her that a crime had been committed against her because up until recently she wasn’t aware of the nature of human trafficking and just thought her trafficker was a bad guy.
There’s also an implied shame as a survivor, Michelle noted, because she beat herself up for years over her poor decision to be with him. Now, she sees that she was a victim of careful grooming.
“It can happen to anyone,” Michelle said. “This is why I like talking to teenagers so much. I want to educate them about the grooming process, because as a teen, it can be so personal and confusing.”
Predators Live Everywhere
Michele’s story mirrors that of other teens author John DiGirolamo researched for his book, “It’s Not About the Sex.”
DiGirolamo, a retired accountant living in Chaffee County, Colorado, learned about human trafficking after interviewing police officers in 2020 for his first book, “It’s Not About the Badge.”
Like many others, DiGirolamo thought human trafficking was confined to the southern border or big cities and wasn’t happening in the small towns and rural areas throughout America.
He was wrong.
In fact, the stories of teens being sex trafficked detailed in his book come straight from the police files in Chafee County.
“These are not isolated stories,” DiGirolamo said. “The majority of victims are groomed by someone they know. It’s a move right out of the predator handbook. They don’t care if they hurt you. They are criminals. They look at people as commodities.”
Technology Makes It Easier For Traffickers
Technology makes it much harder for predators to find and groom their victims because they can hide behind false identities.
“Now, stranger danger is internet based,” he said. “Just because a child is sitting at their table or up in their bedroom doesn’t mean that they are safe.”
Another realization that surprised him throughout the course of his research is that in many cases, predators appear to be average people who could be married with a career and living right down the street.
In a follow-up pamphlet to his book, DiGirolamo provides parents with tips for monitoring their teens’ online activity in “It’s Not About the Predator.”
Among these tips include parental control applications to monitor online activity as well as identifying the signs that a teen might be in danger. These include a teen becoming super defiant, withdrawn or depressed.
“There are warning signs,” he said. “Predators try to isolate their victims from friends and family to exploit their vulnerabilities. If your parents don’t love or understand you, the predator is there to step in and fill that void.”
It can take less than 24 hours for a predator to groom a victim, he noted, and parents need to be vigilant to monitor their child’s online activity and recognize the warning signs.
“It’s startling how quickly things can escalate into a bad situation,” he said.
Had Michelle and her family had this awareness 14 years ago, she might have been armed with the knowledge to recognize she was in danger.
This is why she feels compelled to share her story with other teens.
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