In Our Own Backyard
It all started one night as Rachel Thomas was out at a lounge in Georgia having fun with her friends. While she was dancing, a man noticed her and approached her.
"Have you ever considered modeling?" he slyly asked.
Thomas shrugged him off.
"I know talent when I see it," he persisted.
He handed her a business card with the name "Mike Spade, Candy Girl Casting." Curious as to what life would be like as a model, she accepted Spade's first offer for a photoshoot. After an initially pleasant experience, she signed a contract with Spade's company in 2004. The contract stated that she was to give him 10 percent of her overall earnings, or $25,000 for the whole year. Thomas was only 20 at that time, a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Spade seemed like a gentleman—until one night. Rachel Thomas retold her horrifying experience in front of the Cottonwood Church congregation in Los Alamitos, CA almost ten years later on Dec 17, 2013. She remembered that they were off to a mixer party in 2004, and another girl named Michelle was driving in the front seat while she sat in the back. A song came on the radio that Spade liked, and he turned to Michelle to ask who the artist was. Michelle was unresponsive, her face like stone. Without warning, Spade's hand went up and slapped her violently on the cheek as her head swerved and hit the window.
"Baby, didn’t you hear me?! You answer me when I tell you!!" He screamed.
Thomas recalled Michelle apologizing profusely, saying "Mike I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry I didn’t hear you." Tears were running down her face, but to Thomas she didn’t look surprised, just very scared and apologetic. It was then that Thomas realized that she didn’t want to work for him any longer. The next day she called him with hopes of cutting ties.
In a menacing voice she then remembered him saying, "B****, I own you. You owe me $25,000 and I will get my money. You better do what I tell you to do or someone's going to get hurt." He read off her parent's home address. "Do you understand?!?"
Not knowing another way out or who she could turn to, she fearfully consented.
Thomas had gotten involved with a local strip club in Georgia to earn more revenue. After their phone conversation, Spade came to observe Thomas at the club. She saw him conversing with another man on the side of the bar, and the man was pointing at her. After Thomas' shift, Spade met her outside.
"You're going to take care of my man tonight," he dryly stated.
Alarmed, Thomas backed away in fear. "Please don’t make me do this, please don’t make me do this," she pleaded, tears breaking from her eyes. Spade paid no attention to her cries. He reached for her arm and grabbed her tightly.
"I told you you're going to do what I tell you to do,” Spade threatened. “Don’t make me hurt you."
He opened the back seat of his client's car and threw her inside, slamming the door. That night, about 10 years ago, was the first time Thomas was forced into sex trafficking.
Rachel Thomas was not the only one. Today, there are over 27 million people trafficked and exploited around the world. Human trafficking is one of the most lucrative and fastest growing criminal businesses. It is only second to drug trafficking, bringing in an estimate of $32 billion a year. The United States is among the top three destinations for these victims, with around 14,500 to 17,500 people trafficked annually into the U.S.—but this number doesn’t include those who have been sexually exploited within America. California remains one of the most popular sites for traffickers, as its proximity to the sea, large economy, and big immigrant population make the state ripe for the trafficking business to happen right in our own backyard.
"It's so prevalent here," states Je'net Kreitner, founder of Grandma's House of Hope, a nonprofit that offers transitional housing to homeless and trafficked women in Orange County. "We have to get it out of our minds that it's just minors in foreign countries. The average age for girl to be recruited in this country is 12."
"Being trafficked was hell," Rachel Thomas states. "All the emotional, mental, physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse that you would imagine is involved with trafficking. It is a lot of mind control to lower your self-esteem. You think that that's all your life is and that there's no redemption."
For Thomas, her pimp controlled her by using physical and verbal abuse, a tactic used by many others. He would hurt her when she didn’t please him and said things such as "I can read your thoughts-- If you are thinking about running away, I'll know—You are nothing without me—You are dirty now, and no one could ever love you—This is what you were made for." Through this mind control, the victim is brainwashed and loses his or her sense of free will.
"A lot of mind control is being unpredictable," Thomas says. “They want you to always live in fear and never get comfortable because when you are, you start thinking properly and when you start thinking properly you will try to escape."
Jen'et Kreitner shares more insight into a reason why some girls are more vulnerable and how they initially fall into the pimp's trap. "It all starts because they are having problems at home or they lured into a conversation with someone who is promising them a close relationship, and then the game is on. For most girls, it starts out as a love relationship, and then he becomes a very different animal after she's been enticed," Kreitner says. "We've got recruiters in high school now, gang members who are being paid by traffickers to recruit girls."
Kreitner's words speaks volumes to the increasing amount of sex-trafficking gangs in the Orange County. Just a few weeks ago in February, a 17-year-old girl named Aubreyanna Sade Parks was found stabbed to death on a street in Yorba Linda. Police believe her to be a victim of sex-trafficking gang violence.
Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff of the District Attorney's Office, recalls that in the past two months, more than half of the trafficking cases have had "significant gang ties." Criminal street gangs are increasingly lured into the sex trafficking industry due to the easy money and the ability to sell girls without the higher risks of getting caught as with drugs or guns. Park's case reveals the underground trafficking business that penetrates Orange County. Law enforcement officials and those who work with trafficked survivors say "the county lies on a trafficking circuit that reaches south to San Diego, east to Las Vegas and north to the Bay Area and beyond" according to the OC Register.
Despite the prevalence of human trafficking, there are people working to stop it. The OC Human Trafficking Task Force (OCHTTF) continues to serve this region through educating the community, finding and protecting victims, and prosecuting the offenders. They also increase their reach by partnering with other nonprofits, law enforcements, and faith based organizations. Over the past 10 years, the task force has served over 300 victims. In the years 2011 and 2012 alone, they have given aid to 213 victims. Other nonprofit groups like iSanctuary in Irvine employ trafficked victims and give them a safe space to begin the healing process.
"In terms of trafficking victims, they’ve always existed, " states administrator of OCHTTF Linh Tran. It's just at that before, we weren’t identifying them as victims just yet. But we’re better at reporting it now, we're better at identifying it, and were better at training personnel in all fields. More recently, were averaging about 7 victims a month in the OC."
The Orange County District Attorney also recently started a new unit called HEAT (Human Exploitation and Trafficking) this past April 2013 whereby they will also provide law enforcement training and be able to target perpetrators in the sex slave industry more effectively, working with community stakeholders to increase their impact. Different groups in the OC are starting to realize that trafficking is too complex and too big and of a task for just one organization to handle on its own.
"And the main reason why we have a Task Force is that one agency can't work alone because trafficking overlaps with other types of crimes and victims," Linh Tran shares. "So if you leverage the role and the work of all the different agencies, it will be a lot easier to get things coordinated and taken care of. It’s the idea of gathering all the agencies together."
Mike Spade of Candy Girl Casting was captured by the police in 2005, and found guilty after a trial in Atlanta. He now holds a 15-year prison sentence. After 10 months of being trafficked, Rachel Thomas was able to escape from her pimp in 2005 after another lady who worked for Spade approached the police.
Thomas has been on her journey towards healing since, steadily coming out of her trauma. She now resides in Long Beach, Calif. , and has started her own nonprofit called Sower's Education Group to spread awareness among girls in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She also regularly speaks at different events around Southern California to educate others in ways to prevent, intervene, and help those who have been trafficked.