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A five part series on one woman's experience with human trafficking in Kalamazoo

It Happens Here, Part 1: A human trafficking survivor in court

Stacy Chambliss is on the right in a black blazer and a light pink top holding her cell phone. She's talking to a legal advocate who is wearing a royal blue dress and holding a brown leather bag at the Michigan Avenue Courthouse in Kalamazoo.
Leona Larson
/
WMUK
Stacy Chambliss (right) talks to legal advocate, Lynelle Morgan, from the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence at the Michigan Avenue Courthouse building on July 19, 2023.

In this story we meet a woman who says she was trafficked in Kalamazoo — and whose experiences with the justice system and other institutions turned her into a whistleblower.

Readers should know this story mentions sexual assault and other violence, and there is a reference to suicidal thoughts. The audio story runs about seven minutes.

It’s the afternoon of July 19, and I’m in a courtroom in downtown Kalamazoo, sitting through hearings. One turns out to be for a 21-year-old man who hit and killed someone while driving earlier this year.

The charges include operating under the influence causing death, which is a felony. But assistant prosecutor Chris Plaunt offers the young man a deal, as announced by 8th District Court Judge Christopher Haenicke.

“So, we’ll dismiss the felony and plead to two misdemeanors.”

Stacy Chambliss also sits in court, waiting for a hearing on her case. She hears this arrangement to drop the felony charge against the driver. And as she told me later...

“I’m being punished way harsher than somebody who took somebody else’s life.”

I’m here because Stacy reached out to WMUK about a year and a half ago.

Under duress

Stacy’s 42. In court she sits by her lawyer from the Kalamazoo public defender’s office. She's accused of stealing a car exactly four years ago this Sunday, a theft for which she faces a felony charge.

In a police report, she admitted she took the car, which had been idling in a Bronson Hospital parking lot. But she thought the circumstances might make a difference to Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting, who’s on the state’s human trafficking commission. Stacy says she took the car while she was being trafficked by men who assaulted her and threatened her son.

“They went after my child, first of all. They had posted his pictures on Facebook and they named it ‘leverage’ and tagged all their people in it.”

Stacy says her traffickers were delighted to find a semi-automatic pistol in the trunk of the car. She says one of the men later held her at gunpoint, to force her to perform a sex act on him. She says he also hit her in the mouth with the gun.

“He cracked the tooth all the way up to the gum line, but then across like this. So, I have to get it fixed.”

She often wears a mask in public to hide the damage.

Stacy says her traffickers mainly forced her to shoplift. She was charged in Kent County for two thefts in the fall of 2019. But the Kent County prosecutor eventually recommended that those charges be dropped. And that’s what 17th Circuit Court Judge Mark Trusock did at a hearing in March. Where he spoke directly to Stacy.

“When I read this pre-sentence report, ma'am, I felt very bad for what you've had to go through being trafficked," he told Stacy.

"I think this is a very appropriate resolution of this matter.”

But because of the criminal charge she faces for the car theft in Kalamazoo, four years after she says she was trafficked, Stacy is stuck. The charge makes it hard to get a job or rent an apartment in her name. She hopes something will change, then despairs that it won’t. In June, two people who know her well were worried she was suicidal.

"A smack in the face"

In district court, Stacy learns she might be able to pay restitution to the car owner. And if she agrees to that, the felony might get dismissed in Circuit Court. But Stacy doesn’t want to take that deal. It’s too speculative. She doesn’t even know how much she’d have to pay.

Jeff Williams is the Kalamazoo County chief assistant prosecutor. I asked him about Stacy’s case, and that of the young man who killed someone with his car. And whether the prosecutor’s handling of each amounts to justice. Williams says he can’t comment on the particulars while the cases are ongoing.

But he adds, “I think if you were to look at all of the facts of each case individually, you would find that each one was handled in a way proportionate to what happened in each case.”

Stacy disagrees. And she says her prosecution doesn’t fix the problem.

“If you’re going to charge me then why haven’t you charged my trafficker?”

Public records confirm that Stacy has been working with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to investigate her alleged traffickers. But so far, no charges have been filed. Meanwhile, if Stacy doesn’t take the deal in the car theft case she risks losing it. And she might have to listen as a Kalamazoo public safety officer testifies against her.

Stacy says when she found that out, she felt betrayed.

“Knowing the conversations, I’ve had with all of them it was a smack in the face.”

In the end, Stacy reluctantly took the deal. She’ll go back to court in a couple of months. If the defense and prosecution can’t agree on the amount of restitution, her case will go to trial.

But when Stacy reached out to the station last year, the charge for the car theft wasn’t the only thing on her mind. There were the police officers who didn’t believe her when she said she was being forced to break the law. The nonprofit she says let her down when she was at her most vulnerable. And then there’s Stacy’s call to 911 when she still had a chance to avoid being trafficked.

Why wasn’t it enough?

A life upended

Survivor advocates say it can happen to anyone. And yet people with certain life experiences are more likely to be trafficked. Korin Arkin is with the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is operated by the Polaris Project.

She says in Polaris’ recent national study of survivors “the vast majority of them identified as experiencing poverty before they were exploited or experiencing abuse before they were exploited.”

A smiling little girl of 4 in this photo from the1980s, Stacy Chambliss has long blonde bangs that fall just above her eyes.  She wears her hair in a half pony, with the sides swept back. The long ends are swept over her right shoulder and pulled back behind her left shoulder. She's wearing a sleeveless white eyelet dress with a cap sleeve eyelet coverup. Both the dress and the coverup have cap sleeves.
Courtesy of the Keesee Family
Stacy Chambliss at age 4.

Stacy was abused as a child. She spent eight years in foster care. And she has experienced poverty as an adult. Still, before it started, Stacy’s life in Portage was a world apart from trafficking. She was working and says she hoped to buy a house. She cheered on her son at his middle school wrestling matches.

“Come on, get ahold of him!” Stacy shouts during a match she recorded in 2016.

But that same year, Stacy got sick. She thinks it was from exposure to carbon monoxide from a faulty furnace. She was in the hospital recovering when she met a guy. We’ve chosen not to reveal his name, but public and private records back up her account of their life together.

“He made me feel attractive and loved. Like in the beginning there like a really, you know, long honeymoon phase, um, where he said and did all the right things.”

He moved in with Stacy and she says things were okay, for a while.

“It got to a point where he had full control over finances. And so even when he was arrested for domestic violence it was like, I didn’t want to follow through. Because I didn’t want him to lose his job, because then we could lose our house.”

But Stacy says because of health problems he didn’t work much. He didn’t want her to work either. Eventually they were evicted.

By July 2019 they were living in motels. Stacy’s then 15-year-old son was at her mom’s.

Stacy says her boyfriend talked to everyone and started making friends she didn’t trust. Then one morning four of these acquaintances burst into their room. The days that followed would turn out to be Stacy’s last chance to escape trafficking.

We’ll resume Stacy’s story on It Happens Here, next Wednesday during Morning Edition and All Things Considered. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call or text the national Lifeline at 988.

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.
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