It Happens Here, Part 3: "You're just trying to get out of going to jail"
In the first two parts of our series we meet Stacy Chambliss, and we hear how she went fromliving a normal life in Portage to running from two men and fearing for her safety. In this story we find out how Stacy came to be trafficked, and how hard it was to get help.
This story mentions violence including sexual assault.
To understand what happened to Stacy, I meet with another trafficking survivor. Her name’s Leslie King-Friday.
We sit in her office in Grand Rapids while her grandson watches TV in the next room. Now in her 50s, King-Friday says she was trafficked when she was 15 years old. By her late 20s, King says her trafficker was in jail and she was, in theory, free of him.
“When I got away from my pimp, I still trafficked myself. And people looking at me like 'huh?' But how can you do somethin’ different if you don't know how?”
But King-Friday did do something different. She escaped that life, published a memoir, and started a nonprofit. Sacred Beginnings in Grand Rapids supports victims of trafficking. In December she received a pardon from Governor Gretchen Whitmer for crimes she says she was forced to commit. The pardon made news across the state – including on Detroit’s WDIV-TV.
King-Friday says traffickers have a method for picking out their victims.
“Traffickers go after whatever sellable. Whatever is vulnerable. Whoever is vulnerable,” says King-Friday.
“It's like a mold. You got a mold, and you got a few holes that are already filled to the top, but you got a lot of holes that are still empty and missing.
“A trafficker will come in and fil up all those holes. And become your knight in shining armor."
In 2016, Stacy Chambliss fell for a man who turned out to be controlling. She says he ruined her finances. By July 2019 they were living in motels while Stacy’s teenage son stayed at her mom’s.
At the motels, Stacy’s boyfriend started hanging out with people she didn’t trust. In part two of It Happens Here, we reported on the terrifying encounters she had with two of them at the end of July. And someone put her son’s picture on Facebook and called him “leverage.”
As she tried to avoid his associates, Stacy became estranged from her boyfriend. Then she met a man we’re calling “Miles.” He said he had pull with the people she feared and could protect her.
“He’s the good guy that swoops in and saves the day and it all appeared to be that way," Stacy says.
Trafficking survivor Leslie King-Friday calls this the honeymoon stage.
“After the honeymoon stage, then here comes the force, the beatings, the fear.”
For Stacy, the "honeymoon" with Miles is short — maybe only three days. It ends with Miles telling Stacy they need to earn some money. And she can help by selling her body.
When Stacy refuses, Miles leaves her alone with one of his “business partners," who rapes her.
Stacy told me that during the rape, “He was telling me that he was doing this for my own good, that I needed to learn how to take my mind somewhere else or I was never going to survive this.”
Now Stacy’s terrified of Miles. But she’s also afraid that if she runs from him, the men she fled in July will hurt her and her son. Miles has her trapped. Over the next two months he’ll repeatedly force her into prostitution.
But Stacy’s not as cooperative about being sex-trafficked as Miles would like. So sometimes, he has her shoplift instead. The more successful she is at stealing, the less she’s prostituted, so she hones her skills. Miles takes Stacy and other trafficked men and women to stores in Kalamazoo, Calhoun and Kent counties.
“He literally would have all of us wear Adidas outfits because he wanted people to know that we were with him. Belonged to him.”
She says he kept extra jackets in the trunk of the car in case he recruited someone new.
“He would go into the store and he would pick out the items that he would want and they'd be placed in a particular location,” Stacy says.
“When I would not get him the things that he wanted, I would be hit, strip searched, had my head busted into a window.”
And sometimes Miles withheld food and other necessities.
“I would have to steal a pair of underwear from Target every day, just so I would have a clean pair of underwear to at least change in to.
“And I feel, I feel guilty about these things. Like I know that I was being forced to do it, but it doesn't change the fact that I did it.”
Stacy reaches a turning point about a month into the trafficking. First, Miles allows “Jerry” – not his real name – to sexually assault her. Jerry is one of the men Stacy ran from in July. This shows Stacy protection from Miles isn’t worth much.
Then, on Sept. 10, 2019, Miles gets paranoid while Stacy’s at Bronson Hospital seeing a doctor. He thinks she’s talking to the police and orders her to come back.
When Stacy walks out of the building, she happens to see a car idling in the parking lot. She drives it away and meets up with Miles.
Stacy’s arrested for the car theft later that day. She thinks the officers know she’s in trouble, because she reported Jerry back in July.
“I assumed that they like had a big old meeting, you know, in between shifts, all officers at once. And so, everybody had to have been onboard. Like, that was my misconception of how things work.”
These officers don’t seem to know about Stacy’s prior report. But she begins to wonder if she can intentionally get busted for shoplifting, then convince the police she needs help.
“At some point, I was hoping that it would be documented enough times and enough some, somebody, the right person was going to hear and get me the help that was needed.”
On September 19, 2019, Stacy’s detained at a Target store in Calhoun County, for trying to steal video games. When store security stops her, she tells them what's happening.
When an officer arrives, “They told him what I reported. And he told me to shut up.
“And then if that was the case, then I know I would know how this works. And I'm going to jail. ‘You're just trying to get out of going to jail.’”
A little more than two weeks later Stacy tries to get arrested again at two different Targets stores in Kent County. The first Target doesn't notice right away that she's stealing. But she's taken into custody at the second one. And later arrested for the first theft while at the Kent County jail. One of those police reports recounts Stacy’s story in detail.
The officer also notes that Stacy was arrested for two retail thefts years before she was trafficked. In 2015, she took two dolls and clothes from the children’s department. In 2017, two hoodies and a T-shirt. Stacy says she was broke, and trying to get a present for a child in 2015, and later, school clothes for her son.
She says she’s not proud of this, but adds, “I didn't really have anybody either at that time that I could ask for help for any of that kind of stuff.”
It’s unclear whether either of the Kent County officers believed Stacy that she was being forced to steal.
But in a sense, her plan works. Her last two arrests land her in the Kent County jail. After two months of being trafficked, she’s finally away from Miles.