It Happens Here, Part 5: “I won't stop talking about it”
In the fall of 2020, trafficking survivor Stacy Chambliss found refuge at the Kalamazoo YWCA. A few months later, she was told to leave. That’s where we pick up the story in the conclusion of our series It Happens Here.
Readers should know this story mentions attempted suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the national Lifeline at 9-8-8.
After surviving trafficking, jail, and two suicide attempts, Stacy was finally getting therapy and legal help at the Kalamazoo YWCA Human Trafficking Program. She felt safe at its main shelter.
But in December 2020 a woman Stacy knew from her trafficking days was murdered. The accused killer, who was later convicted, was friendly with Stacy’s traffickers. Months later, Stacy discovered his mother worked at the shelter.
The YWCA won’t comment on Stacy’s case. But Stacy says she should have been informed, so she could have decided what to do.
“They made that decision for me," she said.
Stacy was moved to another YWCA facility. But her relationship with the administrators was strained. When she revoked her release for staff members to talk about her case on May 3, 2021, within hours she was evicted without warning.
Former YWCA employee Sarah Turner got a call from Stacy that day.
“She was crying and she was frantic.”
Stacy was in a police car, having been told to pack her things. The police offered to take her to the Gospel Mission or her mom’s apartment. Turner said Stacy was afraid to go to either of those places.
“She didn't feel safe because her traffickers were still in the area. And she was afraid they're gonna find her,” recalls Turner.
Instead, Stacy had them take her to Bronson Park. Turner picked her up from there, with a list of other Michigan resources and shelters. Turner said she then took Stacy to a hotel, one that didn't resemble that motels where she had been trafficked.
Recordings, Emails & Texts
About nine months later in January of last year, I happened to file a story about human trafficking.
Stacy heard about the story, and she reached out to say she was trafficked too. Forced into sex work and shoplifting. She was facing criminal charges in three counties, and had warrants for missing court hearings. Stacy was living at her mom's, where she was afraid her traffickers would find her.
As I started to learn her story, Stacy sent me 46 hours of recordings. In many of them she’s doing ordinary things like walking the dog. It sounds mundane until you realize why she was recording. She hoped that if her traffickers caught up with her, the police would find the recordings and use them to investigate.
Stacy also forwarded me hundreds of emails and texts. Some of them are from the weeks and months after she left the YWCA.
They reflect that Stacy was devastated by the separation. In the months after Turner picked her up from Bronson Park, Stacy moved between her mom’s and a few different shelters as she struggled to regain her mental health.
Stacy wrote to anyone she thought could help her, pouring out her story in long messages. Sometimes she was writing to people who told her they couldn’t help her, and had asked her to stop writing.
“I didn’t know who to trust. I felt like everything was out of control internally and externally," she said.
But Stacy is tenacious.
“I don't just fall into the crack and sit there and cry, I will fall into it and I will bust it wide open, and I won't stop talking about it. And I won't forget about it. Because this does not need to happen to somebody else.”
Searching for justice
Stacy wanted to see her traffickers brought to justice. Since her trafficking, they had hurt at least two other women. In early 2022, she met with a detective from the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, and the department started an investigation, which is still open.
Around the same time, Stacy met with the FBI.
“I don't give up like, I really, literally don't give up. Obviously, you can tell. Here I am. How long after the fact? Most people would be like, ‘I would have given up a long time ago,’” Stacy added, “but no, because it's not just about me.”
Stacy’s meeting with the FBI paid off. The agency helped Stacy get out of Kalamazoo and find housing assistance. Her son (and her dog) were able to come too.
The year before, after she had to leave the YWCA, Stacy began to reach out to various advocacy groups. She hoped to get her warrants cancelled and the charges against her dropped. Eventually, several organizations wrote to prosecutors and public defenders on Stacy’s behalf. It took until July of this year, but all the warrants did get dropped.
Ten months ago, the Kent County Sheriff's Office started its own investigation into Stacy’s traffickers. That investigation is still open.
“I believed from the beginning that Stacy was a victim of something,” said Lieutenant Jason Richards. He oversees the Kent County Sheriff’s Human Trafficking Task Force. He understands why the officers that arrested Stacy for shoplifting may have doubted that she was being trafficked.
“It could be interpreted that she’s trying to maybe get out of something.”
But he added, that’s why it’s important to know how trafficking works.
“The longer I've been in this position, the more the way that she acted, and the way that she reacted, is more understandable to me than it was when I was a younger police officer.”
Michigan’s laws offer some relief for trafficking victims convicted of sex work. But the law doesn’t have much to say about shoplifting, even though survivor advocates say it’s common for traffickers to force their victims to steal. Attorney Ashleigh Pelto is a Michigan native who specializes in human trafficking law at the Greater Boston Legal Clinic.
“When we limit the number of offenses, that's really just punishing the victim, for not having been exploited in the way that lawmakers decided was relevant.”
The Polaris Project runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline. It gave Michigan a C for criminal record relief for survivors. Shared Hope International is an advocacy group working to change human trafficking laws. It gave the state an F overall.
For Stacy, things changed after advocates took up her case. Last year, Calhoun County dropped Stacy’s misdemeanor shoplifting charge. And Kent County dismissed her felony shoplifting charges in March. Among other places, Stacy got help from the Survivor Law Clinic in Okemos, which is part of the Michigan Coalition to End domestic and Sexual Violence. It runs the Sexual Assault Hotline.
But Stacy still faces a felony car theft charge in Kalamazoo.
Lynelle Morgan of the Survivor Law Clinic is Stacy’s legal advocate.
“Our position is that Stacy really shouldn't be held accountable for, you know, the crime that she was arrested for, because she wasn't in control. Somebody else was, somebody else was pulling the strings at that time. And so that case still needs to be resolved,” Morgan said.
Jeff Williams is the chief assistant prosecuting attorney for Kalamazoo County. He won’t discuss Stacy’s case while it’s ongoing. But he was willing to talk about the issues her case brings up. Specifically, how human trafficking survivors are frequently defendants, and victims and witnesses, at the same time.
“We haven't, frankly, had to think about situations where you have people who are both victims and defendants" he said.
"What happens for us as prosecutors - and this is, this is boiling it down a lot - is we're almost put in a position where we have to choose one victim over another.”
Investigations are still open in Kent and Kalamazoo counties against Stacy’s traffickers. The owner of the stolen car got it back the same day, in 2019. But several items, including a gun, were missing — taken, Stacy said, by her traffickers.
Stacy is scheduled to be back in court later this fall. The prosecutor’s office is pursuing the case; the owner said he wanted to press charges. He is the victim of a victim of Kalamazoo traffickers who have yet to be charged for drugging, kidnapping, beating, sexually assaulting and trafficking Stacy Chambliss.