Unchained: Inside the Struggle Against Sex Trafficking in Knoxville

In Cover Stories by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

For a woman who lived most of her life in a very dark place, Destiny beams light. Her hair is scraped back tightly to reveal bright eyes shining from a round face and a smile that flashes like a lighthouse beam. But her bubbly demeanor can mask other emotions close to the surface. It’s a daily struggle to trust others and to forgive herself and her family for the manipulation, addiction, and prostitution that dominated her life until a year ago.

Today, Destiny (who chose a pseudonym for this article) is working her first legit job as a hostess at a popular local family restaurant. Her career goal is to be a chef on a cargo ship, because she loves to feed people using her own recipes. (Her jerk chicken, she says, is renowned). 

Until recently, Destiny could not have imagined such a future, or even her life today: A paycheck to spend as she chooses. A quiet evening at home. A bed that is hers alone.

Destiny’s history is not unusual. It is typical of the devastation wrought by sex trafficking, a crime that is only now gaining broader recognition.

Simply put, sex trafficking involves using force, fraud, or coercion to get someone else to sell sex. Traffickers have many faces: A mother who threatens abandonment. A “boyfriend” who beats up his girl if she won’t sell herself. A trafficker might trick someone into traveling to a strange town for a job, then trap them into prostitution. Coercion might involve deliberately getting a girl addicted to drugs, then withholding them if she doesn’t comply. Many cases involve more than one of these. 

Sex trafficking victims are mostly local girls turned sex slaves, although most don’t see themselves that way. Until recently, no one saw them that way. 

Sex trafficking is a very old crime. But treating it as a crime is new. 

Since 2011, Tennessee has become a national leader in the effort to uncover and punish sex trafficking. Yet Knoxville—the only major city in the state with no safe house for trafficking victims—lagged in understanding the problem until the last 18 months or so. Since then, there have been more arrests of pimps and men who pay for sex, an expansion of support services for victims, and a push to open a safe house in 2017.

“It’s not dissimilar from the paradigm shift that occurred 30 years ago for domestic violence or drinking and driving,” says Margie Quin, special agent at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Those behaviors were long viewed as victimless conflicts or personal choices. Now they are deplored in our culture and aggressively pursued by police.

Police didn’t often use anti-pimping laws on the books because they believed pimps were merely fixers, with prostitutes driving the trade. The perspective is shifting to a viewpoint that women would not generally choose to be prostitutes if they were not exploited by pimps. New laws about trafficking go beyond existing “promoting prostitution” charges to emphasize the power of the pimps and the buyers. 

“We’re learning more about how this crime occurs, who is committing this crime, and what the demand looks like,” says Quin, who supervises TBI’s statewide human trafficking unit. The unit worked with local law enforcement to arrest 32 people in a Knoxville trafficking sting in May.

“Is [the prevalence of trafficking] as overwhelming as the experts and pundits and nonprofits would tell you? What we have found is—” she pauses. “Yeah.” She packs a combination of awe and nausea into that syllable. 

“When we post three ads on [the online classified site] Backpage and we have 400 different men contact us in three days, that’s demand,” Quin says.

At any one time there are about 50 such online ads running for the Knoxville area, she says. 

Do the math: That adds up to around 6,650 Knoxville-area men seeking to buy sex on a single weekend. Recent Knoxville arrests show these “johns” often have an interest in teenagers. 

Destiny was a teen when she was steered into The Life in her own home. She was raised by a drug-addicted mother whose male “friends” often hung out at the house. Starting when she was around 13, Destiny remembers, “Mom used to have guys messing with me to support her habit.” Sometimes Destiny and her sister would live with her grandmother while her mom was in jail, but they returned as soon as she was released.

Destiny began to feel that no one cared. She wanted to try the drugs she saw her mother use, and her mom shared. 

“I used to run away all the time,” Destiny recalls. When she was about 15, one of many attempts ended back at her mom’s house. Destiny felt like killing herself, and told her mother. She was shocked and frightened when she found herself sent to a mental institution for teens. She was released after nine months to a series of group homes, until she turned 18 and ended up on the street. 

“When you’re out there, you’re just so vulnerable,” she says. “It’s a very cold and dark world.” She didn’t have a high school education and had learned the only way to survive was to trade in sex. 

“I knew if I wanted somewhere to stay, I would have to give up something,” she says. “My mama always told me that. One time I had this guy who was really into me, and I liked him. She wanted me to talk to this other guy because he sold drugs, but I didn’t like him. I remember her saying harsh words to me. 

“I knew from that moment: If I want something, that’s how I bought it. That’s the only thing I knew.”

Who Are the Victims?

Victims of sex trafficking are often not who most Americans imagine. They aren’t foreigners in massage parlors or scantily-clad women on street corners. They are American citizens, often being sold from home or from perfectly nice hotels (although truck stops are also a hot spot) using online classified ads. Kate Trudell, executive director of the Knoxville nonprofit Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT), says 80 percent of the victims her organization helps are white women from East Tennessee, mostly between the ages of 19 and 23—although most were sold for sex starting at age 14 or 15.

Many johns—men who buy sex—are middle-class, white, married men who use Paypal to settle their tab, according to the TBI. Based on research that 1 in 43 American men have bought a prostitute, TBI estimated in 2013 that 433,566 men in Tennessee have done so.

Police and trafficking experts say criminals have figured out that running guns or selling drugs is a risky endeavor: Get caught, and you’re faced with clear physical evidence and tough mandatory sentences. On the other hand, selling people is harder to recognize and often relies on verbal testimony. And unlike other products, people can be sold repeatedly.

For example, Knoxville police recently uncovered an online human trafficking ring after a woman told police that gang member Roger Ernest McClain Jr. had regularly assaulted her and injected her with heroin if she refused to sell sex as often as 25 times a day. He was sentenced to 10 years in April.

TBI has made trafficking busts this year in Knoxville, Nashville, Chattanooga, Clarksville, Brentwood and Jackson, resulting in 143 arrests on various prostitution-related charges. But that probably hasn’t made a dent in the state’s sex trafficking networks, Quin says. 

In 2015, state law enforcement agencies reported making 38 arrests for sex trafficking, five in Knox County.

“I think it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Quin says. “The (TBI) director has told me not to stop. He has said, basically, ‘Pedal to the metal. Go, go go.’”

Human trafficking is the second most lucrative criminal industry worldwide, after drug trafficking, bringing in approximately $32 billion annually, according to the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking.

Destiny exhibited some of the most common risk factors for trafficking victims: poverty, childhood sexual abuse, and drug abuse. Like many victims, Destiny was also a runaway. But most runaways are trafficked for the first time when they leave home. 

Last year, Knoxville had about 600 runaways (including some who ran more than once), says David Kitts, who heads the KPD Special Crimes Unit, which focuses on crimes like sex trafficking, child abuse, and missing persons cases.

He notes that Knoxville’s only shelter for runaway youth folded a few years ago, further reducing options for runaways and police. “Now if we pick up a runaway who doesn’t want to go home, they go short-term to a foster family,” Kitts says. 

Trudell says that is no solution, because many trafficked girls have “Stockholm Syndrome,” a coping mechanism that causes them to become emotionally attached to the person controlling them. As a result, they will often run back to their trafficker immediately, often taking other foster children with them, she says. 

Kitts says the Knoxville Youth Homelessness Council, created by the Knoxville/Knox County Homeless Coalition this summer, is looking to start a short-term shelter with a case manager to help homeless teens and young adults stabilize for 60 to 90 days. “If they have a safe place to go, hopefully they have less chance of being pimped on,” he says.

But youth escaping troubled homes aren’t the only ones at risk. The CCAHT has helped everyone from Destiny to an A-student from West Knoxville—she was trafficked for years by a trusted member of her extended family without her parents’ knowledge. 

And sex trafficking isn’t just an urban problem. 

In 2011, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation issued a report based on surveys distributed to court officials, law enforcement, and social service employees. In 78 of 95 counties, at least one human trafficking case was reported. Knox County was one of four in the state to report more than 100 cases of sex trafficking among minors and 100 among adults. 

The subsequent TBI report on the geography of trafficking found that, of the 21 counties with the highest trafficking rates, 17 were rural. Among the four reporting more than 100 adult and 100 juvenile victims was rural Coffee County, home to the Bonnaroo Music Festival as well as four DCS group homes, and where the TBI identified an above-average number of meth-lab seizures. Meth seizures also tend to correlate to poverty, a major driver behind rural trafficking, according to the report.

In small towns, family members are almost always involved in the trafficking, Quin says, often in exchange for drugs or drug money. 

Close to Home

Most Knoxville residents were unfamiliar with sex trafficking until the CCAHT was created by local residents who mostly met through church-based organizations that had been working on international anti-slavery initiatives. The coalition’s first big accomplishment, says founder Jonathan Scoonover, was a training on recognizing trafficking with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, and other regional law enforcement officials. 

The coalition operated for four years as volunteers, educating public health and emergency room employees, truck stop managers, hotel owners, pest control and cable technicians
(who have access to people’s homes), and many more about how to recognize and report trafficking. 

Within six months of hiring Trudell as its first executive director in 2014, the coalition was helping three times the number of victims as in the previous three years combined, Scoonover says. 

It had identified only one trafficking victim in 2014, but helped 23 last year and 46 so far this year, Trudell says. She emphasized that the number of victims isn’t growing. “We’re just doing a better job identifying what’s already going on,” she says.

Trudell says Knoxville is attractive to traffickers: It’s an interstate hub close to Atlanta (ground zero for sex trafficking in the U.S.), close to lots of truck stops on Interstate 40, and a stop for visitors headed to the Smoky Mountains, University of Tennessee football games, and Bristol races.

The coalition also works closely with law enforcement, especially the Knoxville Police. 

When the TBI released the results of its human trafficking survey in 2011, many law enforcement officials were puzzled or skeptical. 

In almost half of counties with sex trafficking activity, law enforcement respondents didn’t know about it, the survey found. Police were no more aware of cases involving children: In 30 of the 68 counties with known instances of trafficking minors, law enforcement officials reported none. Those had been identified by people providing services to victims. 

Two-thirds of Knox County survey respondents said their agency wasn’t adequately trained to deal with sex trafficking cases.

Kitts says when a superior at KPD told him the 2011 report indicated Knox County had more than 100 cases of human trafficking, Kitts asked, “What’s human trafficking?” He says he was given the order to “get your arms around this,” and KPD soon benefited from training offered by the coalition, then TBI. The coalition also coordinated law enforcement and social services task forces that began meeting both separately and together.

“KPD, especially, has been really good about evolving how they think about these girls,” Scoonover says.

KPD now brings along coalition members when conducting prostitution-related busts, so women can be offered support services immediately, Trudell says. Three of the five women arrested for prostitution in the May sting immediately accepted help and were taken to protective housing, according to the TBI. 

Last year, KPD reported 12 human trafficking cases, although not all of those resulted in charges, Kitts says. 

Changes in the Law

The 2011 TBI survey galvanized the state Legislature, which passed almost 20 new laws in 18 months tightening protections for child trafficking victims and increasing punishments for traffickers. Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking organization that ranks states on how well they protect children from sexual exploitation, gave Tennessee a grade of 93.5 in 2013—the highest in the nation. The state has since been surpassed by Louisiana but remains one of only six with an “A.”

Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam identified TBI as the lead agency to tackle human trafficking and established four special agents to coordinate these efforts.

Quin says TBI requested oversight because it wants to pursue traffickers across county lines. “The nature of trafficking involves movement,” she says. “When we’ve got a trafficker that’s sold a girl, we want to prosecute him in every jurisdiction where he’s committed that crime. But local law enforcement doesn’t have that mission.”

A recent example of a trafficker caught moving a girl around the state is Tavarie Anthony Williams, a Nashville man arrested this summer for taking a 12-year-old from Texas and trafficking her in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville. 

“The Legislature has done an incredible job in giving us the laws and the policy to go out and tackle this type of crime,” Quin says.

Among them were laws placing pimps (and more johns) on the sex offender registry, boosting penalties for pimping a minor, extending the statute of limitations for underage trafficking prosecutions, and barring pimps and johns from using “I didn’t know she was under age” as a defense. 

But perhaps the most ground-breaking change in state law came first: In 2011, the Legislature clarified that because juvenile girls are under the age of consent, they cannot be charged with prostitution. This prevents child victims from being stuck with criminal records. 

At the same time, buying sex from a juvenile went from being a misdemeanor to a felony. Anyone arranging a sex act with a child under 18 can be charged with the most serious felony classes, which carry jail terms of up to 30 or 60 years. 

But Kitts sees a downside. “In the past, with the prostitution charge, we had hooks in (the girls),” he says. “The judge could order them to do things like enter a drug recovery program.” It also gave police the power to place a girl in a secure facility away from her trafficker, although Quin argues delinquency charges that can be used for that.

“We’re getting it figured out with juvenile court,” she says. “We don’t have to charge a 13-year-old with prostitution. We can do better than that.”

Kitts says police have also lost leverage against pimps. In the past, a plea bargain could be offered to young women charged with prostitution in exchange for their testimony against the pimp.

“We have to convince girls: You got out, but we have to get this guy off the street to keep him from doing it to other girls,” Kitts says.

Until this year, the state Department of Children’s Services also didn’t have the authority to separate a girl from a trafficker who wasn’t her parent. That changed this summer when DCS expanded its definition of guardianship, Quin explains. Also new this year: DCS is required to report cases of potential trafficking of local minors to CCAHT it can offer victims more services.

Destiny: Today

After Destiny left home, she kept selling herself to get by. She hung out on street corners. She was thrown out of a car, had a gun pulled on her. She saw people beaten and raped. After many years, someone she met through her drug dealer referred her to a woman in New York who could help her earn more. The woman had kids, attended college, volunteered for charities… and pimped prostitutes. 

Destiny had been working for her for about a year when Destiny was arrested in a police bust that also picked up a girl who turned out to be 16. (Destiny says she had met the girl that day, when they were sharing a hotel room.) 

After Destiny made bail, she was arrested again on worse charges: Police accused her of helping manage her boss’s prostitution ring, including selling the 16-year-old. 

“I was going crazy because I was scared. They wanted stuff out of me I didn’t know!” Destiny recalls through tears. After she had spent seven or eight months in jail, police dropped the charges in exchange for her testimony against her former boss, whose prosecution continues.

When she was released, Destiny headed home, right back to the old life. “The third day I was walking to get another fix. And I felt like if I stayed, I was going to die. I prayed to God: ‘Let me know what you want me to do.’” 

She pulled out her phone and called the national human trafficking hotline for help. In 30 minutes a team arrived to pick her up from the street corner and take her to a shelter. 

Destiny couldn’t turn to family or friends, because they were in the middle of the same lifestyle. So she called an ex-boyfriend’s dad, who lived in public housing in Knoxville. He told her to come on over from North Carolina. She hopped a bus and called the Coalition Against Human Trafficking before she even arrived.

Trudell arranged for Destiny to go to a transitional housing and treatment program run by a Christian organization in Atlanta. But even there, Destiny says, she faced a stigma and was deliberately isolated from the other women. 

She left early, but not before getting clean. “I did a lot, a lot, a lot of crying,” Destiny says. “It was good though.” And she took a culinary course there, with a chef who encouraged her. “He seen something in me I didn’t even see in myself,” she says, and became a reference for her first job. 

She returned to Knoxville, moving in with a friend. She took small steps. The coalition helped her establish medical care, get long-term counseling, and develop a kind of resume. Her new boss helped her set up her first bank account.

Letting people help her is a big step. As Trudell puts it, Destiny had learned to see every human relationship as a transaction with a price.

“If somebody wants to do something for you, it’s not always because they want something from you,” Destiny says. “Everybody’s not out to hurt you: That was the biggest thing for me! I’m still learning that.”

What’s Missing

The biggest need in upper East Tennessee is a residential facility where trafficking victims can flee and receive counseling, addiction treatment, legal aid, and help finding work.  

“What’s hurting us here in East Tennessee is we’re having to ship our victims across the state to a safe house,” Kitts says. Many leave behind local friends and family that could form a support system. 

Scoonover says that when the coalition first researched local needs, they were told a shelter wasn’t among them. Responders have since realized the scope of the problem is much larger than originally understood. 

The coalition launched a campaign at its annual dinner event Oct. 27 to raise $2 million for opening a safe house and operating it for the first year. 

Pilot Flying J and the Haslam Family, who own truck stops, have committed $500,000, Trudell says. 

CCAHT’s budget is covered by donations and grants. Although the TBI asked the coalition in 2015 to become the official “single point of contact” for all East Tennessee trafficking victims from 25 counties, the coalition receives no state funds.

It is nevertheless ramping up other new initiatives. One is a curriculum teaching men about the harms of prostitution, first used this summer as a court-mandated training for 19 johns who were arrested in the TBI trafficking sting. Trudell says she hopes the course, which aims to make men allies in the fight against sexual exploitation, will eventually be offered to young men in high school and college, too. 

Another program, Hands Across the City, is attempting to establish neighborhood-level groups to educate others about human trafficking through holding events like film screenings and book clubs. And the coalition has already developed a more personal program called “Allies for Change,” pairing a volunteer with a trafficking survivor to provide emotional support.

Sharada Nizami, a social worker and motivational speaker, is interested. “In my faith tradition, we are admonished to care for the neediest in our society,” says Nizami, a devout Muslim. “Specifically, that list includes freeing slaves.” She sought out the coalition online and is exploring a variety of ways that she and other Muslim friends could help.

As the catastrophe of human trafficking gains exposure, more Knoxville residents like her have become activists. After Central High School student Anna Howard saw an exhibit about sex trafficking in the Atlanta airport last year, she approached David Butler, executive director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, about displaying something similar. 

He suggested she approach her school’s art teachers, and she ended up creating a PowerPoint presentation for Central’s national art honor society. Its members created art reflecting what they had learned, which was displayed at KMA for a month this summer.

“Some of it was hard to look at,” Butler says. “I was really impressed by how serious they took it… They’re peers of the people this is being done to. It’s powerful.” 

Howard says she hopes the exhibit inspires similar projects at other schools. “Mostly the students got educated about it, and that was the whole point—so they know what to look for in their peers, and they know what not to fall into,” she says.

Destiny: The Future

Destiny wants to help with that, too, by sharing her story and mentoring younger women. Difficult as her life has been, many of her goals—like cooking for the homeless at a shelter—involve helping others. 

But she has more personal goals, too. She’d like to have a healthy romantic relationship. Intimacy is a struggle. “I still have a lot of self-esteem problems,” she admits. “I don’t feel like I’m worth it. It’s sad, because I push a lot of people away.” 

The days when she talks to her mom on the phone are especially tough. Her mother doesn’t acknowledge what happened to Destiny in her own home. “But I feel like if I hadn’t forgiven her, I’d still be doing what I was doing,” Destiny says.

Some days she feels overwhelmed by all the new skills and behaviors she is expected to know, things most people absorbed unconsciously growing up.

“I have to tell my boss sometimes, ‘Look, it takes me some time,’” Destiny says. “I have days where I don’t catch onto things as fast.”  

Yet she recognizes that she has been lucky, too. She could be dead, or very sick, or in jail. “Now I’m happy,” she says. “I like looking in the mirror at myself.” Not every minute, not every day. But somehow joy seems to be in Destiny’s nature. She exudes it, beaming as she talks about the simple pleasures of her everyday interests: cooking, creative nail designs, her English bulldog. 

“You can be normal and still have fun. See, I didn’t know how to do that,” Destiny says. “My past don’t have to be my future.” 

See Also: Police Target More Pimps and Johns as Their Understanding of Sex Trafficking Grows

Who To Call for Help

• Report trafficking via the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline: 888-373-7888 

• Reports can also be made by emailing nhtrc@polarisproject.org, submitting a tip through the online tip reporting form at traffickingresourcecenter.org. 

• Tennessee trafficking hotline: 855-558-6484

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S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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