Out of Mind

What if you were stolen away, and no one came to your rescue?

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault.
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault.
She was 14. He was 19. Her life revolved around taking care of her little sister and brother, and attending ninth grade at North Division High School on West Center Street. His seemed to involve hanging around with the guys in her neighborhood and cruising by her front porch, where she’d sit reading. He was stylish and handsome, and one day, he stopped.

“I fell in love with him when he stopped,” she says. This new boy was sweet, as nice as he looked, and he always knew what to say. “He was a regular boyfriend I trusted,” she says. “I would have never known there was another side to him.” During what was supposed to be a fun trip to Chicago, they partied, went out to eat, and went back to a hotel room to stay the night, she thought, before driving back to Milwaukee. But when they walked into the room, it was full of other girls, strangers, including an Asian girl, a Hispanic girl and an Indian girl, doing makeup and getting ready for something. One or two said, “Hey daddy.”

“Who’s that?” thought the girl from Milwaukee, Laura Johnson, now 30 years old and a mentor to other girls in the city who have been trafficked for sex. Her boyfriend immediately “sat me down and told me the ground rules,” explaining how she’d be working for him as a prostitute. To complete the transformation from “finesse” to “gorilla” pimp, he punched a nearby girl in the face, and the girl stood back up as if nothing had happened. To brand Johnson as his property, the pimp had a bar code tattooed onto the back of her neck, an area now covered with a butterfly. His sign prevented other pimps (who used horseshoes, initials and other marks) from stealing her, and indicated who to call if they wanted to propose a purchase. Johnson’s pimp beat her bloody, threatened to kill her family, and used other mind games he’d learned from other pimps, including his father.

“My overnight became three years,” Johnson says. She escaped at the age of 17, after her pimp beat her and fell asleep in a hotel room in Oshkosh, and she ran bleeding into the street. Her mother, a heavy drug user, thought she’d been OK and living with a normal boyfriend in Chicago.

What makes Johnson’s a case of so-called “human trafficking” is both her young age and her pimp’s coercive M.O., neither of which is unusual. Much of what has traditionally been referred to as pimping or prostitution falls within one or both of these definitions, and such traffickers have in the past operated with impunity. A 2000 documentary called Pimp Snooky follows Milwaukee’s Derrick “Snooky” Avery as he demeans, threatens and, on a couple occasions, assaults a young woman he’s training for his stable. Later sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, Avery flaunts a lifestyle more brutal than glamorous.

Brutality is why activists have sought to recast coercive or underage pimping as “human trafficking” in recent years. The popular vision of pimping, they argue, is too cheery to account for experiences like Johnson’s, and law enforcement has slowly followed suit. In 2013, the FBI began to collect nationwide data on trafficking arrests, although, as of the latest report, only about half of the 50 states have submitted their stats. Wisconsin hasn’t yet, and the Milwaukee Police Department didn’t respond to our request for its figures.

There are other sources of local data: In 2013, a report by the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission found that the department had encountered 77 sex-trafficked minors between August 2010 and August 2012. And in 2014, an anti-trafficking program led by the Medical College of Wisconsin encountered about 130 minors in Milwaukee who had experienced trafficking and sexual exploitation. As for the total number of children affected, “We believe it’s far more,” says Wendi Ehrman, an associate professor at MCW.

Somewhat improbably, Milwaukee has developed a reputation as a hot spot for pimping, though when or how or what this means remains nebulous. Dana World-Patterson, chair of a city panel called the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee, says Milwaukee is sometimes referred to as “the Harvard of pimp school.” And a recent headline in The Guardian described the city as a “hub of human trafficking.” But the precise data needed to compare sex trafficking in Milwaukee with other cities isn’t yet available. According to Ehrman, one can look to the hotline run by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center for a relatively fuzzy picture: Between December 2007 and September 2015, the hotline received calls describing 373 possible victims in Wisconsin, ranking the state 30th out of 50. Calls also identified about 1,400 in Illinois and more than 7,000 in California.

The most accurate picture of modern-day “pimping” might be a regional one, as legal cases against Milwaukee traffickers have uncovered operations extending to busy “tracks” in Chicago, North Dakota, Indianapolis and Las Vegas. In the back of every victim’s mind, Johnson says, “is, ‘I want to get away from here.’”

Tune in to WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Feb. 9 at 10 a.m. to hear more about this story. 

‘Out of Mind’ appears in the February 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the February issue on newsstands beginning Feb. 1.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.