Hidden Atrocities (Part Two): The untold story of human trafficking in North Central Florida

“I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them in justice.”

–Ezekiel 34:16 ESV

Throughout the world, millions of women and girls live in the darkness of sex trafficking. Many of those victims are in the United States and even here locally in Gainesville and its surrounding areas. 

No matter the reason for falling into this lifestyle, they struggle in this half-life existence, mired in fear, anguish, and pain. 

In the U.S., studies show that most victims of sex trafficking are young women and girls. On average, they are 19 years old, but most victims enter between the ages of 5-17, and their life expectancy once inside the grips of sex trafficking is only seven years – which means in many ways it’s a death sentence unless they are able to escape its clutches.

A sex trafficking victim’s life is a series of atrocities that includes drug addiction, sleep-deprivation, starvation, forced sex 15-40 times per day, beatings, jail, homelessness, and nights spent in cheap motels and on the streets. Most will never escape, recover, or survive the trauma. It’s a grim picture. 

In part two of our series entitled “The Survivors,” Mainstreet Daily News features the accounts of Diana, Felicia, and Becky. Their stories are a testament to the incredible resiliency and bravery they display, and point toward the urgency for action to prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes and support survivors along their journeys to restored dignity, health, and hope.

DIANA 

Diana was ten years old when she met Oscar, a 55-year-old man dating her mother’s best friend. She did not give Oscar much thought at the time, but it wouldn’t be long before he turned his attention to her. 

For most of her young life, Diana had experienced a detached family structure. Her father had left. Her mother was rarely available, struggling with addictions and making ends meet. Diana was often alone during long stretches of her day-to-day life. 

Diana lived in Alachua County and attended local schools, but she and her mother moved frequently. There was never a sense of stability. Oscar would enter their lives off and on, first dating her mother, but more and more entering Diana’s world.  

 According to Diana, at about age 11, Oscar gave her money to clean his house, and sometimes just to be there with him. Her mother’s relationship with Oscar grew when he started paying her bills and financing her addiction to drugs. He also began seeing more of Diana. 

“He bribed us in a way,” Diana said.  

“He was strategic in earning their trust,” said Alison Ungaro. “He sensed their vulnerabilities and slowly took advantage of them.”

Ungaro is the founder and executive director of Created Gainesville, a non-profit organization committed to eradicating sex trafficking. Since starting Created Gainesville in 2012, she and her staff have made contact with over 2,000 girls in similar situations to Diana’s.

By the time Diana was 13 years old, Oscar had begun giving her inappropriate gifts.  

“…lingerie, bras, underwear from Victoria’s Secret,” Diana said.  

One day, while cleaning Oscar’s house, Diana found pornographic photos, magazines, and other devices that surprised her. 

“He had cameras everywhere,” she said.  

It was at this stage that the relationship between Diana and Oscar turned sexual. 

“We often watched them [pornograpic movies] together. We looked at pictures too.”

This pattern of behavior went on for years, according to Diana. He bought her expensive gifts. He bought her mother a car. He bought both of them drugs. Diana sensed something was wrong, but the gifts and the money clouded her young judgment. 

“I would get what I wanted and leave,” she said. “I was paranoid, hanging out with him. I didn’t want people to know I was a person who slept with an old guy.” 

According to Diana, she was 15 years old when a sexual relationship with Oscar began, but the pathway towards this pattern of sexual abuse was laid by him since she was 11. 

Ungaro

“It is extremely common for victims/survivors, especially if they are young when the victimization started, to unfairly blame themselves for what happened. It usually takes years for survivors to tease apart the difference between taking ownership which is empowering and healthy, and recognizing they were a victim at various levels [physically, emotionally, and spiritually].”

–Alison Ungaro

“He had a lot of money, and her family did not,” Ungaro said.

And even though Oscar is solely to blame for the abuse that took place, Diana felt partly responsible. 

“He would just give me money,” Diana said. “And I didn’t have a job as a kid. In some ways, I was just as manipulative as he was.” 

It’s a phenomenon that Ungaro has often seen among survivors.

“It is extremely common for victims/survivors, especially if they are young when the victimization started, to unfairly blame themselves for what happened,” said Ungaro. “It usually takes years for survivors to tease apart the difference between taking ownership which is empowering and healthy, and recognizing they were a victim at various levels [physically, emotionally, and spiritually].”

The relationship between Oscar and her mother grew. He continued to finance her drug habit and paid many of the household bills. According to Diana, her mother looked the other way when it became clear that her time with Oscar was inappropriate because of her mother’s dependence on him.  

“She kind of needed him,” Diana said. “She allowed me to see him, and I relied on him for drugs and money too.” 

It was at this time, at age 15, that Diana too became addicted to drugs. It started with marijuana, then cocaine, and slowly escalated – all paid for by Oscar. 

It was also at this time, according to Diana, that Oscar began calling the police to have her arrested for stealing.  

“It was his way of controlling me,” Diana said. “I either did what he said, or he called the police on me.”

Woman laying down in bed

And despite the age differences between them, Diana said the police never asked her if anything inappropriate was happening or contacted child services to investigate. 

It’s an ongoing issue, according to Ungaro. 

 “For adults who work with children, you should do everything you can to educate yourself [on trafficking and child abuse],” she said. “When things don’t add up, red flags should be going off. When an older man has a relationship with a child that is not his relative, they should have noticed something. And asking is not enough. Sometimes a child may not know anything is wrong, or be afraid to get their parents in trouble, or be afraid of retribution.” 

And while she acknowledges that law enforcement and Alachua County have made advances in recognizing child abuse and potential sex-trafficking scenarios, it still needs more training. 

“Things are better, but Alachua County has a long way to go to acknowledge what’s happening here.” 

At age 17, Diana met a boy, got pregnant, had a baby girl, but lost custody because of her drug abuse and arrests. By this time, more potent drugs like methamphetamine and heroin had taken hold of her. 

It was at this point Diana realized she needed a new direction in her life. 

“A lot happened. I needed change. Something had to change.” 

Diana made initial contact with Created Gainesville and started down a healing path, but she soon relapsed back into drinking and drug abuse.

“I knew I didn’t want to do this. I knew I wanted to change. I listened to worship music in the closet, and I prayed even while I was drinking. I thought I was going to die.” 

Police arrested Diana, and all seemed lost in her journey to recover from drug addiction and the emotional scars of childhood abuse. But then, a critical and blessed reunion took place at the Alachua County Jail.  Ungaro and Created Gainesville stepped-in, despite her setback.

The Prodigal Son

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. 

 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”

Luke 15:20-24 

Created Gainesville has a program called Celebrate Recovery, which starts the rehabilitative process while a victim is still in jail. Diana went into the program, and Created Gainesville stayed with her every step of the way from incarceration until her release. 

“We got Diana right in,” said Ungaro. “It was like a reunion, and then a celebration at her release.” 

It’s been about a year. Diana is in an out-of-state program with other women who were trafficked or sexually abused as children. And although she is undecided on her path after the treatment is over, she has thoughts about her future.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “I want to help other women. I don’t know where I fit ideally. After graduating from the program, I think I want to be a life coach.” 

She is also excited to reunite with her baby very soon.

“I’m rebuilding my life here… planting roots and establishing a healthy environment for my daughter.” 

Diana would have been a prime candidate to be further exploited through trafficking had she not received the help and rehabilitation from Created Gainesville. Others were not as fortunate. 

FELICIA 

Felicia was 20 years old when she met Tony. That was not his real name. Tony never told her, but she would know everything else about his dark world in which she unknowingly entered and was unable to escape for over four traumatic years.

 But before she was ever a victim of sex trafficking, her childhood set the stage for recruitment. 

woman sitting on the edge of her bed looking out the window

According to Felicia, her mother and stepfather were severely dysfunctional. Felicia’s father left home when she was an infant. Her mother abused drugs and her stepfather was an alcoholic. Because of their abuse and dysfunction, the house became unsafe, and Felicia paid the price.

“I experienced every form of abuse as a child,” she said. 

Between the ages of four and nine, three different men sexually abused her. By age 10, she was taken from her mother and sent to live with foster parents. By age 12, she was back with her mother, but the dysfunction did not end.

Although Felicia ran away from home several times beginning at age 12, she left for good at 16. 

At age 18, with no job, no money, and no family support system, she moved in with a friend and started dancing at a strip club, which lasted for a couple of years.

That’s when she met Tony. 

“One night, this guy came walking in,” Felicia said. “Our eyes locked even though I was dancing on stage. He wasn’t like any of the other guys. He was well dressed. He carried himself confidently. He looked smooth.” 

After her shift, she talked to Tony, and he took her to breakfast. He showed up the next night, and several evenings after. 

“He started coming in a lot,” Felicia said. “He would pick me up after to take me to eat or before my shift he would take me to lunch.”

Felicia had never met anyone like Tony. He asked about her life and family and appeared to care for her well-being. The late-night breakfasts continued, and sometimes he would drive her to work, although the relationship did not include sex initially. 

“No one ever wanted to get to know me,” Felicia said. “He was the only one.”

After a few months, Tony asked her if she wanted to travel to Indiana to meet his family. The invitation made Felicia feel special. She wanted a family in her life, and this was her chance.

Felicia

Between the ages of four and nine, three different men sexually abused Felicia. By age 10, she was taken from her mother and sent to live with foster parents. By age 12, she was back with her mother, but the drug abuse and multiple boyfriends resumed. From ages 13-16, Felicia had sex with many of her mother’s boyfriends in order to keep a roof over their heads. Finally, at age 16, she left. 

She accepted Tony’s offer, and the night before they left, she slept with him for the first time, but instead of the Rockwellian vision of meeting Tony’s midwestern family, Felicia found herself in the parking lot of a small motel in Cleveland.  

Tony told her to change into an outfit he bought for her that closely resembled what she would wear at the strip club. She didn’t understand, but went to the back of his van and did what he said. Things were happening fast, but she trusted Tony. 

“From there, I just kept doing what he said to do.,” she said. 

According to Felicia, Tony told her to meet a man in a nearby car. She complied, and they ended up in a motel room, where the man paid her for sex. Then she used the room to have sex with multiple men. 

Felicia did not consent to become a prostitute, but found herself in a helpless situation. She had no money and no one to call for help. She knew Tony was not the man she thought he was, but her options seemed limited, and she continued to do what he told her. 

Tony and Felicia went on a dark and depressing tour of the country. They left Cleveland and traveled to Washington, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Boston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Camden, Atlantic City, Springfield, Orlando, Miami, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Phoenix, and finally Las Vegas. 

“He seemed to know pimps all over the country,” Felicia said. “And wherever they said there was an opportunity for a prostitute to make money, that’s where we went.” 

Tony filled Felicia’s days and nights by making her walk the streets, and proposition men to pay for sex. It was a grueling lifestyle.

“I didn’t think I was worth anything,” Felicia said. And I thought he loved me because he was willing to stay with me.”

“I’m proud of you,” Tony said to her. 

Woman's silhouette sitting down against a barred window

“No one had ever said that to me,” she said. “Nothing else mattered.”

It’s a popular tactic used by traffickers according to Ungaro. 

“A common strategy of predators of all kinds is to convince a victim that they asked for it, deserved it, or are unworthy and incapable of a healthy relationship,” she said. “Predators often communicate repeatedly, “After what you’ve done, who is going to believe you or want you?”

Despite his perceived affection for her, Tony set a goal for Felicia to bring in $500-$1,000 per day as a prostitute. She worked 364 days a year, and usually 10-16 hours per day – only getting Christmas off. And if she failed to make the quota, there would be consequences. Tony would beat her, verbally abuse her, or withhold food and sleep.  

 In total, Tony trafficked Felicia in 15 states and 21 cities for approximately five years – going wherever the opportunities were most profitable. Felicia had sex with enough men to usually make her quotas. Police arrested her 30-40 times for charges ranging from solicitation, to prostitution, to loitering.  

Finally, after over four years on the road, the tour ended in Las Vegas. Felicia was willing to take a beating from Tony, or whatever he had planned for her, in order to end the nightmare.

“I told him I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. He didn’t say much. He just packed a few things and returned with two girls in about a week, and then he took our car and left for good. I never saw him again.” 

 After this horrific experience, Felicia moved to Ocala and began the healing process. She struggled, and experienced illnesses and setbacks related to the aftermath of sex trafficking, but eventually recovered on her own. Knowing this lifestyle firsthand, Felicia is now an advocate in the fight against sex trafficking.

Becky

Becky was 19 years old when she started “tricking for dope” or prostituting herself to feed her addiction to crack cocaine. Becky grew up in Gainesville. She never knew her father, and she felt neglected by her mother throughout her childhood. As a child, Becky said she was molested by a close family member, joining the staggering 85% of women involved in prostitution that report a history of sexual abuse in childhood. 

Becky was in and out of the jail system starting at age 12 and addicted to cocaine by 16. 

For nine years, Becky moved in a seemingly endless cycle, from the street to jail and back to the streets. There were periods in which she would leave the lifestyle and stop taking drugs. She even enrolled in college at one point, but she always ended up back on the street. 

It seemed as though her life would always be this way, but then a glimmer of hope entered Becky’s life. 

One day, she walked out of a hotel, and a white van pulled up with women inside. Her first thought was that they were police there to arrest her. As the women exited the van, she frantically called her pimp to let him know she would be spending the night in jail. 

Instead, Ungaro and the Created Gainesville staff changed Becky’s life and their own as well. 

“It was our very first street outreach,” Ungaro said. “Our team was so nervous. We had butterflies, and it was all so new. We had asked God to at least point us to one woman that night.”

 A few moments later, they saw Becky.

After an awkward silence, Alison told Becky that the group brought a gift for her. Becky put her phone down, looked at her in disbelief, and asked who they were. 

Becky

For nine years, Becky moved in a seemingly endless cycle, from the street to jail and back to the streets. There were periods in which she would leave the lifestyle and stop taking drugs. She even enrolled in college at one point, but she always ended up back on the street. 

 “We’re from Created Gainesville, and we care about women who are in tough situations and find themselves out here working on the streets.”

Alison asked her if the group could pray with her. 

“Sure,” Becky said, thinking that she probably needed all the prayers she could get. “I prayed with them, and they gave me this little pink Bible in a paper bag. I was thankful. No one’s ever come out here to show us any care before.”

Becky recalled coming home that night, excited to show her pimp her new Bible and toiletries. He mocked her, asking whether or not she was going to read it. 

Almost a year later, Becky was back in jail. One day, while sleeping in her cell, someone woke her up and told her she had visitors. Becky rolled over in her bunk and closed her eyes, thinking they were lying. When they yelled her name again, she got up and looked at the visitation monitor, seeing two of the women from Created Gainesville. She went down to meet them.

“You may not remember us, but we used to visit you on the streets,” the women said. 

Becky recalls her surprise and confusion. 

 “I was like, hi! This is weird, but hi!” 

The women stayed with her for the entire visitation, listening to her struggles and praying with her. It was the first step of a long journey towards recovery.

A few months later, the Work Release Program approved Becky, but she needed appropriate clothing, which she didn’t have. She remembers asking some of the other women in the program to borrow clothes, but no one would help. Then she remembered another option. 

Becky called Created Gainesville, and they brought her clothes, hygiene items, and bed linens. One volunteer even gave her a ride to get her social security card. She attributes their help in a difficult time as the reason she was able to recover and stabilize.

 “My involvement with Created Gainesville, especially in Created Care and Oasis, has been a transformational support source in my life,” Becky said. “Not only has my self-esteem and confidence grown, but my sense of community. It was common in my previous lifestyle to look at other women on the street as competition, but when I started coming to Oasis meetings, my eyes were opened for the first time to the beauty of women empowering other women.”

(Editor’s Note: Hailey Anderton of Created Gainesville contributed to Becky’s story.)

Wednesday in Part Three: Sex trafficking is a worldwide crime of large proportions. It seems too big for individuals or even small organizations to have an impact in its eradication. But locally, there is a US Attorney and non-profit organization that takes on the industry every day in North Central Florida. They are the feature of Part Three entitled “The Fighters” in Mainstreet Daily News tomorrow.

To read part one, go here.

To read part three, go here.

To read part four, go here.

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