INVESTIGATIVE REPORT: Survivors share their stories


“I want to tell victims, you are not who the world says you are. You are not what has happened to you or what you have done.”

JENNIE McKEON @JennieMnwfdn

Victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation don’t always fit a mold.

Here, two women share their very different stories. What they have in common is a passion to use their experiences to help others.

‘I was raped for $700’

As the city director of Refuge for Women Emerald Coast, Michelle Jones has heard a lot of horrific stories. But the story of her friend, Julia Anderson, is one you will never forget, she said.

Anderson was 23 years old and had just moved to St. Petersburg when she found herself caught in a living nightmare.

She was at home one night in 2001 with her two young kids when a former co-worker showed up outside her home.

“He leaned against the door, took possession of my kids and gave me a black dress and black roses,” Anderson recalled over the phone from her current home in Seattle. “He said I was going to marry the devil that night.”

“It wasn’t a sexual relationship,” she added. “He was opening businesses in my name, selling products and taking account numbers. He was making $15,000 to $18,000 off me a week. I learned really quickly not to ask why.”

The man threatened the lives of Anderson and her two young children, who were subject to physical abuse from her so-called husband. For seven months, Anderson was held captive. Even after her children went to live with their father in Seattle, and even after her captor was arrested, she would be running from him for eight years.

The two were in Nevada when he was finally caught by law enforcement and put behind bars. Anderson said she “ran to the nearest city I could get lost in, which was Las Vegas.” She answered an ad searching for a model and dancer — “I even brought my legwarmers,” she said. That simple ad had led her from one dark world to another.

“They wanted to know what was on the menu,” Anderson said, referring to the code used to describe services of sex workers. “I was raped for $700.”

Anderson was forced into sex work for two years. To save her own money, she started stealing casino chips from clients until she had enough to make it to Seattle and be reunited with her kids.

“As I was trying to get out of the life, I was still being hunted,” she said. “I had to apply for legal identity change three different times. I lost myself.”

Anderson remembers her day of freedom: Feb. 1, 2012. It was the last time she had sex with someone for money. As part of her healing, she started volunteering around Seattle. That’s when she first heard the word “trafficking.”

“I had no name for what happened to me, but I was listening to someone talk about human trafficking and I started to cry and shake,” she said. “I went through that. That happened to me. It’s not just one thing.”

Anderson’s original captor has since died. But she decided not to forget her past. As an advocate, Anderson works with law enforcement to help train them on handling trafficking cases. She’s in the process of starting her own nonprofit so she can continue to help other victims, and also help educate the public and bring more awareness to the issue.

“(Police officers) see way too much and often emotions are pushed aside,” she said. “But I think you have to put emotion back into the equation. Victims of human trafficking are the best lie detectors in the world. Talk to them like you would talk to any person.”

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‘I was numb’

April was sexually abused by three different people — two of whom were family members — by the time she was just 10 years old.

“I blacked it out for years, but when I started remembering, I started to turn to drugs,” she said. “I had been in 12 different rehabs by the time I was 15.”

She was 16 when she moved out with her boyfriend and married him two years later. When they divorced, April was 23 and “severely addicted” to cocaine. She was living in the Fort Walton Beach area when she became an escort. Several studies report that a majority of prostitutes want to leave the sex industry, but can’t because they lack basic human needs such as shelter or food. Some may also need to supply a drug or alcohol addiction.

“I was silly enough and desperate enough,” said April, who declined to give her last name for this story. “I was so numb. I was still trying to fight those memories.”

April wasn’t a victim of trafficking. She didn’t have a pimp. But she saw that world.

“I remember being sent out to some hotel in Crestview,” she said. “As soon as I got in the room, the man came at me and slammed me against the door. I called my friend and she said, ‘Oh yeah, he likes to make like it’s rape.’ Someone else had to come in and took my place. That was too much for me.”

April made most of her living working with clients in Destin and along 30A in South Walton County around the time period of 2003 to 2008. No matter how pretty paradise may look, there could be darkness.

“It’s amazing how looks can be deceiving,” she said. “Most of them were guys you would find on the golf course. They were well-dressed. I knew that I was selling myself, but because it was a higher amount, I didn’t think of myself as a prostitute.”

April decided to stop on her own, but needed quick money. So she became a stripper at Sammy’s in Pensacola for a short time, before running to Alaska to escape jail time for drug charges.

She eventually turned herself in, but the prosecutor had passed away. There was no evidence, no case against her. By some miracle she was let go. The judge told her he didn’t want to see her back in the courtroom. She promised “you never will.”

“I came back to Mary Esther and was living in a crack house,” she said. “I was still messing up, but one morning I woke up around 4:30 a.m and said, ‘I think I’m going to go to church.’ I would go to church high, talk to the ladies about the things I had done. They let me go on for about three weeks, then one day someone said, ‘April, you can stop trying to shock us now.’ I had never had unconditional love before, I guess I was kind of testing them.”

In 2011, April found out she was pregnant. Doctors had told her that the sexual trauma she suffered as a girl would prevent her from giving birth, but today she has a 5-year-old daughter and a reason to live.

“The Lord used my daughter to save me,” April said.

On a visit to Houston for a discipleship conference, April was told she was a “walking ministry.” She then decided to use her story and become an advocate for women who are victims of sexual exploitation.

“I want to tell victims, you are not who the world says you are,” she said. “You are not what has happened to you or what you have done.”

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