STOCKTON — Coercion, intimidation and brainwashing. That was the life of a local woman who was victimized into the world of human trafficking at the age of 19.
In less than a year, this former San Joaquin Delta College student — called Janet Doe to protect her identity — had her world turned upside down.
She had a supportive family growing up in San Joaquin County, good grades and a strong religious background, but that proved to be not enough to keep her off the streets of Stockton.
The spiral down
Janet, now 27, began to see her life spiral down when she experienced the culture shock of attending college. She said she met her first boyfriend, got pregnant and had an abortion. She said those events set in motion the introduction of her first manipulator and the world of prostitution.
“I grew up in an average home, average family. I had a good childhood,” she said during a recent interview in the law library of the San Joaquin County district attorney’s office. “For the most part, I had a happy life. I became promiscuous and ended up meeting a guy, ‘J.’ He was the first one to turn me out.”
Their relationship started innocently enough, with a friendship that blossomed into a sexual relationship, she said. They had been together three months when J and his cousin gang raped her, followed by another rape by the cousin the following day. She said J became upset about the second incident and told her, “He’s not going to do that to you anymore unless I say so.”
The meaning of his words didn’t sink in at the time, but instead made her feel more secure.
“I felt like he could be my homeboy, then he could be my boyfriend, and then he could be my protector, he could be my brother — all that simultaneously,” she said. “There were times he said, ‘You’re mine. You’re my family. I’m going to take care of you, you’re going to take care of me, and we’re going to take care of each other.’”
After a few months, J began to have a relationship with other women, which resulted in Janet becoming depressed and falling deep into drugs and alcohol. She said she tried to leave him, but he kept creeping back into her life.
Eventually, after 10 months, she was able to break his spell when he moved out of state.
The master manipulator
The man who would draw her further down the path of human trafficking entered her life a year after J left, when Janet was 21 years old.
It was November 2009 when she met “C.” He was different from other men she had encountered, she said. He was nice, he asked her out; he showered her with gifts and took her out to dinner at her favorite restaurants.
“He wanted to treat me like a queen, a princess,” she said. “I was excited. I’ve never been treated like that before.”
Janet began to think about going back to school, getting a job, putting her life back in order. She said that somehow, the new man in her life could see into her soul and knew she had been hurt before.
“‘I’m not going to let you go through pain. I just want to love you,’” she said he told her. “I had no idea at the time it was a skill — it was a scam skill.”
They had been together a couple of months when C — referred to as a Romeo pimp, because of how he seduced women to become prostitutes — became violent both physically and emotionally.
“The first time he hit me was because I said (something). He slapped me in the back of the head,” she said. “Nobody ever put their hands on me like that before. I didn’t think it was abuse — it wasn’t abuse, because he didn’t punch me.”
After a few months, he asked her to have sex with a man they had met at his cousin’s apartment.
“I was like, I don’t want to do it, but if you want me to — if we really need the money — I’ll do it this one time,” she said.
“There’s something inside of you that dies when you turn that first trick,” she said. “My body is there, but my mind is at home watching the Disney channel, in Hawaii lying on the beach or even just down the street at the store getting a pack of cigarettes. You have to separate yourself and not be there.”
Each time C enticed her to have sex with strangers, he made her believe she had the power to choose.
“He asks me, so he’s putting the power in my hands, but not really,” she said. “There lies the manipulation. He’s asking me, but he’s not really asking me. He’s telling me, This is what I want you to do, but it’s coming out in the form of a question. I’m thinking, If he’s asking, he’s obviously taking my feelings and my thoughts into consideration. Because he’s being considerate of me, let me go ahead and do this.”
The abusive relationship continued to grow worse.
“At first, it was every few days, and then it was every other day and then every day I was expecting to get hit for something,” she said.
The couple began living on the street after an incident when C punched her father and broke his jaw. She said he was told to leave and she didn’t think twice about leaving with him.
She said they moved from place to place, sleeping on couches, in their car and at his mother’s house.
After five months together, she said they needed money, so he drove her to the streets of Stockton to sell her body.
“I don’t really want to, but hey, we got to do what we got to do,” she said. “We got to get our own place, we got to get a better car, we got to get this and we got to get that.”
After a short time, C brought in other women to prostitute for him, and it was Janet’s job to keep them in line.
“The whole thing spiraled out of control,” she said. “I’m always so high and angry by now, I’m like, ‘Know your place, know your role.’
“I walk around like I own this city, but on the inside, I hate myself. I hate my situation. I hate what’s going on. I hate all these girls.”
Recruiting more girls
One of her responsibilities was to recruit more women. She said she would encounter prospects walking down the street, through parks and in the mall. She learned how to approach them by watching C.
“I befriend you,” she said. “I want to know about you. I want to know your likes, your dislikes. I want to know what pisses you off; I want to know what makes you happy. I want to know these things. I want to know you. I want to be your friend.
“If you’re listening and I keep talking, I’ve already got you hooked and you don’t realize it,” she said. “It’s just two girls talking — you need new shoes, your mom doesn’t have the money to buy new shoes, I’ll buy you a pair of shoes. Get an outfit while you’re at it — then let’s go out, let’s go have fun.
“It’s manipulation at its best.”
You’re going to jail
After a few weeks working Sierra Nevada Street in Stockton, Janet said she found herself behind bars in San Joaquin County Jail and facing a possible prison sentence of 25 years to life for her involvement with C and his prostitution ring.
“I met C November 2009, and July 2010 I got locked up,” she said. “It was only seven and a half months and everything was topsy-turvy.”
She said police tried to get her to talk about him, but she refused.
“There’s a code you live by, and you don’t break that code,” she said. “You’re going into this and they say, this is what could happen — the only ways out are prison or death. And if you betray and you tell, you snitch — that’s the worst, death. You and your family will be obliterated and wiped out from civilization. You don’t tell at all.”
She said that although she and C were apart in the jail, he was still trying to work his manipulation during bus rides to court and through notes they would pass to each other.
“I took responsibility, because I didn’t want them to put the blame solely on him,” she said. “I was still protecting him by taking responsibility. I wanted to help him. We’re all just a bunch of bad apples in a bucket, and they’re picking on my bad apple.”
Authorities presented a strong case against her, and she ended up serving two years in county jail and three years in state prison.
Breaking the bond
During her incarceration, she said she was able to begin to break the bonds he had on her.
“I started piecing myself back together, a little bit by little bit,” she said. “I had to move on and do for me. I struggled with that, because I still cared (about him), but I had to care about me more.”
It’s been 13 months, 10 days since her release from prison, and Janet said she felt it was time to tell her story.
“I hope somebody will read this and be like, ‘It happened to her and she wasn’t necessarily abused as a child, she wasn’t trafficked at age 12,’” she said.
“For me, it was a very, very short amount of time. I think people are looking for these victims that have been in it since 11 or 12 years old. I think we’re missing the ones who are (per)suaded into it when 18, 19, 20.”
“Even if it changes one person’s life — I don’t have to affect the masses, but if it changes just one girl, one guy, one family member and brings awareness to somebody, I’ve done my job.”