Two and a half weeks ago the FBI, in partnership with local law enforcement, conducted a cross-country sweep looking to help stop child sex trafficking. They recovered dozens of under-age victims who have been forced into prostitution, and they arrested their pimps. Three child victims were found in Washington state, and nine people were arrested here.
On Tuesday, something very different happened at FBI offices in downtown Seattle.
In a bland, white FBI conference room a 26-year-old woman named Nicole took a deep breath, and slowly approached the podium.
Microphones were duct-taped to it. Reporters looked on, pens at the ready.
Despite her nerves, she started cheerfully, “Hi, I’m Nicole.” The young woman's voice was slow, but firm as she began recounting intimate details of her former life walking "the track;" living under the thumb of her pimp.
She was there to let people see a real face behind the child sex trafficking headlines, and to answer questions: What is child sex trafficking? Who are these victims the police are recovering?
"When you’re young and you kind of come from a broken home, you look for the next person that gives you the feelings that you never got at home," she said. "My abuser was a suave kind of person. He was slick with the tongue and knew what to say to make your day look so much brighter."
Nicole met him when she was 17. He made her feel important, rich, sophisticated.
It wasn’t long until he convinced her to walk the track, to sell herself on the street. She went along with it. And soon enough, the beatings started, too.
He’s in prison now, for a long time. Otherwise she said there’s no way she’d be doing this. She’s still scared of him, his friends and his family.
She laid out terrible, gory stories of his violence. She did tried to leave.
"I think I left my abuser three times the whole time I was with him," she said. "And every time that I ran away, I had nothing to run to."
She wiped away tears as she finished her sentence. She collected herself. Even made jokes. Then she got to the worst part, the last beating, the time he permanently damaged her eye.
"He had some lady, some girl drop me off at a hotel room," she said. "And I was so bad that I was scared to fall asleep because I think if I would have fallen asleep, I don’t think I would have woken up."
She made it to the hospital. A doctor called the police.
Federal agencies got involved. That terrified her, but in the end she did testify against him. She’s still scared of him. It's one reason she doesn't reveal her last name.
But she has a new life. She’s paying her own rent and going to school, studying to be a paralegal. And she’s up there at the podium, she said, because it's actually therapeutic.
Plus, she’s encountered so many people who judge her because of her police record, including potential employers. She wants people to understand her story.
"It’s important for me to at least reach out to let them know that we’re not bad people," she said. "It’s not that we chose to commit these crimes, you know, because it was the fun and everything. Most of the time, most of the girls end up [here] because they have nowhere else to go."