Prisoners Among Us

Human trafficking isn't just a distant horror. It's happening in Richmond. On the front lines of a new abolitionist movement.

Andrea Valencia-Bailey sits on a granite slab beneath the Interstate 95 overpass at Main Street Station. Her gaze darts between the street and the parking lot, watching for comings and goings that raise red flags.

“I’ve had a client who’s been recruited from here,” she says. “She was recruited by other girls.”

There isn’t much to see on this Friday afternoon. Cars are parked in a lot. A freight train rolls by. Over the din of highway traffic, Valencia-Bailey explains how the type of observing she does isn’t any different from people watching at a cafe.

In fact, she saw the red flags at a cafe once. She and her husband, Joshua Bailey, listened while a teenage girl and an older man talked near them.

“We couldn’t hear much of the conversation,” she says, “but we could see the control this guy had over her. She looked young, but she looked kind of worn out.”

From the bits of conversation they overheard, the girl and the older man were talking about traveling up and down the East Coast, about videos, other girls. To the Baileys, the signs pointed to human trafficking.

The Baileys are founders of the Gray Haven Project, Richmond’s only nonprofit exclusively serving victims of human trafficking. They’ve honed this kind of people watching to a science. That conversation at the cafe, while suspicious to them, didn’t offer enough reason to take action. There’s always room for doubt.

The sky opens up over Shockoe Bottom and sheets of rain drape the overpass. Valencia-Bailey doesn’t see anything abnormal.

“But that’s the thing,” she says. “It looks so normal.”


Federal law defines human trafficking as the use of people for labor or services through force, fraud, deception or manipulation. Any child involved in commercial sex work is considered trafficked. So, too, are laborers in any work situation where service is compelled.

The U.S. State Department estimates that 27 million people worldwide are victims of some kind of trafficking, though the hidden nature of the crime makes it impossible to say with certainty. Polaris Project, a national nonprofit, estimates that 100,000 children are victimized in the U.S. sex trade alone.

According to data from a hotline run by the Polaris Project, 63 “high to moderate” potential trafficking cases were called in from Virginia between January and June. The calls, as varied as reports of forced domestic service and brothels, are referred to service providers and law enforcement officials for follow-up.

The Polaris Project, founded in 2002 and headquartered in Washington, is part of a growing network of groups dedicated to ending human trafficking. It’s widely referred to as an abolition movement — and it follows that these groups often refer to victims of human trafficking as slaves.

The Richmond Justice Initiative, operating from a small office in Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church on Monument Avenue, is part of that movement. Its mission is to “end slavery in our lifetime,” a common refrain among Christian-based, anti-human-trafficking groups. For founder Sara Pomeroy, there’s no shying away from comparisons to the state-sanctioned slavery, the system that was a primary part of Richmond’s economy for centuries.

“There are more slaves in the world today than in 400 years of trans-Atlantic slave trade,” she says.

Pomeroy, 34, founded Richmond Justice Initiative four years ago after learning the extent of the issue in the United States. She says she wanted to make a difference from Richmond, which Polaris has tracked as a hot spot for human trafficking like many cities along the I-95 corridor.

“As a believer, our calling is to fight injustice,” Pomeroy says. “I asked the question, ‘Are God and I interested in the same thing?'”

Virginia’s nonprofit initiatives to end trafficking are dominated by Christian organizers, and they’ve used their networking power to bring law enforcement and lawmakers to the table. In Henrico County, police now work in tandem with Gray Haven. Gov. Bob McDonnell, after holding a summit on trafficking in September, created an anti-trafficking committee that aims to ensure that Virginia’s response is “comprehensive and coordinated.”

That’s easier said than done. Beyond the media attention, fault lines are opening in Richmond around the definition of adult sex trafficking, its nature and how best to combat it.

For groups such as Richmond Justice Initiative, adult sex trafficking simply is a more accurate definition of prostitution. For others, sex trafficking is about violence and power, not prostitution.

Because prostitution is a crime, and because trafficked adults often are arrested for it, they’ve been viewed — by police, prosecutors and nonprofit groups — in a gray area between criminal and victim. The line between victim and perpetrators often is blurred.

How someone views the issue often is revealed in the words they choose to describe those working in the adult sex trade.

It took 20 years for Tanya Street to find hers.


Her date was either 28 or 32. Street doesn’t recall. Street was a senior in high school. They went to an amusement park.

“He listened, he asked me questions. He was so into me,” she recalls. “And at that time, no one was into me. I had a baby. I had issues. That night he knew my entire life story.”

Street’s life in New Jersey until then included an estranged family, a history of sexual abuse by a relative who himself was abused, and a son just a few months old. The baby’s father left them.

She fell for her amusement park date. He knew her favorite restaurants. He was adventurous. He’d pick her up and they’d drive.

“I’d say, ‘Where are we going?’ He’d say, ‘It’s a surprise. You’re going to love it.’ And I did.”

They’d been dating four months when he called her and asked her about her dreams. She told him she wanted to build a home for single moms. He told her that would be difficult for a young woman on welfare. She said she was willing to work hard.

“I have a better idea,” he said.

He told her his mother was a madam and was retiring and asked if she’d be willing to help him run the business. She needed to understand one thing, he said: If she was going to be in charge of the girls, she couldn’t tell them to do anything she wasn’t willing to do herself.

“I’m not a ho,” she told him.

“He got really quiet. I knew I offended him. He said, ‘OK, let’s look at this.'”

Her boyfriend asked how many sexual partners she’d had.

“By this time, I’d been pretty promiscuous.”

He asked if she’d ever had a sexually-transmitted disease.

“I had.”

And what was she getting for having a baby, he asked her, and then answered his own question: “Nothing.”

“Who,” he asked, “is the real ho?”

“He just brought up all my past and put it before me,” Street says, “and I saw myself exactly as what he said I was.”

But she told him no. He hung up. Street called him every day for two weeks. “By the time he called me back, I said: ‘I’ll do anything to keep your love. I really will.”

She became a prostitute. She says she refused to keep her share of the money. Working around her community college schedule, she left her son with the other prostitutes while her boyfriend, now pimp, drove her between New Jersey and Virginia looking for work.

Street can’t say for certain she worked Richmond. After a while, she says, truck stops start to look the same.

This went on for about a year and a half.  Her boyfriend refused to let her go to class if she hadn’t earned enough. When she lost her share of one night’s money, he beat her. Her last week as a prostitute, she says she was gang raped and later held up at gunpoint.

One night in Washington, a client drove her past the arranged drop-off point, pulled a knife and robbed her. He left her in a parking lot, where a police officer found her.

“I was thinking he was going to pick me up, or maybe he was a bad cop,” Street says. “Sometimes that happens.”

“He says, ‘What are you doing out here?’ Like he knew me. When he said that, I knew that was like the voice of a father.”

She told the officer she loved her pimp and wasn’t prostituting for the money. He told her he would pay for a bus ticket home. “But,” he said, “promise me you won’t come back.”


Street didn’t go back. Her pimp sent her flowers each time she moved — meant as a threat. They eventually stopped coming. He was never charged for what happened to her, she says. Street is now happily married in Virginia Beach.

For many years she simply thought of herself as a prostitute, she says. But after hearing about human trafficking at the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative conference two years ago, she realized that it described her experience. Since then, she’s been active with the organization, whose Christian-oriented, anti-slavery mission mirrors that of Richmond Justice Initiative.

Does Street believe she was a slave?

“Heck, yeah,” she says.

The word “slave” makes Carolina Velez-Rendon uncomfortable. Velez-Rendon, who’s spent more than 10 years working with trafficking victims in Richmond, first experienced the distinction between prostitution and human trafficking in her native Colombia. She followed her friend into a brothel in a well-to-do neighborhood, thinking she was teaming up for a term paper on prostitution. But the ornate bedrooms were just for the clients. Downstairs, she saw bunk beds and young girls from “everywhere around the world,” she says.

“I couldn’t handle it,” Velez-Rendon says. “I could feel their fear. There was something they wanted to say, but they couldn’t.”

Her political activism put her life in danger, and 11 years ago Velez-Rendon fled to the United States. She began working with victims of trafficking for a series of Richmond organizations, including Commonwealth Catholic Charities and Safe Harbor. Velez-Rendon says she’s surprised to hear Street’s comfort with the word “slave.”

“I have worked with a lot of victims of human trafficking,” she says. “No one has ever identified as a slave. Victims are not going to use those words.”

Velez-Rendon rejects the notion of “saving” victims of trafficking. “We don’t need people coming and saving us,” she says. “Every human being should be empowered.”

For Velez-Rendon, that can be as simple as helping a sex worker obtain condoms, and asking what else she needs that day.

Even the word “trafficking” gives her pause. “It’s sexual violence. …”

“For me, that word (trafficking) has a lot of Christian connotations,” she says. “I ask myself all the time, ‘Are they trying to abolish human trafficking per se, or sex?”

“Why do we call it ‘[end] human trafficking’ and not ‘end sexism’?” Velez-Rendon asks. “The root of sexism is when I go to high school and the boy thinks it’s OK to kiss the girl when the girl says no. Why are we not talking about that?”

The root of the crime, she argues, is violence born of racism and sexism, among other isms. The movement to end human trafficking, or slavery, serves the powerful, she says. It distracts from deeper societal issues, she says, much like the War on Drugs ignores the entrenched interests benefiting from the drug trade.

Bailey is familiar with Velez-Rendon’s concerns. The two are friends. Velez-Rendon says philosophical differences aside, she trusts Gray Haven’s work. And Bailey agrees sexism and racism surround the lives of those he’s working to help. He says his own privilege as a white male is something he works to keep in check.

“At the same time, that’s not my focus,” he adds. “We stepped up to fill a gap. No one was doing what we’re doing.”

And for Bailey, prostitution is not a gray area.

“We don’t have the right to say that other person’s body is a piece of property I have a right to buy with my money,” he says. “I just can’t settle for that.”


Prostitution is low on the priority list for a police department. Enforcement is costly, and ignoring prostitution means lower crime stats.

When Douglas A. Middleton, a 41-year veteran of the Henrico County Division of Police, became chief, he decided to take a risk. He began targeting prostitution with one train of thought: Where there are prostitutes there are drugs, where there drugs there are guns, and where there are guns, there’s going to be violence.

“We wanted to get guns off the street,” Middleton says, “and hold accountable the people who had them.”

Operation Innkeeper, as the initiative came to be called, saw quick results. The most recent numbers available, from June 2012 to October 2012, show that 60 prostitutes, 52 johns and 17 pimps were identified in 32 operations. Those operations recovered 286 grams of cocaine, 10 grams of heroin and nine firearms.

In Operation Innkeeper’s first year, police also discovered seven children forced into the sex trade.

In perhaps the most high-profile case to date, notorious East Coast pimp Calvin Winbush, known as Good Game, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Henrico police arrested him at a hotel with another prostitute and a 15-year-old girl.

Middleton is reluctant to talk tactics, but finding prostitutes working in the metro area takes just a few clicks. Since a crackdown on Craigslist, has become law enforcement’s go-to website for finding area prostitutes. Arresting them has become as easy as hiring them. Training sessions with hotel managers also are getting results, with one manager calling in a tip in November that saw the arrest of two men trafficking two women.

But when you know their circumstances, the chief says, it’s become difficult to simply arrest prostitutes and charge them.

“The pimps wouldn’t release them and they had no means of getting back home,” Middleton says. “We started finding juveniles brought here from out of state and were involved in the sex trade.”

The Richmond Justice Initiative began educating officers in Henrico and Richmond about human trafficking. (The Richmond Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Henrico officers, seeking to find a place for prostitutes to go other than a jail cell, began calling Mike Feinmel, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County.

Feinmel says he was “completely naive” to human trafficking, but he’d heard about Gray Haven.

The Baileys set up Gray Haven as a nonresidential program to meet the needs of trafficking victims with nowhere to turn. The location is secret, and they won’t discuss with whom they work or when in detail. In an environment built to shield victims from their past, they provide services as varied as medical care and assistance with immigration issues. The Baileys’ mission is to “walk with” those who are looking to change their lives.

Feinmel saw an opportunity. By working with Gray Haven, he could refer victims to a place to get help — and find them again when it came time to prosecute pimps.

“This relationship was born out of need,” he says. “We had this vacuum we didn’t know how to fill. These organizations have really been a blessing for us helping to prosecute these cases. …

“We’re winning cases now that two years ago we weren’t winning because we were losing our witnesses.”

There are enough cases now that Henrico County’s prostitution docket runs in three courtrooms with nearly three dozen cases every third Monday. In these courtrooms, human trafficking and prostitution intersect.

Judges heard about 30 prostitution cases on a recent Monday. The Baileys sat near the front of one courtroom to support whoever might be testifying, or perhaps help a new client.

“We want to empower them,” Bailey says. “Their voice matters more than anybody’s. They have this power to do good, to put a bad guy away, and do it on behalf of other girls just like them. It gives them that kind of idea, ‘I have a voice now.'”

Velez-Rendon has also sat in these courtrooms. She sees something different.



Velez-Rendon has watched the accused johns face judges in the courthouse. “They don’t feel ashamed,” she says, “and the people around them don’t feel angry towards them. When the prostitute is there, the environment feels tense. It is her fault.”

In her view, both traffickers and the criminal justice system are willing to use victims to serve their own ends. As a counselor working with prostitutes who were ordered by a judge to seek her services, she saw herself as part of a system seeking to turn victims into witnesses for the prosecution.

“We all are using the same methods — with everyone’s interests in mind — as the traffickers,” she says. “The victims get lost in that.”

For police chief Middleton, the more pimps put in jail, the better. Although Virginia currently does not have a statute defining human trafficking, weaving abduction, prostitution and pandering together and calling it human trafficking can win tougher sentences, Feinmel says.

If every prostitute is a trafficking victim, every pimp can get a sentence that much harsher. Gretchen Soderlund, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor now at the University of Oregon, has traced the history of sex trafficking and modern journalism. She says blurring the distinction between willing sex worker and trafficking victim helps get headlines — and convictions.

“Sex trafficking is a way to advance a humanitarian gesture but also give law enforcement tools to clamp down on commercial sex,” Soderlund says.

Human trafficking is under a brighter spotlight. The Richmond Justice Initiative will hold its first Virginia Abolition Conference on Jan. 10. The agenda includes training on lobbying, a session about aftercare services and prayer. The group’s website features a section listing prayers for victims, traffickers and johns, law enforcement officials, nongovernmental organizations and the church.

One prayer asks for divine favor. Carmen Williams, hotline manager at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, would settle for more funding. Regardless of the philosophical differences in how to address human trafficking, the calls are increasing and resources are scant, she says. And while the Richmond Justice Initiative, Feinmel and Middleton have a wish list of new laws to help prosecute traffickers, Williams says she hopes the overall goals that Velez-Rendon discusses will find room at the table.

“Without awareness, without education, without resources,” Williams says, “legislation won’t do much.”

Street say there was a time, just after getting away from her pimp, that she felt hopeless, even suicidal. Years later, she began talking publicly about her experiences after watching another survivor speak. The survivor still seemed hopeless. It appeared as though she were being exploited again.

“I didn’t like the way people were feeling,” Street says. Those in the audience “looked at her and confirmed things she may have been feeling about herself — that once you’re trafficked, it’s hopeless.”

“I’m a face of moving forward,” she says. “Hard times come. You get up and keep it moving and learn from it.” S


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