“The Stolen Ones”—A Herald-Tribune Special Report

Story by J. David McSwane / Photography and video by Dan Wagner—
“Wearing only a sports bra and boxers, bruises on her back, the girl surged through the salon’s door. Her feet were bare and bleeding from the race over asphalt, her speech a frenzied heave as she spilled the secret of where she had been, what she had been doing.

Camille Johnson’s daughter confirmed the unthinkable.

For weeks, Johnson had searched these north Sarasota streets, knocking on doors in the early morning, shouting in the rain, asking about her missing 17-year-old daughter, Wa-Das Crowle (WAH-Dez CROU-lee). Everyone calls her Moe.

It was beyond frightening that Moe’s whereabouts and activities had been a mystery, for in this segregated tract of Sarasota, news both good and bad spreads fast and far through blood ties and marriage and church circles that connect nearly everyone by one degree. In this neighborhood, the gossip collides at Johnson’s meager salon.

Johnson, a tall woman, now seems diminutive against the darkness she strains to remember. She points to the Japanese sword in the corner, between the plastic cupboard and the partition. She endeavors to explain why she clutched the sword, why she confronted her daughter’s abusers.

Moe at age 13.

Two of her adult children, listening, gather the grandchildren and walk out into the night.

“One day,” Johnson says, “she called and said that she was OK, and I didn’t need to look for her. It didn’t sound like my daughter.”

At the age of 14, Moe began an agonizing descent into drugs that confounded the rest of the family. She dropped out of high school when she was 15. She would run away, then come home, then run, more than 30 times, until finally, at 17, she didn’t return.

Friends told Johnson they had seen Moe in the pitch of early morning and were startled by her provocative clothing and overall metamorphosis. She seemed a bit too skinny, they said, a ghostly imitation of the girl who watched Saturday morning cartoons and spent much of the year pining for the Sarasota County Fair.

Someone told Johnson her daughter was staying in Janie’s Garden, a new public housing complex next to the railroad tracks.

“Whenever I tried to go out and find out what apartment she was in,” Johnson says, “no one would answer the door.”

Then came the day when Moe returned, screaming inside the salon, the story shooting out of her like a grand finale, each detail more jarring than the last. The rumors were true.

It was 2011, in the spring. Moe had been only blocks away from Johnson’s salon, a 15-minute walk down Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a blighted thoroughfare that cuts through Sarasota’s black neighborhood and intersects with the oppressive clamor of highways on each end.

She was being sold to middle-aged men who paid in cash and drugs. Her abusers had found in a vulnerable girl a renewable supply for a perverse demand that exists here, as it does everywhere.

The next day, after Moe told Sarasota police what had happened, Johnson grabbed the katana, loading it into her car along with Moe. She told the girl to take her to the house where it happened.

“I wanted to kill them,” Johnson says.

Moe’s introduction is typical of those suffering in this underground economy.

Identifying an official term for what happened to Moe is a matter of debate and conscience. It’s different under federal law, varying from state to state, city to city, police officer to police officer. Some are swift to label it child prostitution, an unfortunate choice of profession by someone under the age of 18. Others call it sex trafficking or sex slavery or — safely — exploitation of a child.

Sarasota’s North Tamiami Trail.

The semantics are crucial as prosecutors and detectives face an increasingly common American question: Is she a criminal or a victim?

In Sarasota, the answer was yes.

Moe would eventually become a key witness in one of the city’s largest prostitution busts. But she also was using drugs and disappearing for days at a time.

To stabilize her, Moe’s mother and Sarasota officials did the only thing they could think of, the same last resort left to well-meaning public servants everywhere: They found a reason to lock Moe away.

Moe was sentenced to a juvenile jail 500 miles away, in Milton, Fla.,  where she was kept for 18 months.


oe’s case is a blip in an American phenomenon.

In our justice system, there is no other crime that more efficiently punishes victims rather than those who victimize. There may be no other human cruelty that is more misunderstood, no subject more uncomfortable to read about or consider deeply, no quandary that so greatly challenges society’s assumptions about free will and justice.

Lacking resources and comprehensive laws, those striving to help must make herculean and unorthodox efforts to recover and rehabilitate children suffering in the sex trade.

The instinct to “lock down” or incarcerate such victims is pervasive. The reason is practical. Sex trafficking victims are notoriously unreliable and reluctant witnesses, but their testimony is usually the fulcrum of any prosecution.

Lockdown is the easiest way to stabilize victims – that is, keep them in one place, sober. Others have been held for long periods as material witnesses, while some have been committed under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows law enforcement to place involuntary mental health holds on citizens judged to pose a danger to themselves.

Foster homes and youth shelters are also failing to keep victims safe and perpetrators out. In several cases, traffickers have used foster homes as recruiting pools.

Seeing this, victim advocates in Florida fear the lockdown response may become policy. At least one foster care agency that contracts with the state’s Department of Children and Families supports legislation in 2014 that would require victims to go directly to a jail or similar facility.

Most social workers who have worked with prostituted children oppose this idea. Treating victims of such immense abuse as criminals creates more problems, they say, and the effects are lasting and profound. The treatment of trafficked children as criminals often keeps them from receiving specialized mental health services, and the practice creates a criminal record. Thus begins what advocates describe as an inescapable cycle of criminality.

Victims become indistinguishable from criminals, even to themselves.

Camille Johnson and Moe embrace after Moe’s release from jail.”

To read the rest of the original article, please click here.

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