On Valentine’s Day 2012, Jarrae Estepp climbed into the passenger seat of a white Ford pick-up. She was five months pregnant and holding a long-stemmed rose.
The truck picked her up from the 3800 block of Oklahoma City’s South Robinson Avenue, drove a dozen blocks, and turned into the Catalina Motel. After the driver registered at the front desk, the pair entered Room 15.
From the motel parking lot, Brian Bates was secretly recording. He had documented the couple’s encounter from his car and followed them to the motel. With his camera still rolling, Bates slid out his smartphone, touched the speakerphone icon, and dialed a number. A telephone rang.
“Catalina Motel,” a woman’s voice said.
“Room 15, please,” Bates said.
Silence. Another telephone rang.
“Yeah?” a man’s voice said.
“ …What are you doing picking up a pregnant street prostitute on Robinson and bringing her to that motel room?” Bates said.
“Um, okay, I’ll go see the office, okay?” the man said.
“No, you don’t need to go to the office,” Bates said. “We videotaped you picking up that street prostitute… We’d like to talk to you. Would you like to do an interview with us?”
Within seconds, the door to Room 15 swung open. The driver of the pick-up emerged, followed by Estepp. The man rushed to his truck. Estepp tried to get back in, too, but the man refused to unlock the passenger door. He wanted her gone. Estepp refused to leave.
The man unlocked and entered the driver’s side, reached across the cab, and cracked open the passenger window. Estepp leaned down and pointed inside the pick-up toward the dashboard. Estepp reached inside the window’s slight opening and retrieved the rose.
As the truck pulled out, Estepp turned and walked across the parking lot. She returned to the crumbling neighborhood along Oklahoma City’s south side.
Slightly more than two years later, on March 14, 2014, Estepp’s naked body was discovered on a recycling conveyor belt 1,400 miles away. She was 21.
One And The Same
In the days after sanitation workers discovered her body, Estepp’s name splashed across global headlines. As far away as the United Kingdom, a reporter noted that Estepp was last seen in an area known for “trafficking.” In the U.S., the Huffington Post and Los Angeles Times, among others, ran stories that characterized Estepp as either a sex-trafficking victim or a prostitute—distinctions with very different implications. In recent years, few U.S. states have been immune to establishing criteria between the two, but in Oklahoma—where Estepp grew up and first engaged in commercial sex—the dividing line between victim and prostitute has grown increasingly stark.
To Brian Bates, the failure of Oklahoma’s elected officials, law enforcement, and social services to properly designate Estepp as a victim of sex trafficking contributed to her demise. Legally, sex trafficking is defined as commercial sex involving force, fraud, coercion, or anyone under the age of 18. Bates contends that this definition’s scope extends to the vast majority of prostitutes he has confronted throughout his career, and Estepp was among them. In 2012, according to Bates, his footage helped lead to Estepp’s arrest for solicitation. Had law enforcement designated her as a victim of sex trafficking then, Estepp would have been offered a host of social services, including access to a shelter for herself and her child. Instead, Estepp was simply deemed as a prostitute. Soon after, she returned to the streets.
To Bates, who is now 44 and looks like an undercover cop—tall and fit, clean-shaven in jeans and white sneakers—victim and prostitute are one and the same. The vast majority of prostituted women suffer a victimization that is perhaps more nuanced but no less debilitating, he said. Estepp is just one example of many. To most, Estepp appeared to turn tricks independently, selling her body to Oklahoma’s Johns of her free will. Throughout her brief life, few seemed to care about Estepp’s plight, that is, until after her death.
Sex trafficking is largely the rebranding of prostitution, or the world’s oldest form of abuse, according to Bates. It is also an opportunity for elected officials to exploit the term for political gain. Politically popular “sex-trafficking rescue operations” by law enforcement have led to a disproportionate amount of attention focused on sex trafficking. The media’s portrayal of it has created a climate in which victims continue to be unfairly differentiated. The result, Bates said, is this new label is causing the public—especially Johns—to view commercial sex through an increasingly bifurcated lens. We are taught to empathize with victims of sex trafficking, but not prostitutes.
The distinction has been absorbed into policy, Bates said, informing Oklahoma’s introduction of new legislation, and the passage of anti-trafficking laws and their enforcement. The laws frame traffickers as the primary perpetrators. Largely absent is the designation of a proportionate level of culpability on the Johns, whom Bates called the true perpetrators. In Oklahoma, educational or preventative programs for Johns are nonexistent, in spite of their success in other regions. Bates and other advocates contend that the policies are perpetuating illicit sex by departing further from the underlying cause of all forms of commercial sex: demand.
In response, Bates is changing the posture of his advocacy. For more than 15 years, Bates built a business, John TV, where he now maintains a profit-sharing partnership with YouTube, and continues to broadcast his footage of countless Johns and prostitutes caught in the act. Bates has always perceived his work as preventative. Now, the advent of sex trafficking—real or imagined—has caused Bates to expand into another form of prevention: direct classroom instruction. Tapping into the same enterprising instincts that first drove him to pick up a camcorder and educate the public about commercial sex, Bates is helping to create a John school. In doing so, starting with Johns, Bates intends to erase the line between victim and prostitute.
The nation’s first John school appeared in 1981 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At the time, the city was desperate to quell a sharp uptick in prostitution, and associated crime and violence. A serial killer had just targeted a local prostitute, and the public demanded novel solutions. The Grand Rapids Police Department had recently launched reverse-sting operations, in which female police officers posed as prostitutes to arrest Johns—a tactic that had been deployed in only a few other cities at the time. In turn, as part of their sentencing, Johns were required to attend John school. The school’s curriculum aimed to prevent or deter Johns from engaging in future prostitution. Over the next decade, hundreds of men participated in the program, and more than 50 cities across the U.S. adopted and launched their own versions of John school.
Traditionally, local governments established a John school by partnering with a nonprofit. These organizations were usually left in charge of composing a given John school’s curriculum and running operations. However, the nonprofits depended on law enforcement and the local court system to supply participants. Over time, local courts deviated from demanding that all recently arrested Johns complete a given John school, and began offering John school as an alternative to criminal penalties. Until several years ago, the effectiveness of John schools in curbing demand for prostitution and reducing recidivism was mixed.
In 2005, Oklahoma City launched its first and only John school. Several years earlier, Wes Lane, then Oklahoma County’s district attorney, called for the formation of a group of stakeholders and the public to meet and recommend policies on how to curb prostitution. Reverend Jack Grimes, a local pastor and a life-long resident of Robinson Avenue, invited Brian Bates to join the group as an observer. Bates was soon elected as a member. The group named themselves the Alliance Against Prostitution, or AAP, which Bates found to be offensive to the local community. Among its many recommendations over the years, the AAP set out to develop and launch the state’s first John school.
When it came time to develop the curriculum for the John school, Bates butted heads with his fellow AAP members; he felt that many of the members had never met a prostitute and were misinformed about critical issues. According to Bates, the key recommendations he made to the AAP’s John schools curriculum—especially surrounding the depth and breadth of content—were either overlooked or ignored. Before the school launched, Bates was told that he could not observe the classes or be directly involved. Out of protest, Bates resigned from the AAP. Soon after, the John school launched. Less than four years later, it closed.
Around the same time that Oklahoma City launched its school, the first major study on the effectiveness of John schools was commissioned by the Department of Justice. The two-year study, which was published in 2008, examined California’s efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex through John schools. It focused on San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program—a John school operated in partnership between the local district attorney’s office, police department, and a nonprofit, Standing Against Global Exploitation. Over its 13 years of operation, between 1995 and 2008, 5,799 men attended the John school, leading to sharp declines in recidivism, according to a report commissioned by the Justice Department.
Until the study’s publication, which established best and promising practices, the rapid rise and fall of Oklahoma City’s John school was not uncommon. Across the nation, the majority of John schools tended to quickly shut down due to poorly defined goals and difficulty sustaining public-private partnerships and long-term costs. Portland, Oregon, for instance, launched its first John school in 1995 in partnership with a nonprofit called the Sexual Exploitation Education Project. The John school closed in 1997. Then, in 2003, another John school emerged, a collaboration led by the Lola Greene Baldwin Foundation in partnership with Multnomah County Community and Circuit Courts. It closed in 2006. In contrast, after the publication of the Justice Department’s study, 29 U.S. cities launched John schools modeled after San Francisco’s. Of those, only two swiftly closed down.
This time around, Bates intends to draw from the empirical research and combine best practices with his self-designed approach, which remains untested. Indeed, Bates insists that the John school he plans to launch will be entirely distinct from Oklahoma City’s failed attempt. For instance, Oklahoma’s former John school emphasized health risks associated with engaging in prostitution, such as exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and future criminal repercussions. By contrast, modeled after San Francisco’s success, Bates intends to focus his school on educating Johns about their direct impact on the broader problem. He aims to heighten the Johns’ sense of personal responsibility and empathy for the women, or girls, they solicit.
If Bates has his way, many of the themes that helped earn him the nom de guerre “Video Vigilante” will be expanded upon within the new John school. Conducted over a four-day period, and consisting of two-hour classes, the John school will leverage much of the footage Bates captured throughout his career. The school’s philosophy will be rooted in trenchant storytelling. The curriculum will lay bare the personal journeys of prostitutes. It will deconstruct overt and veiled forms of force and coercion, or the defining characteristics associated with sex trafficking. And it will teach about trauma—the kind that derails lives.
To help compose the curriculum units and operate the John school, Bates, who is agnostic, has aligned himself with an unlikely partner: a Christian ministry called No Boundaries International. In Oklahoma, over the last three years, in a sector where nonprofits have come and gone, No Boundaries has managed to both remain on the ground and expand. Taken together, Bates and No Boundaries’ caseworkers accumulated no shortage of narratives to tell. The day before I arrived in Oklahoma City at its headquarters, No Boundaries held a candlelight vigil for Jarrae Estepp. Among its various forms of outreach on the streets, No Boundaries hands out roses to prostitutes on Valentine’s Day.
Day 1: Hope
I met Hope at the No Boundaries headquarters, where she told me about the day Brian Bates appeared beside her, camera rolling, in July of 2012, when she still called herself Niki. In the footage Bates captured then, it’s difficult to see Hope’s scar—where a dozen years earlier, a .32-caliber round penetrated the ridge of skull above her left eye. Fragments of bone remain lodged in Hope’s brain. Hope’s other scars are more concealed. Visible in the footage are Hope’s dangly earrings, dyed-red hair, and purple skin-tight dress. This was Niki, Hope said.
Unbeknownst to Hope and the John who picked her up that afternoon, Bates was capturing their encounter. From a distance, Bates had videotaped a sports utility vehicle stop short, pick up Hope, and cruise down Robinson. When the SUV turned several blocks later, Bates suspected that the pair was headed to a popular parking lot in the far corner of a nearby public park. Intent on catching them red-handed, Bates doubled back, turned a few streets down, and circled into a wooded area several hundred feet behind the lot.
Bates parked and dashed on foot with two cameras rolling, one connected to his sunglasses, the other in his hand. Across a set of train tracks and low-lying bushes, the parked SUV came into focus. Bates raised his hand-held camera and charged toward the SUV, breathing heavily. With each stride, the landscape blurred. Bates remained undetected by Hope and the John until he appeared beside the open passenger window and spoke.
“How about you not be bringing hookers back here?” Bates said.
“Oh my God!” Hope said. Startled, she attempted to raise her purse over her face.
The John’s seat was cranked down. He wore a goatee and cut-off shirt, and his arms were fat and tattooed. His jeans were bunched below his thighs.
“You’re busted, buddy,” Bates said.
The John yanked up his jeans. He turned his face away from the camera and started the ignition. The SUV backed up and sped away.
In Bates’ footage of Hope, which he later edited and broadcasted online, she appeared to enter the John’s SUV knowingly and intelligently. Hope seemed to understand the transaction that was expected to occur in the SUV, and what was required of her in order for it to be considered completed by each party. Also, in the video, Hope seemed to be working alone; there was no third party on the street corner where Hope was soliciting, nor later in the SUV.
Yet in front of Johns, Hope was a master at cloaking her suffering. She made it her business to wear a veil of willful participation. On most days, Hope even managed to project a sense of contentment. The creation of “Niki” helped, she said. For Hope, the goal was volume: turn tricks quickly, more than a dozen a day. The reality is that every penny went to Hope’s pimps, their addictions, and her own.
“Nobody imagines that this is the life they are going live,” Hope said.
Hope’s suffering is emblematic of other prostituted women, Lori Basey, co-founder and director of No Boundaries, told me. Teaching Johns to recognize and comprehend the depth of anguish that prostitutes endure is central to the John school curriculum that she and Bates are collaborating to design. They want Johns to see Hope’s scars for what they are—consequences of her barbed journey from childhood to the streets—and to comprehend that, like all female prostitutes, Hope began her life as a girl, whose dreams did not include growing up to spread her legs for men in exchange for cash. As a child, Hope was the victim of repeated sexual abuse; pregnant at 16 and despondent, Hope turned to crack, and soon after, her first trick off 11th Street in Tulsa.
To tell Hope’s story in a manner that evokes empathy, the school seeks to retain Hope, and others like her, to attend class and deliver testimony in person. It’s one thing to hear secondhand about Hope being choked out by pimps and strangers, and the vicious rapes she sustained; it’s quite another, and far more rattling, to watch Hope tell you herself. In person, Hope crystalizes how interwoven violence is to the life of a prostitute. As we spoke, Hope told me about a night when she was brutally attacked by a pimp in early 2011.
“I was raped,” she said, trembling. “He had a gun and busted the blood vessels in my eyes.”
Light of Christ
The name came to Lori Basey in the summer of 2006, while she was battling malaria. At the time, Basey, who is a trauma therapist with a doctorate in divinity, recently returned from Sierra Leone to her home in Oklahoma. During the trip, Basey supplied mental health services and introduced Jesus Christ to internally displaced refugees. To treat trauma, Basey has always combined therapy with gospel. “What people need is an encounter with the savior of the world,” she said. That summer, less than a week after returning home, Basey grew feverishly ill. She said, between waves of night sweats, she kept hearing the words “no boundaries.”
Basey founded No Boundaries International Ministries with Sandy Orchard, a registered nurse. She recruited volunteers and continued to embark on medical and faith-based missions to sub-Saharan Africa and, later, Haiti. “In 2011 someone said, ‘Can you please see what’s going on in Oklahoma City?’ ” Basey remembered. Earlier that year, Carina Saunders was tortured to death and dismembered. She was 19. “This wasn’t even sex trafficking,” Basey said. “It sounded like Africa.”
Across Oklahoma, Saunders’ death was widely reported as being tied to a sex-trafficking ring. Two years later, those reports turned out to be unfounded. Nonetheless, the erroneous reports served as the impetus for Basey steering No Boundaries towards undertaking the needs of the sexually trafficked in Oklahoma. In short order, along Robinson Avenue, No Boundaries rolled out a medical clinic, community center, and clothes pantry—the latter was named in honor of Saunders.
Critics argue that organizations like No Boundaries have actually served to fuel the local hysteria surrounding sex trafficking. Even Bates admits that one major unintended consequence of the quick roll-out of new nonprofits focused on curbing sex trafficking is that, for the greater public, they further cement the distinction between victim and prostitute. But when Bates first met Basey, he was struck by how she distinguished herself by operating without the usual arrogance that he had come to expect from charitable entrepreneurs. Basey was quick to admit that she was misled about Saunders’ death, and abandoned No Boundaries’ exclusive focus on sex-trafficking victims. No Boundaries’ mission now serves and advocates on behalf of the “sexually exploited,” which is inclusive to all prostituted women.
To create the John school, Basey reached out to Bates. She did so in spite of the fact that Bates’ primary line of work remains divisive. Critics call Bates exploitative; others, though less common, a trail-blazing citizen journalist. When I brought up Bates’ most controversial tactics, Basey cringed. “I can’t believe that he hasn’t been shot.” Still, she insists that Bates possesses a deeply humanistic side, which often feels incongruous to his public and online persona—and the polemical tone most of his videos take. Bates’ softening, especially towards prostitutes, she admits, is new.
As part of their efforts to recalibrate the way Johns perceive prostitutes, No Boundaries is integrating into its school what is perhaps a more strategic educational method. No Boundaries is betting that what has worked to pull prostitutes away from the streets will be effective on Johns. So far, regionally and across the state, many anti-trafficking campaigns have centered on demanding that the public perceive victims as “someone’s daughter.” Basey wants to push the campaign further. She plans to leverage faith.
Indeed, faith is part of the reason that Hope is alive and Jarrae Estepp is not. For more than a decade, Hope managed to elude Bates—an infamous figure on Robinson. During the later portion of those years, however, No Boundaries made inroads into Hope’s conscience. eventually eroding the shroud that was Niki. Over time, caseworkers got to know Hope. They prayed with her. They told Hope that she was beautiful. Mostly, they asked Hope to see herself cast in the light of Christ. And by the time Bates caught Hope on camera in the act, she was mortified. Hope had already developed a sense of her own value. Basey intends to teach the Johns to do the same: to see each and every prostitute not just as someone’s daughter, but as a child of God.
Given that he identifies himself as agnostic, I asked Bates how he felt about No Boundaries operating what is, at its core, a ministry. “I think we have to put our differences aside to help these people enslaved in our society,” he said.
Due to a confluence of factors, Bates and Basey are seeking approval to launch the John school in early 2015. In Oklahoma City, street prostitution is receding along the Robinson Avenue corridor only to surge in less obvious places. Much of the city’s commercial sex industry now occupies an ever-shifting string of cheap motels off Interstate 40. The move by pimps and prostitutes into temporary and mobile bases of operations is indicative of what is occurring across the state and region, they said. The shift reflects efforts to meet demand from Johns, who are responding to advertisements online—and from smartphones—with greater frequency.
Day 2: A Violation
Encased in neon light, not far from where Hope turned her first trick, sits Tulsa’s Midtown Adult Superstore. On a recent Sunday morning, a few minutes after 4 a.m., the man who cleans the pornography theaters arrived. By then, the floors were sticky. All night, in three of the nine theaters, moving images of men penetrating women were displayed. The films played on a loop.
The man who cleans the pornography theaters started up front, on the carpet near the cash register. He then worked his way across the retail store, to the bathroom tiles, followed by the theater floors. He began with a vacuum and progressed to a mop and yellow bucket. “He uses a lot of bleach,” a male co-worker said. “But you can’t blame him.”
The co-worker wore a giant belt buckle. He agreed to speak with me under the condition of anonymity. I asked if he had heard of sex trafficking in Oklahoma. “Yes,” he said. I asked how he felt about Johns, the ones who use prostitutes, as opposed to sex-trafficking victims. He was ambivalent about the former, and suggested that what two consenting adults choose to do is their own business. As for the latter: “I can’t stand them,” he said. “Makes me sick. I’d like to kill them.”
Nathan is one of Tulsa’s Midtown Adult Superstore customers. Or at least he was a customer. Before Nathan’s arrest, before his divorce, before he lost his job, before his puppy was killed, it was not uncommon for Nathan to fill more than half of his day watching pornography. Nathan often viewed “human gang bangs,” in which hundreds of men have sex with a single woman. For Nathan, “porn was the gateway for objectifying women,” he said. “I was stuck in a mindset of physicality.”
I met Nathan at a Celebrate Recovery meeting inside a sprawling Christian church. Nathan’s face is round. He wears his hair short, which elongates his forehead. A U.S. Marine Corp and Army veteran, Nathan is thick. His calves bugled beneath his shorts. In the service, Nathan worked in the infantry. Later, he became a medic and completed two tours, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Honorably discharged, Nathan joined the civilian world as a nurse. Along the way, Nathan lost his virginity to the woman who would become his wife.
Over pizza and soda, Nathan spoke of what he calls his addiction to sex. At the height of it, Nathan spent upwards of $10,000 per month on strippers and prostitutes. When his grandmother died two years ago, Nathan’s spending surged. “I spent all of my $40,000 inheritance from my grandmother in one month.” Nathan’s obsession with porn and his transgressions with strippers and prostitutes, not surprisingly, corroded his marriage. “She begged me to stop,” he said. “When I think about my ex-wife, I break down crying.”
Almost one year to the day before we met, Nathan responded to a post on Craigslist Oklahoma City. “Young Person Looking For Sugar Daddy,” the post read. Nathan supplied his phone number. Soon, he was texting and making plans to meet the mysterious young woman in the flesh. The young woman asked Nathan to visit a crowded McDonald’s in town. The plan: Nathan would approach the counter and signal that he was ordering via text. She would observe the counter. If she felt attracted to Nathan, she would reveal herself.
As Nathan approached the McDonald’s in his car, the two continued texting. Along the way, the young woman made it known that she was not, in fact, a woman, but a 15-year-old girl. Nevertheless, Nathan continued driving. He arrived at the McDonald’s and stood in line. As the line snaked closer towards the counter, something felt off to Nathan. In spite of this, when his turn arrived, Nathan ordered at the counter and sent the text, effectively identifying himself. A 15-year-old girl did not reveal herself. About a dozen sheriff’s deputies did.
Nathan’s arrest erupted across local news wires. In Oklahoma’s war against sex trafficking, the undercover law enforcement sting and subsequent capture of Nathan was a victory. After his release from jail on bond, Nathan returned home to discover his puppy lifeless in the backyard. Nathan believes that a neighbor killed his puppy as a form of retribution. Soon after, Nathan awoke to a litany of handmade signs hammered into his front yard that read: “Child Molester Lives Here.”
At present, Nathan is facing a 15-year prison sentence and a lifetime as a registered sex offender. “Morally, it’s an abomination. I deserve to be buried under the prison,” he said. Since his arrest, Nathan’s nursing license was revoked, and over the past year he’s struggled to survive. Still, several months ago, as a form of his own restorative justice, Nathan reached out to No Boundaries. He requested to volunteer. In turn, Basey welcomed Nathan into her ministry. Nathan now aspires to deliver his testimony at the planned John school. He hopes to tell his story and trigger awakenings in others.
The primary lesson that Nathan wants to teach Johns is that the devastation his actions caused was not limited to himself or his loved ones. Recently, Nathan learned that a former porn star he used to watch regularly was forced to soak in a bathtub of ice after shoots because her body was so ravaged. Nothing else managed to keep the swelling down. If this is the reality for porn stars, Nathan plans to ask Johns to imagine how devastated prostitutes end up—behind the scenes, both inside and out — to fulfill their collective sexual desires.
Nathan’s testimony would also include what he has learned since meeting Basey, attending No Boundaries’ events, and educating himself. Most prostitutes are born poor, he explained. And by and large, even after years working the streets or online, they remain so — and often, like Hope, due to trauma, addicted to drugs. Nathan wants Johns to know that the human beings he pursued were not just ordinary women; they were weak and exposed. And like every other John, by paying these women to service his needs, Nathan did not help them; he did the opposite. Nathan took advantage. He preyed on their vulnerability. “I was violating my own God,” he said.
Day 3: ALOHA
On most days, the man who cleans the floors at Day Spring Villa arrives after 3 p.m. His name is Jim. The only male on staff at Day Spring Villa, Jim is in his early 70s. “Some of the younger boys follow him around,” Wilma Lively, Day Spring Villa’s executive director, said. “They say, ‘I’m helping Mr. Jim today.’ ” It is good for the children to see a positive male role model, she added.
Lively requested that I not identify or report specifics about the children who reside at Day Spring Villa. She also preferred that I not reveal the organization’s precise location, except to say that it may be found within the Tulsa metro area. The reason is part of Day Spring Villa’s security measures, which were recently updated to maintain its certification by Oklahoma’s Attorney General’s Office. Until last year, Day Spring Villa was Oklahoma’s only certified faith-based shelter for sex-trafficking victims. If identified as a victim of sex trafficking and offered shelter here, one’s children are welcomed, too.
Lively began at Day Spring Villa as a volunteer, when the shelter still exclusively served victims of domestic violence. She is an elegant and soft-spoken executive with glasses and thin eyes. She is also a grandmother of seven and a woman of deep Christian faith. In spite of earning just a high school diploma, over the last two decades Lively worked her way up the ranks to executive director—harnessing Day Spring Villa’s 2012 expansion to sheltering sex-trafficking victims. Today, she oversees the organization’s $1.3 million annual budget.
Like many organizations, Day Spring distinguishes between prostitutes and sex-trafficking victims. Day Spring accepts solely the latter. “We haven’t had any who have just prostituted themselves,” Lively said. “All the ones that we’ve had have been trafficked.” Yet, as Lively described the trafficking victims her organization serves, each sounded akin to Hope and other prostitutes I had met in Oklahoma. “The majority have been in the child welfare system at a young age, some had been molested as a young child,” she said. “They show up ashamed of what they’ve done.” Day Spring Villa’s referrals continue to depend on the criteria used by law enforcement to identify sex-trafficking victims.
Two years ago, new state legislation established a sex-trafficking unit within the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. The unit was designed to “arrest violators” and “rescue and recover victims.” For Day Spring Villa, victim referrals derive from sex-trafficking investigations and busts by this law enforcement unit. Referrals also stem from a national hotline organized by the Polaris Project, an anti-human-trafficking nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Last year, the hotline received 46 sex-trafficking calls and referrals originating from Oklahoma.
“We always have an open bed for the sex-trafficking victims,” Lively said.
At Day Spring, when sex-trafficking victims arrive, they are identified as guests, not clients. Beyond shelter and three meals a day, Lively characterizes her—and the staff’s—work as showing the young ladies compassion and love, and offering them hope. After each woman walks through the front door, she receives a bracelet inscribed with the word “aloha.”
“We tell them that in Hawaii, aloha means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ ” Lively said, “but here at Day Spring, it stands for A Life of Hope Ahead.”
As for Johns, Lively maintains a special amount of disdain. “It’s just selfishness,” she said. Lively finds it baffling that when arrested, most Johns receive a slap on the wrist and pay a fine. “We’re going to have to do something,” she said. When I introduced the notion of a local John school, Lively’s eyes widened. “It’s a really good idea,” she said. I asked her what she believes Johns need to know. “That they could have a daughter or granddaughter that age,” she said. And with that, Lively struggled to say more. She placed her head in her hand.
“I just don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
Day 4: A Final Trick
Since she walked out of the Catalina Motel’s parking lot, it’s difficult to piece together exactly what happened to Jarrae Estepp. During the two years between Brian Bates’ Valentine’s Day call to Room 15 and her death, Estepp was spotted on Robinson. In spite of her pregnancy, Estepp continued to work the streets. “She drew so much attention,” Lori Basey said. “We could not figure out why the Johns were circling. Why would anyone pick up a visibly pregnant girl?”
As part of the final day of John school, Bates intends to tell Estepp’s story. While doing so, in class, Bates plans to dim the lights and project the last known moving images of Estepp. From time to time on Robinson, Estepp conversed in person with Bates. She vacillated between emotions. In one breath, Estepp told Bates that she would gut him with a knife. In another, she was tender, expressing that she was a good person.
During the final weeks of her pregnancy, No Boundaries caseworkers approached Estepp. On several occasions, Estepp agreed to join the group in prayer. Estepp would bow her head with the others, but afterwards, she would walk away. Estepp was adamant that she did not require saving. Not by them, or God, or anyone. She was no charity case.
Estepp wanted everyone to know, especially Bates, that she did not have some pimp forcing her to sell her body. She made her own decisions. Bates would challenge Estepp. Bates knew that Estepp lived with a boyfriend. Bates would ask Estepp,Does your boyfriend work? No, she would say. And do you pay all the bills? Yes, she said. Then he’s your pimp, Bates said. Estepp disagreed. She continued to prostitute herself until a day before giving birth. Bates felt obliged to call the Department of Human Services. A few days after Estepp bore a son, she returned to Robinson. The demand from Johns remained as it always had: steady. “She still had the baby fat,” Bates said.
Bates will inform the Johns that Estepp was robbed of her childhood. Throughout her life, she was repeatedly exposed to betrayal and stripped of her innocence. Her choices were few. Bates believes that Estepp turned her first trick several years before he captured her on camera. In 2012, Estepp was arrested in Oklahoma City. She was deemed a prostitute—not a victim of sex trafficking. She did not qualify for services. After her arrest, Estepp was quickly released. For women like Estepp and their children, there is no Day Spring Villa. No shelter. Just a long line of Johns.
After prostituting herself for years, battling addiction, and becoming a mother, Estepp moved to Elk City, Oklahoma. Here, Estepp sobered up and managed to exit prostitution. She began caring for her son. She took a minimum-wage job as a housekeeper at a Comfort Inn. She also worked at a Sonic Drive-In. The next time Estepp appeared on the radar was late this winter. Estepp’s brother, who had been incarcerated out West, was up for a court hearing. Estepp boarded a Greyhound bus in Oklahoma City destined for California. Nearly two days later, she arrived in Anaheim.
Not far from Disneyland, Estepp checked into the Anaheim Lodge. Estepp wanted to be present for her brother’s court hearing, just a short bus ride away. Estepp hoped to bring her brother some money or, if need be, place it on his books—a prison account for inmates to purchase phone cards, stamped envelopes, toilet paper, and food. Several blocks from the bus station, Estepp decided to solicit customers on the street.
Police say that it would be Estepp’s final trick. Sometime on the evening of March 13, near the corners of Beach Boulevard and Ball Road—an area frequented by Johns—an RV, occupied by two transient men, pulled up. It is unclear if Estepp entered against her will. Prosecutors say that the men raped Estepp, then strangled her to death and discarded her body in a nearby dumpster. The next morning, Estepp was discovered at a recycling plant several miles away. Only her bare torso was visible. The rest of her body was covered in trash.
1. To interview Bates this spring, I rented a car and drove from the mouth of the Mississippi River—home to the nation’s largest port—to Oklahoma City. Nearing midnight, I crossed Oklahoma’s border and arrived at a truck stop beside the Choctaw Nation Casino to fill up. In the darkness, between the stacked rows of parked 18-wheelers, I could not help but indulge in my paranoia and began searching for signs of sex trafficking. A decade ago, the FBI executed the final stage in a yearlong investigation at truck stops across Oklahoma. Code-named “Stormy Nights,” the operation involved federal officers working in partnership with law enforcement from neighboring states. After the arrest warrants were issued, traffickers from Wichita, Kansas, were picked up in Oklahoma and indicted. In the process, law enforcement officers discovered the youngest of the 23 women and girls forced to service the Johns at nearby truck stops and cheap motels was 12. Bates blames operations like Stormy Nights—which served as both a media darling (the story was covered by People Magazine) and a political lighting rod—for planting a seed in what has since led to a disproportionate amount of attention focused on sex trafficking at the expense of prostitutes like Estepp.
2. In March, Senator Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, and Representative Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, introduced legislation that would require human traffickers to serve 85 percent of their prison sentences. It also increased the potential sentence for one convicted of human trafficking to life in prison. The bill passed the house in an 85–0 vote. Also, another bill introduced by Crain and Representative Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, would mandate sex-offender registration for human traffickers. In 2010, quick payday loans lenders only was signed into law, prohibiting a person from conducting any financial transaction using the proceeds from trafficking to further the commission of such an act. Also in 2010, Oklahoma Senate Bill 956 was signed into law. It prohibited human trafficking, which was already covered under federal law. Though it modified what constitutes human trafficking by increasing the related age of a victim for punishment of a human trafficker, and authorized the ability for prosecutors to seize the property of individuals suspected or convicted of human trafficking. The Polaris Project, a national anti-human-trafficking organization, has credited Oklahoma for introducing and passing anti-trafficking legislations, but has noted that Oklahoma still needs to do a better job training law enforcement and providing safe harbor for victims.
3. Instead of focusing on curbing demand for all forms of commercial sex, new policies have manifested into deeper criminalization of traffickers and sexual predators. To battle sex trafficking—not unlike the war on drugs—Oklahoma’s legislature placed the onus on organizers of the supply side. Bates argues that this is draining law enforcement resources on tactics that win political points but are largely ineffective. Leaders of the new anti-human-trafficking task forces claim that they are indeed battling against demand. The emphasis, though, tends to focus on “sexual predators,” who prey on sex-trafficking victims or primarily underage girls. For instance, in one popular law enforcement method designed to catch sexual predators—like the infamous television program—agents pose online as underage girls. The agents lure Johns to victims who do not actually exist.
4. Long before anti-sex-trafficking billboards dotted our highways, Brian Bates viewed the men who pay for sex—and the women who supply it—as roaches. Almost two decades ago, fed up with flagrant commercial sex occurring in his Oklahoma City neighborhood, Bates purchased a camcorder to capture the transactions. Bates went on to build a full-time extermination business of sorts, documenting and accosting Johns and prostitutes. Bates now earns a living by selling and broadcasting his footage. His company, JohnTV.com—where videos of Estepp and hundreds of others have appeared—is an official YouTube partner. “People think I am a freak, but I am just really passionate about the issue,” he said. Bates, who describes himself as a family man, lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, with his wife, who is his biggest advocate.
5. According to Bates, during a closed-door meeting to elect board members, which Wes Lane attended, the group called Bates on speakerphone and invited him to become a board member and regular contributor to the group. Initially, Bates refused, telling the members that he is incapable of being politically correct. The group insisted. After Lane made a direct request, Bates accepted. Problems quickly arose, and not just with naming the group “Alliance Against Prostitution.” On the policy front, Lane wanted to seize the vehicles of Johns and prostitutes. “I again butted heads, as I felt that [this] only further victimized the women,” Bates said.
6. To help protect her identity, Hope requested that I use her nickname.
7. In 2004, at a convenience store, Hope was the victim of an armed robbery. She managed to survive the gunshot wound to her head. Like many of her perpetrators, the man who pulled the trigger remains at large.
8. As a rule, Basey does not call women “prostitutes.” Rather, Basey uses the term “prostituted woman, or women,” which she says is both more accurate and emotionally sensitive to the women.
9. Basey believes that underage girls trapped against their will at age 15 certainly exist, but such cases are more rare than portrayed by the media. Similarly, high-end escorts who service businessmen at a rate of $500 per hour—an argument often used to defend prostitution—also exist. But in Oklahoma, like the rest of the nation, this is largely the exception, not the rule. On the streets and behind the Internet’s wall, most common is everything in between.
10. South of Oklahoma’s capitol, in the shadows of a towering old Cargill factory, this side of Robinson is home to the destitute. The neighborhood is notorious for its poverty as much as its brazen commercial sex. When Basey received her first tour here, she was stricken with grief. “We saw a girl picked up every 15 minutes, did God knows what in that car, and then the pimp, halfway through the day, gets her a hotdog and Mountain Dew.”
11. Basey lamented over the extent of shame and humiliation that Bates imparts on others by virtue of his videos and blog. “The mud-slinging, the things he says, we agree to disagree with him. And he agrees to disagree with us.”
12. Nathan requested that I refrain from reporting his last name.
13. Celebrate Recovery is a Christian-based support group that helps with pain, addiction, and general hang-ups. Different versions of the group exist in 20,000 churches worldwide.
14. In 2003, a study entitled “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder” was completed by a group of researchers led by Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist. Through a series of 854 interviews with prostitutes, the team concluded that “prostitution was multi-traumatic: 71 percent were physically assaulted; 63 percent were raped; 89 percent wanted to escape prostitution; and 68 percent met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Severity of PTSD symptoms was strongly associated with the number of different types of lifetime sexual and physical violence.” More broadly, the research continued, “Prostitution dehumanizes, commodifies, and fetishizes women, in contrast to non-commercial casual sex where both people act on the basis of sexual desire and both people are free to retract without economic consequence. In prostitution, there is always a power imbalance, where the John has the social and economic power to hire her/him to act like a sexualized puppet. Prostitution excludes any mutuality of privilege of pleasure: Its goal is to ensure that one person does not use her personal desire to determine which sexual acts do and do not occur—while the other person acts on the basis of his personal desire.” In the study, there was little or no distinction between what prostituted women reported in first-world and third-world nations, nor in countries where prostitution is mostly legal or illegal, or more or less socially tolerated.
15. Now, three certified faith-based shelters for sex-trafficking victims dot the state.
16. Last fall, over a period of four days, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control’s sex-trafficking unit arrested nearly four dozen people. The investigation and bust swept across Tulsa, Rogers, Ottawa, and Delaware counties. Among those arrested, 20 were identified as prostitutes; of these, three were deemed sex-trafficking victims. More recently, in June, as part of a national sex-trafficking enforcement operation, the FBI teamed up with the Oklahoma City Police Department to execute local online stings. They resulted in the arrest of 38 prostitutes in the Oklahoma City metro area. Only three among them were identified as sex-trafficking victims.
17. Lively likes to say to the women who arrive at Day Spring: “It’s not what you’ve done: it’s what has been done to you.”
18. Of these, 21 calls were made directly by potential sex-trafficking victims. Family members, friends, truck drivers, and so on made the remainder of calls. (The hotline received a total of 262 calls last year, though many included reports of other types of human trafficking, including labor.)
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 19, October 1, 2014.