It’s part of the game. Because you got to establish a certain thing. You got to establish some fear in that female in order to get that respect. You have to really show that girl — if you told that girl you was gonna kill her, when it come time to [fighting], you have to almost kill her, to beg her to say, “Daddy, no please don’t kill me.” You have to be that serious.
— Bishop Don “Magic” Juan, interview with VladTV.com, April 2013.
(*Editor’s note: “Laura Abasi,” “DJ,” and “Quinn” are not the characters’ real names. All other names in the story are real.)
In early spring of 2004, Laura Abasi stepped out the passenger side of a white Mercedes coupe and onto a red carpet. Laura, 21, didn’t have much time to get ready for the event, an album premiere party at an entertainment studio on Manhattan’s west side.
It didn’t matter. DJ had walked into her room about 30 minutes before they had to leave and thrust a shopping bag at her. She slipped on its contents — a knee-length, multi-colored, long-sleeved wrap dress and strappy black stiletto heels. Both items fit perfectly. DJ knew her size — her body — better than she did.
At the party, DJ strode into a thicket of artists and music industry execs flitting around the crowded studio. DJ was Laura’s pimp, and he had purchased her outfit for the occasion. He knew some of the famous faces at the party through his boss, a Billboard chart-topping rapper. DJ introduced Laura to his boss and his wife, and maybe two other men in suits. Of course, DJ referred to Laura as “Amber,” her professional alias. She hadn’t heard “Laura,” her given name, since she was a teenager.
DJ’s boss knew he was a pimp. He had even cast DJ as a pimp in a recent music video, but MTV cut the scene when producers realized DJ wasn’t acting. If anyone else at the party understood or even wondered about DJ and Laura’s relationship, they didn’t indicate it.
“This is Amber,” DJ said.
Laura had turned her first trick on February 1, 2000, for a pimp named Quinn. The Kenyan-born, 5-foot-11 high school dropout thought she would become a model. At 18, she was old for a “green” prostitute — pimps usually “break” girls before they reach 14. And, with her doctor father and middle-class upbringing, Laura had seen more Volvos and college pamphlets than most trafficking victims ever would. Laura’s family emigrated to the U.S. when she was a baby and eventually settled down in a suburban part of Queens.
Laura was a high-worth prospect, so Quinn didn’t rush the “seasoning” process. Laura was 15 when Quinn, who was in his 20s, stopped in the market where she worked after school. He posed as a hopeful suitor, and then a trustworthy boyfriend, until Laura believed her captor was her soul mate. Once Laura moved into Quinn’s apartment — just a few subway stops away from her parents’ house — the road from impressionable teenager to brainwashed chattel proved to be short. Laura went into hibernation and out popped Amber, a hardscrabble bitch who could tell an eager john by his gait.
“Bitch, you mines now,” DJ had said.
When Laura didn’t hop in the car, DJ opened the back door to offer proof of ownership. Laura saw everything she owned strewn across the back seat, indicating that Quinn had traded her. She understood that DJ was now her pimp, so she acquiesced and moved into his New Jersey McMansion that night.
Since then, Laura had dangled on DJ’s arm at a number of industry parties. She knew she wasn’t a guest, so she never acted like one. As usual, she didn’t take hors d’oeuvres from trays or even go to the bathroom. Instead, she stood in a corner while DJ sidled up to celebrities.
Someone else may have felt awkward standing alone at a party, but Laura didn’t. Feeling awkward would have required Laura to think critically about how other people saw her. Laura hadn’t thought for or about herself in years.
Like thousands of other American girls, Laura gave up control of her mind when she fell into pimp-controlled street prostitution, a rampant form of human sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a type of modern day slavery and, according to New York State Law, occurs when people profit from the control and exploitation of others through sex. The idea that street prostitutes exercise free will is a lie, according to advocates and former victims. Pimps target vulnerable girls — often runaways, foster children, undocumented immigrants, and victims of physical and sexual abuse.
Laura’s story, as bracing and violent as it gets, is not uncommon in New York, the country’s fourth-largest hub for human trafficking. Until 2007, sexually exploited children like Laura were criminals under state law. But in the past seven years, through anti-trafficking legislation and judicial reform, activists and lawmakers have worked to change the laws so that sexually exploited youth are treated as victims, not criminals.
Laura didn’t wonder why the outside world — white-collared men, rappers, neighbors, and town car drivers — either overlooked what DJ did or, often, helped him do it. She didn’t find it upsetting, or even odd, that people saw pimps like DJ as hard-knocks heroes — and women like Laura as property. Survival instinct and delusion subdued any impulse to question DJ’s perverted version of the truth.
For instance, DJ often said, “I love you so much, you’re gonna make me kill you.”
Wow, he loves me that much, Laura would only think in reply.
Although Laura stood in silence, the party itself was loud. Bass-heavy tracks competed with the din of conversations that surrounded her. She watched hip-hop artists toss back champagne and throw up crossed, sideways peace signs for photos. She might have ordered champagne herself, but DJ prohibited alcohol — he thought drunkenness was unladylike.
DJ did, however, endorse drug use, and dispensed generous helpings of whatever his girls needed to meet their nightly quotas. Some girls liked the hallucinogenic haze of an ecstasy-and-weed cocktail. Others preferred to turn tricks on a cocksure cocaine high. And then some girls liked the hard stuff. But drinking enabled sloppy behavior that threatened DJ’s control, and he didn’t tolerate it.
After a few hours of partying, DJ collected Laura to leave. They stopped at a diner in Weehawken, N.J. on the way home for a late night snack. DJ talked, cracked jokes and shared observations.
Laura ordered her favorite treat, pigs in a blanket, and responded when summoned. She knew to limit her contributions to conversations.
“Yes, Daddy,” and, when appropriate, “No, Daddy.” And after five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.
After five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.
In late spring 2004, about two months after the rap album party, DJ called Laura and told her to cut the night short. Laura usually got home from work around 7 a.m. and flopped on her bed to watch reruns of the family sitcom “Home Improvement.” DJ occasionally joined her. But that night, Laura walked through the door around 1 a.m. and found DJ sitting on the living room couch with a piece of loose-leaf paper in his hand. It was Laura’s to-do-list, which included a reminder to send her mother $2,000.
DJ just stared at Laura when she refused to give him a straight answer about the $2,000 on the list. He looked stunned. Until that night, he trusted her more than anyone — more than his mother Lil’ Ma; even more than his now dead attorney, Russell Paisley, who kept DJ, and a lot of New York pimps, out of jail and in the game year after year.
DJ’s steady timbre escalated into a gravelly bark and Laura, wise to his temper, took off. She dashed up the stairs and into her bedroom. Although her room provided little refuge, Laura didn’t consider going anywhere else. By that point, she had been arrested on prostitution-related charges over 20 times. To the justice system, she wasn’t a girl in need — she was just a criminal. And to the outside world, she was a whore going nowhere.
Laura waited at the far corner of her room, bracing for DJ’s attack. Like all pimps, DJ had strict rules. The handful of girls who rotated through DJ’s house couldn’t leave without permission or keep the money they earned from prostitution. Laura, in particular, could make over $10,000 a week — sometimes, she made that much in one day. Every penny was supposed to go to DJ. He bought everything Laura owned or used, from floor-length furs she wore while turning tricks to Tylenol and tampons.
But Laura had secretly held on to some of her earnings. She had hidden rolled-up bills in condoms, and stashed the condoms in Arm & Hammer baking soda boxes scattered around the house.
While Quinn avoided Laura’s face when he beat her, DJ didn’t care. DJ was a “Gorilla Pimp,” a distinction reserved for pimps who dole out near-fatal beatings on autopilot. DJ even preferred to have sex with Laura right after he beat her, before the slippery blood in her weave dried into clumps. She called it “grudge-fucking,” but it was textbook rape.
DJ kicked open Laura’s door and stood in the doorway. His rabid gaze said he was angrier than usual. He’d ditched Laura’s to-do list and grabbed tools from his arsenal: his “nookie,” a whip made from twisted clothes hangers, and a metal bat.
He rushed at Laura, hurling his fists into her head. He swatted at her face until her eye sockets and lips swelled into bloody pillows of flesh. Then he proceeded to ransack her room for the money. Laura knew that she didn’t leave her to-do list lying around. Another girl in the house had found it while rooting around her room, and then gamely placed it in DJ’s hands.
He cut open her pillows and mattress, and pulled apart her dresser. Oh God, don’t tip over the baking soda, Laura thought. But, when he came up empty-handed, DJ turned on Laura again.
DJ beat her until after the sun came up, making sure to immobilize her so she couldn’t grab the hidden money and flee. Laura fought back until her kneecaps gave out, and screamed until blows to her face rendered her mute. But she didn’t cry. She never cried during beatings, even when DJ left her with “tiger stripes,” lines of open wounds in her back.
Grueling sensations hit every nerve ending in her body. She couldn’t distinguish stinging lacerations from throbbing joints. She assumed this was the feeling of dying. As hours passed, she grew numb to the deafening pain.
Sometime that morning an older white man entered Laura’s room, where her swollen body languished on the bed. Swaths of blood had turned the white wall beside her into a grisly canvas. Laura recognized the man as a doctor who sometimes visited the house after beatings. DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.
DJ stood at the door while the doctor poked at Laura’s eyes and palpated her bruised neck. Although she wouldn’t walk for two months, and a broken rib made it hard to take even shallow breaths, the doctor decided she wasn’t about to die. So the two men left the room.
Laura had seen DJ morph into a monster many times since receiving her first beating at 18. Usually, she just vied harder for his love. But that night changed things. For the first time, DJ questioned her loyalty — and so did Laura.
Six months later, in October 2004, Laura tore away from the curb of the Plaza Hotel in the royal blue SUV DJ had bought her to use in “the life.” This was her first chance to escape since she tried to leave DJ two months earlier. Her first attempt failed because DJ had secretly put GPS tracking devices on her car and phone.
Laura enjoyed three days of freedom before DJ captured her and left her naked and penniless in a hotel off the highway in southern New Jersey for four days. Then, he brought her to his house and locked her up again — for a month. DJ eventually released Laura to go turn tricks, but only under supervision of Kimmie, another girl in the house.
Laura and Kimmie went out together the next day. Laura tricked Kimmie into leaving her alone in the car while Kimmie met a client at the Plaza. Once Laura felt that Kimmie’s date was well underway, she hopped into the driver’s seat and took off.
Laura called her friend Tonya to meet her at the Queens Midtown tunnel, trembling as she coordinated her getaway. Laura decided to ditch the car and her phone across town from the tunnel because she knew DJ tracked them. So she drove to a garage by the Westside Highway, handed the car to a valet, and threw out her phone. Then she trekked back across Manhattan in four-inch heels to meet Tonya.
After moving onto Tonya’s couch, Laura burned all reminders of DJ — clothing, underwear, photos, and tchotchkes. But she didn’t cut ties with the life. Prostitution provided fast, easy money, and Laura had grown accustomed to a lifestyle that minimum wage work couldn’t support.
She feared DJ, not the johns, or “tricks,” whom she considered easy to manipulate. Sometimes, her clientele of mostly middle-aged and older white men paid $3,000 a night for intricate dry humping. Laura didn’t see any reason to get a regular job.
In August 2010, almost six years after leaving DJ, Laura walked into a Manhattan holding precinct on Varick Street in a lightweight work dress and heavy handcuffs. Once inside, the officer hollered that he had “another body coming downstairs.” Laura realized she was the body.
Can’t they use any other word?
She began to scream at the officer.
“My name is fucking Laura,” she said. “Laura Abasi, motherfucker.”
Laura didn’t know why she had to sit in the precinct in the first place. If she had one person to blame, it was Norma Platt. Too bad she didn’t exist.
When Laura started turning tricks in 2000, Quinn told her to identify herself to police as Norma Platt. When Laura moved in with DJ later that year, he gave her fake identity documents bearing Norma’s name. Because she incurred all 24 arrests as Norma, Laura technically fled DJ with a clean record.
Norma’s checkered past, however, caught up with Laura at JFK airport in the summer of 2008, on her way home from her grandmother’s funeral in Kenya.
JFK customs officials took her fingerprints and Norma’s criminal record popped up. This detainment triggered two years of court date postponements that Laura didn’t take seriously. Getting caught, however, compelled her to quit the life for good.
Eventually, on an August morning in 2010, Laura’s court date arrived. She expected to get a fine, at most. Instead, she ended up handcuffed in the back of an unmarked Chevy Impala. Immigration Customs Enforcement officers whisked her to the Varick Street holding Precinct. Later that night, ICE hauled her off to Monmoth County Correctional Institution in Freehold, New Jersey.
Six months later, on December 18, 2010, Laura milled around the prison common room after dinner. She wore long underwear below her burgundy standard-issue jumpsuit to keep warm. She knew ICE sent her to prison for “crimes of moral turpitude,” but she wasn’t sure what moral turpitude meant.
Previous experiences made her wary of lawyers, so she didn’t seek out any representation. Lawyers, however, came to her. In October, two Legal Aid attorneys visited the prison and told Laura she may get deported based on her prostitution history.
Laura didn’t know when her sentence would be over, but she hoped it wouldn’t last too long. So she sat tight and waited to bid goodbye to the 149 other female inmates to whom she spoke as little as possible.
Around 8 p.m., Laura heard a prison guard bellow her name from across the common area.
“Pack it up,” he said, without further explanation.
Laura didn’t comprehend that she had been discharged until the other inmates started clapping.
Packing didn’t take long. Laura retrieved the dress she’d worn to jail and threw books in a plastic bag. On her way out, the prison guard handed her a bus ticket, and pointed her towards a station across a wooded area. The temperature lingered somewhere below freezing and the air assaulted her bones, but she didn’t care.
Following the guard’s directions, Laura ambled through the brush in the general direction of a bus station. After about 45 minutes, she reached a thoroughfare lined with stores. A middle-aged man asked her if she had come from jail, and told her she missed a bus to Manhattan. Then, she heard someone yell her name.
Just a hallucination, she thought.
She turned around and saw her best friend Natalie’s Chinchilla jacket. She had no idea how Natalie knew she was there, but she didn’t care. They hotfooted towards each other, shrieking with delight.
On Laura’s way to the car, the middle-aged man asked for her bus ticket.
Why the hell not, she thought, and handed it over.
Almost a year later, in November 2011, Laura walked down a cobbled side street in lower Manhattan with one of her Legal Aid attorneys, Meredith Ryan. Laura had an appointment at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization that provided counseling and legal services to victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Ryan had reached out to Dorchen Leidholdt, a sex trafficking expert and the legal director at Sanctuary, to prepare for Laura’s deportation hearing.
Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.
Leidholdt had reviewed Laura’s case and determined she was a clear victim of sex trafficking. She saw Laura as a potential candidate for a New York State court process called vacatur, which could expunge her prostitution arrests. Vacatur entailed a separate legal proceeding because prostitution fell under state jurisdiction, whereas federal law controlled immigration.
The idea of another hearing exhausted Laura, but what choice did she have? The past year had been a whirlwind of setbacks. Laura moved in with Natalie after she left jail, and spent a month in a depressed haze. She lost her car and apartment from delinquent payments. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She didn’t have a job. And deportation still loomed on the horizon.
At Sanctuary’s unmarked offices, Laura met Leidholdt and Emily Amick, a young staff attorney. Laura told Amick her story through DJ’s eyes — a beautiful girl lured into a fast life of glamour and money. Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.
After Laura finished relaying her saga, Leidholdt and Amick said a lot of things that Laura didn’t understand. She cringed when they called her a victim, but she tried to suppress her frustration. Laura wanted to grab a cab home to Queens and sleep off the meeting.
She agreed, however, to join the three attorneys for lunch. Laura normally shied away from groups of women — flocks, she termed them. But she figured she’d be seeing these women a lot. So, she tried to get comfortable with them.
In April 2012, Laura, now 30, woke up in an Albany Ramada Inn well before her alarm blared. She’d spent many nights in hotel beds with clients, but this time she shared a suite with her attorneys. She had packed black business attire because the occasion called for it, not because men fawned over a hooker who looked like a CEO. Laura had agreed to tell her story at the state legislature to support the latest bill in a wave of anti-sex trafficking legislation.
New York State made sex trafficking a crime in 2007. The Legislature passed a law to recognize children and teenagers inveigled into prostitution as victims of trafficking. Before then, they were criminally liable sex workers.
Amick begged Laura to prepare remarks for her speech, but she decided to wing it. She performed better off the cuff. Laura hadn’t shared her story in public before, and she wasn’t looking forward to it. But, she knew that lawmakers needed to understand why sex trafficking was so lucrative and hard to curb.
“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp just so he could have that control, that mind control.”
Laura knew from experience that a female body was a more valuable commodity than any illicit good. DJ could have moved several kilos of high-grade heroin a week or sold shiny black Colt 45s by the trunkful, but pimping was a better bet. Higher earnings, lower penalties — the career criminal’s dream. Laura felt a duty to help squash that squalid dream, even if deportation followed.
Laura approached the podium around 9 a.m. and stood before about 30 elected officials. Her name-tag said “Kenya,” the name she chose when her attorneys said she needed a protective alias until her cases ended. Laura locked eyes with Amick and Leidholdt when she started speaking. When she felt tears forming, she tilted her head towards the ceiling. She no longer sounded like DJ’s publicist.
“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp,” she said. “Just so he could have that control, that mind control.”
She described a law enforcement system that didn’t try to protect her.
“I was a child,” she said. “I didn’t know any better. I had no one to assist me. I had no one to go to. The police failed me. The judge failed me. Everyone around me failed me. The only one I thought was there for me was my pimp.”
She lamented the label “prostitute.”
“I’m at the point where I just feel worthless because I have this word “prostitution” follow me everywhere. I’m not a prostitute. I’m a good woman.”
The label would follow her for at least another year, until her vacatur hearing. Laura was among the first persons who could request to vacate prostitution arrests based on her trafficking status. A 2010 bill made vacatur an explicit legal recourse for trafficking victims — which meant sex workers who could show that their pimps kept them in prostitution through coercive tactics that included supplying drugs, withholding identification documents, lying, and threatening physical injury, deportation or public exposure.
Bill by bill, statute by statute, the state Legislature created a new legal system. It not only decriminalized prostitution for trafficking victims, but also gave girls like Laura the chance to re-enter society without stigma.
These anti-trafficking efforts were a huge coup, yet the laws still had gaps and loopholes. New York State was the fourth biggest hub for an industry that dealt primarily in young girls. Slavery was a bustling business, in New York and elsewhere.
When Laura finished speaking, Amick paraded her through a receiving line of lawmakers. In Amick’s eyes, Laura had graduated from survivor to leader. But Laura didn’t see it that way. She was just a woman telling her story, and she was exhausted.
A year later, in June 2013, Laura stood before a judge in a midtown courtroom for her vacatur hearing. Her legal team included Leidholdt, Amick, Ryan, and two more pro-bono attorneys from the white shoe firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. After months of arduous prep, the hearing only took 10 minutes. Laura’s attorneys presented documents. Then the judge shuffled the documents and struck her gavel against the wooden bench.
The judge vacated all 24 prostitution arrests, which meant that Laura would likely get to stay in the country. ICE had moved to deport her based on crimes of moral turpitude. Her newly clean record, however, bore no signs of moral turpitude. So ICE had no reason to send her back to Kenya.
Laura breathed a loud sigh of relief. She had lived in a daze for two years. Without any way to orient herself in the world, nothing quite made sense. But now, with a clean record, Laura could restart her life.
After hugging her lawyers outside the courthouse, Laura left by herself. She wandered into a restaurant on Broadway for a sit-down lunch. She liked dining alone.
Three months later, Laura arrived at the midtown offices of the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell for The Abely Awards, an annual event to honor domestic violence victim advocates. She walked over to the sign-in table to get her name tag, which said, “Kenya” in black lettering. The Kenya era, however, had ended on August 15, when Laura won her deportation hearing.
With both her prostitution offenses vacated and her deportation order reversed, Laura could resume control over her life. She could call herself whatever she wanted. Laura didn’t fear rebuke from DJ, but her attorneys considered him dangerous and wanted Laura to keep her protective alias. So, she was Kenya for the night.
Women dominated the event, but Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, was the man of the hour. A week earlier, Lippman had announced the creation of 11 Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to handle all prostitution cases that went past arraignment. The statewide system would be the first of its kind.
Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.
Specially trained judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors would jointly evaluate cases with a focus on providing defendants with social services rather than prison sentences. The creation of the courts reflected the basic tenet behind anti-trafficking legislation: the criminal justice system should treat people charged with prostitution as victims, not defendants.
Social services, including shelter, therapy, job training and immigration support, could help people leave prostitution for good. Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.
Judge Lippman’s announcement came as a surprise, even to insiders like Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who authored New York’s Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, among other anti-trafficking legislation.
After Lippman accepted his award, Laura joined Leidholdt to introduce another honoree and one of Laura’s pro bono attorneys, Samidh Guha. During his short speech, Guha told the audience how Laura turned herself into the police when she didn’t meet her nightly quota. She knew DJ would beat her if she didn’t bring home enough money. Jail was a less daunting prospect.
Laura pointed her phone at Guha and joked about Instagramming the event. But as he shared snippets of her trafficking experience, Laura’s face gelled into a sober stare, and she looked up. She had never heard someone else tell her story. Coming from Guha, whom Laura regarded as a legal shark with deceptively sweet blue eyes, the details of her life sounded savage.
She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.
“OK, I think I deserve some wine now.”
It was Thanksgiving day, and no one ordered the turkey dinner. As usual, the smell of drawn butter clung to Laura’s apron as she carted around platters of battered shrimp. Laura scanned the few occupied tables in her section and wondered why she agreed to work on Thanksgiving.
Laura began waiting tables at a seafood restaurant after she got out of prison. In the summer, tourists filed into the kitschy eatery for jumbo portions of deep-fried seafood, but cold November weather brought sparser crowds. At times, when Laura collected checks, she couldn’t help but think back to the days when she made $30,000 in one sleepless weekend.
She didn’t mind waitressing. She was good at it, and her coworkers treated her like family. But Laura couldn’t deny that she missed the rush of cramming stacks of hundred-dollar-bills into her purse.
People who weren’t in the life — who didn’t understand the life — were “squares.” Laura knew she could never make it as a square. She tried to leave Amber behind when she left DJ. It didn’t work. At 32, with a clean record, Laura felt ready to start over. But this time, she accepted that Amber was part of her.
Once Laura recognized some of Amber’s contributions to her personality — brazen, strategic, unfazed by attention — she realized she needed to make use of them. Laura used to dread talking to strangers about her past, but she’d come to enjoy it. In the coming months, Laura would appear on the CW news to talk about sex trafficking at the Super Bowl. And in March, she’ll participate in a United Nations panel about prostitution as sex work.
Laura wanted to choose a career that would enable her newfound interest in public speaking — law seemed like a good fit. She once thought of lawyers as paid liars, but then they became her liberators. Some attorneys, she learned, worked hard to do good. Laura now thought she might want to be one of them.
This story produced by the New York Bureau.