TAMPA — The red high heels. The hair dye. The way he made each decision about what she should wear and how she should look.
Looking back, each detail jumps out as a sign. But to the 14-year-old weighed down by depression and an inexplicable sense of isolation, this man was a way out.
It wouldn't dawn on the young Holly Smith until he brought her to a hotel room that this man didn't want to be her friend.
He wanted to sell her body for sex.
Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but some experts estimate that as many as 300,000 children in the United States are at risk of being prostituted each year.
The U.S. Department of Justice labeled human trafficking the second fastest growing criminal industry (with drug trafficking first). More than 2,500 U.S. trafficking cases were under investigation in 2010.
But it would take 17 years and meeting another trafficking survivor before Smith, 35, stopped blaming herself and realized the truth: Human trafficking exists right here in our cities and suburbs.
And she was a victim.
"I still struggled with it for a long time, even in my mid 20s," Smith said. "I thought it was my fault. I didn't understand what happened to me. There was no one there to help me understand it."
Smith will share her story with guests at the annual Child Abuse Awareness Luncheon today at the Hilton Tampa Downtown, at 211 N Tampa St. DeDe Grundel, executive director of the Friends of Joshua House Foundation, hopes Smith's message will connect with locals, even though her case took place in New Jersey.
"Probably what will resonate is that her demographic is that of anybody's child in the room," Grundel said. "That in itself is probably the message that people have the hard time getting. They think 'those poor, pitiful foster children, those poor throwaway children.'
"It can be anyone's child who is led into this. If your child, who is raised in a strong, formidable family, a family that is rooted in stability and structure, can be led out, then what do you think it's doing to the kids who are vulnerable?"
• • •
Smith came from a middle-class home in South Jersey. But despite a seemingly stable home life, she suffered from depression and a crippling lack of self-worth.
The summer before her freshman year, she couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was waiting for her in high school. She couldn't find a boyfriend, her best friend was in a new crowd she just didn't fit in with, and she was convinced she would be bullied and beaten up at school.
"I had this impending doom feeling," she said. "I was definitely desperate to find a way out."
That way out presented itself in a brief encounter at the mall. She was trailing a group of friends when she noticed a guy staring. He was older, but young enough to look like a friend's older brother.
When she kept eye contact for a few seconds, he waved her over. They talked just long enough to exchange phone numbers. Smith walked back to her friends feeling elated. Out of all of them, he had chosen her. Her sense of self swelled.
For two weeks, they talked on the phone on her private line while her parents watched TV downstairs, oblivious. He asked her about her life. Her fears, her passions. Her intense urge to travel and to perform. She wanted to be a singer. She wanted to meet Julia Roberts. She wanted to be anywhere except where she was.
"He said he could take me to clubs all over the country and I could meet famous people," she said. "He didn't talk about sex. He didn't talk about any creepy topics. We talked long enough for me at 14 to feel like, all right, he's okay."
• • •
When they met again at another mall, he seemed different. Colder, more reserved. Less interested in her dreams, her life.
He took her from store to store, looking at dresses and outfits, picking out a pair of red high heels for her. He said he was going to take her to clubs, but then they arrived at a hotel room. There, a woman in her 20s dyed her hair a bright, unnatural blond, double dyeing it until the chemicals burned through her hair. A sense of unease began to creep through.
The real danger didn't set in until they made it clear what she was going to be doing that night. Suddenly, everything started moving too quickly. The cab ride. The instructions. The lights and sounds on the streets of Atlantic City. It only took a minute before the first man approached. The woman who had dyed her hair talked briefly with the man. They settled on the price.
Two hundred dollars.
• • •
It went that way the rest of the night, till dawn. When she returned to the hotel, the man who had wooed her over the phone raped her. And then he sent her out again the next night.
"People ask why didn't I run away, why didn't I go running through the door," Smith said. "It was difficult for me to answer that because, in essence, I was already running away. I didn't really have any options."
She worked the streets of Atlantic City for 36 hours until a police officer noticed her.
"It wasn't a positive experience," she said. "He arrested me. He really sort of ridiculed me with the typical labels."
By the time two detectives arrived on the scene and realized she was a victim who had been coerced, she had already shut down. They returned Smith to her parents, who didn't understand what happened. They blamed her. Kids at school taunted her.
"When I showed up at school, it got around what happened," she said. "People I knew were calling me a hooker and a prostitute. I was devastated."
She lasted two days before dropping out. She went to live with her aunt for a brief stint before enrolling in a program for alcohol and drug addictions — not because she was an addict but because no place existed for trafficking victims.
"After being trafficked, kids are in great need of psychiatric help and counseling," she said. "They need really specialized services. I just didn't get that. There was nobody that could help me understand it or work through it."
• • •
More than 20 years later, Smith has a grasp on her life and what happened to her. She focused on her education, graduating from high school and earning a bachelor of arts in biology. She found a great job. She got married.
But she couldn't shake the pain until one night in 2009, she watched a documentary on human trafficking in India.
"I thought, 'Wow, that sounds a lot like what happened to me,' " she said. "But I was like, 'There's no way I was a human trafficking victim.' "
She dug further and started reading more about domestic trafficking. Case after case sounded eerily similar to hers. Then she met another trafficking victim. Through their conversations, Smith realized the truth.
"For so long, I was carrying around the idea it was my fault," she said. "I finally understand that I was manipulated and exploited. It's like I am finally picking up my life again."
She's an advocate now, speaking across the country and working as a training consultant for AMBER Alert. Through her research, she developed a passion about and an expertise in the topic that led her to write a book on child sex trafficking that will be published this winter.
"Every time I hear another child's story, I am motivated more and more to spread awareness and to tell my story," she said, "to do whatever I can to help others."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3111.