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Grasping For A Way Out

How Heather Cook Escaped Sex Trafficking — and How Authorities Could Have Helped

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Photo by Thomas Hammond


Heather Cook sits on a fallen tree in front of an abandoned single-story house — the last house on a dead end road off Fort Jackson Boulevard. The windows are boarded up and signs are nailed up that say “Private Property — No Trespassing.” A satellite dish hangs on the corner of the roof, its wires cut and dangling. Cook used to know this place as a kind of prison.

“I wanted to see how I felt,” she says about her return to the house. “I used to work out of here because of the soldiers.”

For 18 years, Cook was a victim of sex trafficking. A series of men abused her and forced her into sex for pay.  

We drive down Millwood Avenue and turn onto Maple Street, slowing in front of a house that bears the scars of apathetic tenants.

“That place was the worst,” she says — another house where she was sold. The owner accepted heroin as rent payment. “Used needles everywhere,” she says.

The house is next to where I lived just a few years later — a testament to how trafficking often goes unnoticed by those around it.

“Sometimes what [people] do know, they choose not to know,” Cook says. “I have made an agreement with the Lord after being able to be delivered and healed and becoming a whole woman that I won’t be silenced on anything.”

She wanted to scream out about her abuse the first time she turned herself in to the police.

The First Surrender

Cook sat in a back room of a Lexington County police station. She stared at the officer who was in the room with her.

“We got you,’” he said. “‘We found your ID. … There’s no way out of this one.”

It was 1997. Police had visited the home of Cook’s mother, looking for Cook. She needed to surrender, her mother told her — things were out of her control now. She was wanted on forgery and fraud charges. Cook stopped running and turned herself in. She was 19 years old.

“I was still young but still had been through so much,” Cook says. “There was my first legal involvement with the law. A lot of it had to do with being with [Don] and I didn’t want to work, so there was [stolen] checks, forgery, fraud, all these things.”

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Cook was forced to sell sex for money at a house on a dead end street near Fort Jackson Boulevard. | Photo by Thomas Hammond

Don is not the man’s real name.

Cook ran away with Don when she was 14 years old, looking to escape her family, and to escape the shame she felt about having been molested at the age of 8, she says. 

“I think about how innocent and [what] we don’t know as a young girl, when this man said he loved me and said he could take me away from all that pain and all the stuff in my home life, I believed him.”

Don manipulated Cook’s vulnerability and controlled her with cocaine, forcing her into addiction. He coerced her into prostitution as she neared the age of 16.

“That was the gateway of him saying, ‘Hey, listen, you’re going to go out and make money for the fact that we just did this or did that or I need this back,’” she says. “That’s how it all started.”

She stole to make money, compelled by abuse. 

“I can’t tell you how sickened it made me,” Cook says. “I can’t tell you how devastating it was to sleep with man after man after man because someone is making you do it, or your addiction’s so out of control because of guilt and shame that you don’t want to feel anymore.”

Cook found a way to escape when she turned herself in to the police on that day in 1997. As she sat accused of crimes in the interrogation room, she chose to give no defense of herself — a means of taking control of her life through surrender.

“I said, ‘If you think I done it, I done it, and if you know I did it, I did it,’” she remembers. “I’m done.” 

She wanted the detective to ask her one question — a question that would unveil the truth.

Is someone making you do this? Or, Is someone controlling you? But the detective never asked.

Sex trafficking is hidden. It’s hidden in words like “whore,” “user” and “pimp.” Crimes such as prostitution, drug use, abuse and kidnapping conceal the reality of their origins in the business of selling humans for sex. Sex trafficking hides in the small hours of night while it also passes us by on the way to the grocery store.  

Law enforcement was long blind to the problem. The belief that it was a problem for other countries or cities of a certain size covered up the truth. Many believed immigrants were the most vulnerable. Now authorities know that traffickers prey on anyone. 

Only in recent years has the state begun to understand and combat sex trafficking, learning in this fight to talk to the victims.

Cook was never given a voice when she was trapped in a storm of abuse, not by her abusers or those who could have helped her. 

“At 19, I’m fearful and if I have to go back to the place I came from and [Don] knows I said something, what does that look like?” Cook remembers about that first time in the police station. “If [authorities] would have known and had asked me the questions and I could have given the right information — if they could have kept me safe instead of me feeling like I would have just been thrown back out.”

In that interrogation room, it wouldn’t be the last time Cook grasped for a way out.

In the Dark

Society was slow to catch on to the problem of sex trafficking — and South Carolina was slow to offer solutions.

Prior to 2000, no federal law existed for the prosecution of sex traffickers or protection of victims. In that year, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. But the crime proved more extensive than the feds could handle. They called for state agencies to take action against forced sex labor, and states passed laws throughout the 2000s to combat sex trafficking. 

South Carolina was slow to catch up, not getting a bill through the State House until 2012. And that bill only allowed local jurisdictions to go after traffickers — so a person who sold others for sex could only be tried by the county where they were caught. With victims of trafficking often being moved around, the law limited how thorough charges against traffickers could be. 

It wasn’t until 2015 that South Carolina’s law against sex trafficking was amended to allow the State Grand Jury to indict traffickers for crimes involved with selling people across different counties. So 15 years after the federal government recognized sex trafficking as a pervasive problem in the United States, South Carolina finally gained the ability to bring comprehensive cases against sex traffickers and to effectively protect victims. 

Yet today, if you go to the website of the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force, an entity required under the 2012 law, and click on “Victim/Survivor Services” you land on a page that says “coming soon.” 

Despite the slowness, law enforcement and prosecutors have tried to combat sex trafficking in South Carolina.

“Before 2012 we had some vague law,” says Kinli Abee, an assistant state attorney general. “But no one ever used it because it was so ungodly vague. … [Human trafficking] is coming to the forefront now because we’re able to identify it easier. 

“But I do also think it’s growing,” Abee adds. “It’s one of those trades where it’s a reusable commodity. If I’m going to sell drugs, once I sell you cocaine I no longer have cocaine. But if I’m selling you a person for 30 minutes, once that 30 minutes is up I get that person back.”

It’s still unclear how pervasive sex trafficking is.

“We really don’t know how many victims there are in the state,” says Elliott Daniels, a lawyer who represents human trafficking survivors in South Carolina. “We don’t know if [human trafficking] is growing or shrinking in the state. What we do know is that the more awareness there is on the problem, the more people are realizing that’s what they saw in the past. They weren’t aware of trafficking.”

Stats are scant, but some numbers show the depths of sex trafficking in South Carolina. This year 50 cases of sex trafficking in South Carolina have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a national anti-trafficking hotline serving victims and survivors of human trafficking and the anti-trafficking community in the United States. Every year since 2012 the number of reports coming to the hotline have increased. 

“Human trafficking tends to thrive in the shadows given the complexities of the crime,” says Kathryn Moorehead, coordinator of the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force. “Citizens often do not believe it is happening in their communities or are simply unaware of what constitutes human trafficking.”

In 2016, 62 cases of human trafficking, which includes forced labor, came to courtrooms in South Carolina, according to an annual report by the state attorney general’s office. More than half of the pending state-level charges are in Richland County. Almost 75 percent of the cases in state court involve victims under the age of 18. 

The demand for sex trafficking victims speaks to the scope of the crime.

“Let me tell you, it is anybody” who will buy victims, Cook says. “There were times I met businessmen that flew me in their airplanes. There were times I met police officers. There are times I met highway patrolmen, married men in their own homes. I’m telling you any and everybody does this. There’s not a group of men that I can say never did. I’ve been picked up on the side of the street while the pastor was coming to church. … You don’t have any idea at the USC [football] games I had to work.”

Whether sex trafficking is growing in South Carolina might be unclear, but it seems the dirt is being swept off a buried crime, revealing the top of a descending set of stairs.

“In the coming years, I believe we will see an upswing of cases in South Carolina,” Moorehead says. “Until the public has a better understanding of the psychological, physical and legal components of human trafficking, it will continue to occur in the shadows around us.”

Cook looked to get out of the shadows as she crossed into her 20s.

Trying to Escape

Cook spent five months in county jail after she turned herself in in 1997. In jail, she found out she was pregnant. When she got out on probation, with nowhere else to go and a baby about to be born, she went back to Don.

“It was survival,” Cook says. “I was still with him, it was still sick.”

The abuse continued. Turning herself in for others’ crimes had come to nothing — authorities offered her no protection other than her months in a jail cell. Over the next years, the harm worsened.  

“The physical abuse, sexual, verbal, all that combined ... there were so many times when I’d say, ‘I shouldn’t even be here,’” Cook says. 

She stayed alive and found another way to escape. 

Cook fled to Charleston. She told Don she was going to see her mother for a little while. She planned to stay. 

“There was definitely a time I thought, ‘Can I get away or start over?’” Cook says “In my mind I wanted to go to Charleston to be rescued.”

While she was in Charleston, Don died. She can’t confirm the details of his death, but suggests he was killed by the life he also forced onto her.

She entered a drug rehabilitation program and got sober and moved into transitional housing. The Department of Social Services reunited Cook with her children. 

But trauma lingered for Cook. That made her vulnerable. 

“I never dealt with the brokenness and all of the hurt and pain and abuse,” Cook says. “[The rehab program] told me what to do and I did it. ... I didn’t heal. I did what they told me to do.”

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Deeply spiritual, Cook lines her walls with messages of faith. | Photo by Thomas Hammond

A man living next to her in her transitional housing preyed on that vulnerability. 

“The vulnerability I think he seen was my struggle as a single mom,” Cook says. “That’s the place he drove in at. ‘Hey, let me help you with your kids. Do you need help with a bill this month? Let me pay your rent.’ It’s these kind of subtle things he moved in on me with.”

He was arrested for crimes unrelated to trafficking and needed bail as well as money to pay off other debts.

“He constantly reminded me of what he’d done for me and now what I had to do for him,” Cook says. “You understand? Then it was like, ‘You’re going to help me out. You’re going to help me like I helped you.’”

“There’s something that happens with your abuser regardless if it’s the same one or one after the other,” Cook says. “You cannot disassociate yourself in a healthy way. The cycle keeps repeating itself over and over again because of the torment and abuse and the way you’re stripped down of being a woman of any value. You go looking for someone that you think would have a little value in you but they do the same thing.”

He pulled her back into the life she had escaped. The numbing power of drug use came with forced sex work. Cook’s kids were taken from her. In the years of abuse and crimes that followed, everyone from DSS to the cops and probation officers saw Cook as the criminal.

“Back then the drug epidemic was so large, it was just, ‘She’s just a crackhead’ — ‘She’s got a drug problem,’” Cook says. “I can’t change anything, but [what] if somebody had pursued more questions to get different answers from me? There was a time when I was very vulnerable and I would have divulged anything I could, but because law enforcement didn’t want to hear me and just put the book down on me [and say], ‘There we go, we got her.’ But there’s always more.”

Blind to the Crime

Until recent years, those in a position to help victims and lock up perpetrators have been ignorant of what they saw — the subtle and outright signs of sex trafficking: the manipulation, the psychological and physical abuse, forced addiction, monopolization of a victim’s perception, and induced exhaustion. 

“Most people think it’s about restraints,” says Daniels, the attorney who works with human trafficking victims. “They look for locks and locked doors. … It’s not always handcuffs.”

Cops and prosecutors have also pursued other, simpler charges that made the abused the authors of their crimes.

“Historically, [human trafficking victims] were targeted by law enforcement,” Daniels says. “It was the easiest — the low hanging fruit. There’s been a shift away from that and a lot of credit needs to go to law enforcement.”

While Cook was trying to end the cycle of victimization, the change Daniels speaks of was yet to come. Now, those with the power to combat sex trafficking are still learning to see the crime.

In 2015, researchers at Clemson University looked into 66 police reports of prostitution, kidnapping or abduction in Greenville between 2010 and 2012. They found that 13 cases showed signs of human trafficking and may have warranted further investigation. In four of the cases, pimps “were present, mentioned or hinted at,” with the circumstances in another three cases leading researchers to believe pimps may have been present. Other red flags the researchers looked for included the victim not knowing where they were, references to traveling to other cities, or being constantly monitored by another individual.

“In previous years, law enforcement agents were often unaware of the circumstances surrounding the arrests of those charged with prostitution and kidnapping,” says Mark Small, one of the report’s authors, a researcher at Clemson University who’s studied human trafficking. “South Carolina is just now catching up with other states’ efforts to recognize and charge for human trafficking violations.”

The depth of that change is unclear. 

“I think there’s been a change in the culture in law enforcement,” Small says. “The times have changed, but I think it’s an open question about how much it’s changed.”

In 2014, Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office put together a plan to address human trafficking. 

“Officers have to be educated on ‘victim identifiers,’ the red flags for human trafficking victims,” the report reads. 

More directly — “The lack of trained law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges prevents opportunities to arrest, prosecute, and sentence human traffickers.” 

But human trafficking, all agree, is an old crime.

“It’s always been prevalent and we’re more aware of it now,” says Sergeant Traci Barr, an 18-year veteran with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department. She heads their special victims unit. The SVU investigates violent crimes involving children and vulnerable adults. 

“[Human trafficking] is under-reported even now,” she says. “The local training that’s been offered to law enforcement has been helpful in getting the awareness out and what we need to look for and how to handle [human trafficking] situations. … [Helping victims] is one of those things we’re trying to do a better job at. We come across these situations and we have to use discretion to determine whether or not they’re a victim. It’s not our goal to charge [a victim] or throw them in jail. We’re here to help them. … It’s our ultimate goal to help and protect them as long as they let us know they need help and are in these situations.”

Often, victims cannot communicate what’s happening to them or don’t trust law enforcement from previous encounters. This is why the attorney general’s 2014 plan to fight human trafficking called for law enforcement and others to effectively recognize signs of the crime instead of putting the burden on victims to call out their own abuse.

“It’s a difficult challenge for law enforcement,” Barr says of working with victims. “We have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that victims are in [human trafficking] situations. It’s been a challenge.

“To be quite honest, [human trafficking] didn’t come to my attention until the past five years and the awareness hasn’t been there as a whole for law enforcement,” Barr adds.

The 2012 and 2015 laws have changed the dynamic of how authorities on the streets look into cases of prostitution, kidnapping, drug use, abuse, and other crimes or actions. Now, minors aren’t charged with prostitution, which is a change from decades past.

“We work our runaways completely different now because we’re finding that they’re being recruited into trafficking so quickly that we don’t take it for granted,” says Capt. Heidi Jackson, head of victims services with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, where she’s worked for 18 years. “We look very quickly to see if this could be human trafficking going on. … What might have been incorrigible behavior in the past by a juvenile is trumped by human trafficking now.”

In the years Cook was looking for a way out, Jackson might not have known how to help a person in the same situation, the sheriff’s captain admits.

“Before, our focus was on foreign-type human traffickers, foreigners brought here,” Jackson recalls. “Even for me, I look back at cases I had in the ’90s, and I can remember some things that could have been human trafficking, but I just couldn’t recognize it.”

Jackson remembers a case she came across in the late 1990s. She entered a house to remove an abused, vulnerable man. His abuser was gone, but Jackson found all these pictures of young women in the house. She never thought what the pictures could be.

“Now that I look back, that was probably one of the first human trafficking cases I came across,” Jackson says. 

“If I ran into that same scenario today I would be digging a lot more,” she says.

While sheriff’s departments and city police have had trouble recognizing sex trafficking, prosecutors struggle to convict, if they choose to bring the cases to court at all.

In the assessment of Abee, the assistant attorney general, three roadblocks stand in the way of prosecutors convicting more cases of the insidious crime — juries don’t understand it, communicating with victims is difficult, and evidence is hard to gather. 

“Human trafficking is one of the few charges if I’m in front of a jury I have to explain what it isn’t, what it is, and prove how our case is human trafficking,” Abee says. “When someone’s a victim of armed robbery they recognize that they’re a victim very quickly. … [Human trafficking victims] don’t always identify with being victims. We have to come in and say … ‘I know you don’t like me but I’m here to help you.’”

Building a case against a trafficker can be difficult.

“It is something going on in the streets. It’s not like we’re getting great surveillance,” Abee says. “Preparing a physical evidence case isn’t always easy.”

So cases that could be human trafficking get pleaded off or charged as crimes such as criminal sexual conduct, prostitution, kidnapping — criminal activities that prosecutors, judges, and juries are familiar with.

“I think everybody bears a little bit of the burden,” Abee says about overlooking human trafficking. “But I think a lot goes off of what the community perception of what human trafficking really was. … That includes law enforcement, prosecutors, attorneys and special personnel. Community-wide we all bear a little bit of it because we weren’t educated on it. We just didn’t actually know what it was.”

Now, law enforcement and prosecutors work with nonprofits to provide safe housing and other resources for human trafficking victims. But those hurt the most by past ignorance are those who already faced the most abuse. 

“I’m haunted by a question a client asked me,” Daniels says about a trafficking survivor he represented. “‘Where were you 20 years ago?’”

As Cook entered 30 years old in the late aughts, the criminal justice system could only move her out of one form of bondage to another. She went to prison in 2006. 

“Without a shadow of doubt in my mind, if I didn’t get locked up that night I’d be missing or dead,” she says.

The Last Arrest

It was three in the morning. Cook went to Wal-Mart to buy a suitcase to carry onto the plane. A man had paid her abuser to fly her to New York where they would meet and she would be driven back down to Charleston. The man worked in cigarettes and was in New York for business. That’s the story she was told. Cook felt the story hid a worse truth. 

“There was something about it, I didn’t like it,” Cook says. “But the guy I was with refused to let me not go.”

Parole violations and other crimes had Cook avoiding the law for years. Even in that familiar, constant state of running, nervousness wracked her as she drove through the neighborhood streets on her way to the airport. Being kidnapped or forced deeper into sex trafficking held her thoughts. 

In all the moments law enforcement missed when Cook could have been rescued, on this night one officer didn’t miss a crime. Cook forgot to cut on her blinker. 

“I just knew when the blue light came behind me I didn’t have to get on that plane,” Cook says. “I didn’t have to go back to that guy. I didn’t have to worry about going back to get my stuff. I just knew I didn’t have to return.”

Not signaling her turn allowed the other charges to catch up with her, leading to a two-year state prison sentence. That prison sentence, Cook says, was her means of escape — “it was my way out.”

“In that two years, I wasn’t going back,” Cook says. “I made myself accountable to the women who were coming from the outside to the inside, whether it was doing Bible studies or Sistercare.”

Cook embraced that community of women when she came out of prison. 

She has her five children back now and she’s been married almost five years.

But if authorities, from law enforcement to prosecutors, had asked the right questions instead of thinking of Cook as a criminal, she might have had a chance to pull herself out of the abuse years earlier. 

Today, authorities are having to find answers for questions they could have asked in the past.

“It’s not that I feel like law enforcement failed,” Cook says. “I feel like they will fail if they don’t get educated to what’s going on. … There were questions that should have been asked.”

Self Definition

On Oct. 17, 2017, I got a text from Cook. It included a picture of a letter that read, “The court has ordered the removal of the records charges, arrests, convictions … from your criminal record.”

Since June, Daniels has been working with Cook to clear her record.

“We live in a culture that will define them by their victimization,” Daniels says of his clients. “The john, the trafficker, will move on in society, but the victim will be defined by their crimes and what they were compelled to do. ... What happens when they want to get a job or volunteer at a church or daycare, or take out a loan? If they go through a background check, [previous crimes] will be there.

“We’re letting them take down the barriers and to be defined as part of the legitimate economy. … It’s a pretty cathartic thing for them. To be able to define themselves outside of those past convictions.”

The court removed Cook’s entire criminal record in Richland County. 

“It brought a whole new revelation of closure,” Cook says. “Now I can take that guilt and shame and everything, I can have closure.”

Still, she’s working with Daniels on clearing her record in Charleston and Lexington counties — a last move to free herself from the remains of the past.

“I already know it’s coming,” she says. “It will be all said and gone. I believe it’s going to be. I know the story of complete redemption.” 

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