Kelsey Collins, 16, was lured into the world of prostitution but seemed on the verge of getting out. After giving grand-jury testimony against her pimp, she disappeared. Now her family wants to know why she wasn't protected.
Kelsey Collins was 16 when she fell silly in love with a loser.
It was bound to happen. For all of her street toughness, Kelsey was naive, the kind of kid who would accept a ride from a stranger with only a vague sense that bad things could happen.
Being young, she fell for an older boy who was plenty nice at first, buying her shoes, clothes and dinners.
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Which is why Kelsey was so confused when, a few months into the relationship, he hinted that she could make a lot of money.
When it finally sunk in that he wanted her to sell her body, Kelsey told him “hell, no,” she later wrote. But before she knew it, or even fully understood why, Kelsey had joined hundreds of other teenage girls who are prostituted on the streets of King County, shuttled along the Interstate 5 corridor by pimps who take their money and control them through violence.
Kelsey started living a double life: She was a special-education student at Mariner High School in Everett, and she walked the streets as “Lady Dollars.”
Within months, she was picked up by Portland police as she climbed out of a car in an area known for prostitution. She was tired, ready to talk, and told a detective that her new pimp, a 36-year-old man whom she had known for less than a week, had brought her to Portland.
At the detective’s urging, Kelsey eventually told her story to a federal grand jury, but she vanished — without a trace — weeks after testifying.
Her family now can’t stop wondering if there’s a connection.
“They had a moral and ethical responsibility to my sister when they asked her to come into court and testify against a pimp,” said Dominique Hicks, an older sister. “That’s what hurts so much — that she was used, and used in a way that probably cost her her life,” Hicks said. “How can you ask these girls to do what they do, and then send them on their way?”
Kelsey’s immersion into the dark heart of prostitution put her in the hands of police, courts and prosecutors — a system that doesn’t always know how to protect teen prostitutes.
In Seattle, she was arrested and booked as a prostitute and put in juvenile detention. In Portland, police treated Kelsey as a runaway and victim. And at the federal level, before a grand jury, Kelsey was a star witness — until she disappeared.
Three jurisdictions and one troubled teen they couldn’t corral, control or help.
And now they can’t find her.
Gone on Mother’s Day
It was Mother’s Day 2009 when Sarah Collins awoke to find that Kelsey — the youngest of her three daughters — wasn’t home and hadn’t called.
“Looking back,” Collins said, “it was the only day when I woke up and she wasn’t there, and I got sick to my stomach.”
Kelsey had left home about 5:30 p.m. to catch a bus from Everett to downtown Seattle to meet a new boyfriend.
Had it been a year earlier, Collins said, her daughter’s disappearance might have seemed like another chapter in the ongoing drama of Kelsey, a troubled kid working through a troubled past.
Kelsey was almost 3 when her parents divorced. Her mother — a geneticist for a local research hospital — remarried a year later. But the stepfather was a violent man who beat Kelsey’s mother.
It took three years for Collins to find the opportunity to flee with her three daughters and toddler son, taking them to safe houses and changing their names. After they fled, Collins learned her husband had assaulted her daughters.
Despite the damage, Kelsey “was the sweetest, sweetest child in the world,” Hicks said of her sister. “She would help you out, she went to school, she never even swore.”
Kelsey liked school even though she struggled because of a learning disability. But when she turned 12, Kelsey went wild. She ran away repeatedly, became sexually active and later acknowledged in a letter that she used and sold drugs.
“There were times when they arrested her that I was glad because I knew she was safe,” Collins said.
The streets quickly hardened Kelsey, but she was still a kid. When she first fell in love, she wrote her boyfriend’s name again and again on poster board with sparkly, blue glue and hung it on her bedroom wall.
Kelsey was a sophomore when police first arrested her in downtown Seattle for prostitution. Her family was incredulous. “Something drastic happened, and she went from selling drugs to selling herself,” said Mariah, her other sister.
Kelsey began coming home with cuts and bruises — accidents, she said — but her sisters knew she was lying.
There were times, Mariah said, when Kelsey wouldn’t leave the house for days and wouldn’t take calls. “I didn’t know if she was in hiding or taking a break.”
Kelsey had every reason to be afraid.
Elisa Saphier, a case manager for sexually exploited youth at the Sexual Assault Resource Center in Portland, said the violence inflicted on juvenile victims by boyfriends-turned-pimps creates a psychological reaction so distinct that it has a name: “a trauma bond.”
A trauma bond is rooted in survival, and victims can see their captor as “giving life by simply not taking it.”
“It involves physical and sexual violence to the point of torture in a way that makes [the pimp] show you what can happen to you and how they can protect you,” Saphier said.
Violence — both threatened and inflicted, and the threat of exposure — increases a teen’s isolation and gives a pimp greater control, Saphier said. It’s so complete that kids as young as 12 find it less scary to climb into a stranger’s car for sex than face a pimp’s wrath for not earning enough money.
“The kid’s in love with you and is less willing to testify … about it,” she said.
It’s also lucrative for pimps, Saphier said: Younger girls command higher prices. “You have six girls, and you can sell them over and over again every single night.”
The average age of clients served by Saphier’s agency is 13. In King County, as many as 500 children are believed to be prostituted in a year, according to a 2008 city of Seattle estimate. The FBI last month rescued 16 children in Seattle during a nationwide prostitution crackdown that recovered 69 children in all.
“It’s a hidden epidemic,” said Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, a Seattle charity that serves homeless youth, and that recently opened a rehabilitation house. “We’re talking about how we can get them treatment instead of detention.”
Among the residents: two 12-year-old girls.
“It’s domestic violence on steroids,” Portland police Sgt. Doug Justus said. Hundreds of children are working as prostitutes in Portland, Justus said, and many are from Seattle. One he tried to help: Kelsey.
Her case, he said, still haunts him.
Criminal or victim?
In Washington, children younger than 18 who offer sex for money are often arrested, charged and sent to juvenile detention. Locking them up was, until recently, the only option police could use to get them off the street and into a safe place, said YouthCare’s Giovengo. “But sometimes that just made things worse,” she said.
But in Oregon, unlike Washington, juveniles rarely are charged with prostitution. Teens who have sex with adults, even for money, are considered rape victims, and police treat them that way.
Which is why, when Portland police stopped 16-year-old Kelsey in January 2008, they didn’t arrest her but called her mother to come get her.
Justus drove to Kelsey’s home in Everett three days later to interview her. She was willing to talk about the pimp, describing how he shuttled her between Seattle and Portland. Kelsey said she made $1,500 her first day in Portland.
The Seattle Times is not naming the pimp at the request of Assistant U.S. Attorney Kemp Strickland, who said disclosing the man’s name would jeopardize an ongoing investigation.
The pimp, now in prison, declined requests for an interview through his attorney.
With Kelsey talking to Justus, the case against the pimp came together quickly. Justus turned it over for prosecution by March 2008, when Kelsey was still 16. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland picked up the case. If convicted on felony charges for the interstate sex trafficking of a minor, the pimp would receive a longer sentence than he would under the state statute.
Kelsey the victim suddenly became a key witness.
Although it’s better for child victims if such cases are handled quickly, hers was not. Kelsey’s case was assigned to Strickland. It would be at least 13 months before she was called to testify before the grand jury.
Why it took so long is unclear because case files remain sealed. Strickland says he was waiting on the police investigation. “You’ve got people who need to do their jobs first. I sit at a desk; I don’t do investigations.”
Justus, the Portland detective, said he’s been ordered not to discuss the case in detail.
When Strickland received the case, Kelsey was eligible for intensive counseling at a rehabilitation center. But neither she nor her mother knew such programs existed until Kelsey was almost 18 — too old to enter them.
Despite the violence Kelsey suffered — including past beatings and a slashing by a box cutter by other pimps — no one at the U.S. Attorney’s Office offered or even discussed witness protection, according to her mother.
On Friday, Strickland said he was surprised to hear that Kelsey had been harmed by other pimps. “There’s not one iota of information that a criminal defendant we had charged was a danger to her,” Strickland said. “If we had any indication of threats, we would move her and move her fast.”
His office released Kelsey to her mother. “Unless we knew someone had found out [that she had testified] or knew of a danger or threat, we believed she was safe and she was doing well,” Strickland said. “You can’t say her disappearance is a result of the prosecution.”
As the case dragged on, Kelsey slipped into old habits. Days before she was summoned to testify in April 2009, Seattle police arrested her again for prostitution.
Begging for help
Shortly after she disappeared in May 2009, Kelsey’s mom drove to Portland to put up missing-person posters. Strickland called her and asked that she take them down lest she jeopardize his case by publicizing the absence of his star witness, her mother said.
Collins had reported Kelsey’s disappearance to Everett police just days after she vanished. But weeks went by before Collins learned that virtually nothing had been done to investigate her disappearance, she said.
Justus, the Portland detective, got involved and called an Everett detective to ask about Kelsey. Justus said the detective replied: ” ‘She’s 18. She’s a prostitute. So what?’ That’s what he told me.”
Everett police spokesman Sgt. Robert Goetz said the detective who spoke to Justus has retired, so it was not possible for him to check the statement.
Desperate, Collins sent a flood of e-mails in the months afterward, seeking help. She pressed the FBI and the U.S. attorney to review the case only to learn that after nearly five months no one had entered Kelsey into the national missing-person’s database. Collins repeatedly asked that someone track the phone Kelsey was carrying when she disappeared. Collins said she later learned Kelsey’s phone had been emitting signals for two weeks in the Seattle area after she disappeared.
No witness, no case
In June 2009, about two months after she testified, the grand jury indicted the pimp for his alleged prostitution of Kelsey. But without a witness, there was no case and it was dismissed. Strickland said he would refile it if she was found or he had evidence that someone had tampered with the witness.
The pimp pleaded guilty this year to prostituting another girl, a 14-year-old from Seattle. He was sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison and ordered to repay the girl $21,600 — nine customers a day at $80 per customer for the 30 days he prostituted her in Portland.
Meanwhile, authorities say they are continuing to investigate Kelsey’s disappearance.
Her sister Mariah wants to know what happened, but mostly she wants Kelsey home again. “I don’t care about what she did or didn’t do,” Mariah said. “She was my sister.”
Several months ago, Collins packed Kelsey’s belongings into two green plastic storage tubs. Inside: 20 pairs of shoes, some colorings of Care Bears and an afghan that Collins began crocheting before Kelsey disappeared.
Collins occasionally will don a pair of blue-jean capri pants that Kelsey used to raid from her closet, along with Kelsey’s favorite brown boots. “It makes me feel closer to her,” Collins said.
On good days, Collins imagines that her daughter is alive, held against her will. On bad days … she can’t even utter the word.
Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or firstname.lastname@example.org