'Run mom, run!': How West Bloomfield human trafficking victim got away

Warning: The story contains graphic details of human trafficking, rape and drug use.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, Hannah thought, not to people like her.

She grew up in the affluent suburb of West Bloomfield. She was a competitive dancer and gymnast, had loving parents, graduated a semester early from high school with a 4.0 and went on to study pre-med at Oakland University.

But then came that party, that damn college party. Someone asked her whether she wanted to try Oxycontin.

“It was that one moment that changed my whole life. I said, ‘Yes, I’ll try it’ “ Hannah recalled. “I was instantly addicted.”

Her addiction would eventually land her in a motel sex operation, where men drugged her and took turns having sex with her as she drifted into oblivion.

"Human trafficking is a real thing. It’s not something that just happens in the dark," Hannah, now 32, said in a recent interview with the Free Press. "It happens every single day ... and it doesn't matter where you come from."

Hannah is among thousands of victims and survivors that the Department of Justice has vowed to do better by as it launches a new awareness campaign about the pervasive problem of human trafficking, and how it continues to target the most vulnerable and often ignored members of society.

Drug addicts. Runaways. Homeless youths. Transgender individuals.

A national human trafficking initiative announced in February aims to help all these people by focusing on three key strategies. Prevention. Protection. Prosecution. Authorities hope to prevent more victims from falling prey, protect those who come forward and help them move on, and prosecute the traffickers who prey on them.

While human trafficking has gained more attention over the last several years, authorities say more still needs to be done to take down a multibillion dollar criminal industry that harms roughly 25 million victims worldwide. The industry thrives on a perverse business model: you can sell a human over and over again, where a gun or drugs can only be sold once.

But her parents, who divorced when she was 4, never gave up trying to help her. In 2012, her dad found a treatment program in Ann Arbor that he believed was the answer. So Hannah went.

Within 36 hours, she left. She and another patient buddied up and left the treatment program. They were detoxing, and it was hell.

"Withdrawal is not a feeling that I would wish upon my worse enemy," Hannah said. "You feel like you have bugs crawling on your skin. Stomach cramps. Vomiting. Diarrhea. You can't eat. You can't move. Every part of your body hurts. You feel like you're dying."

And so they ventured into the streets, looking for a fix. A friend picked them up at a park, dropped them off at an Ypsilanti bus stop. The two women started walking down Michigan Avenue when a van pulled up.

Two men asked if they needed a ride. Hannah and her friend climbed inside.

"It was cold out," Hannah recalled. "We were young, naive."

'I blacked out'

According to Ann Arbor police reports, a 911 report, testimony by Hannah's mother, and Hannah herself, here is what happened after the two women got into the van.

The men in the van were in their 20s, and started asking questions. "Where are you coming from? Do you need to call your parents?"

"They knew all the right questions to ask, to check our temperatures," Hannah recalled.

The women told them they had just left rehab, and needed a place to stay. The men said they had a friend who owned massage parlors and could get them jobs, but Hannah protested.

"I said 'No way, that's not my thing,' " she recalled.

The men said not to worry, that they were just trying to help them out, and then took them to a Home Depot parking lot, where they met a stranger named "Brandon."

"He just looked at us. We were told to get back into the car," Hannah recalled. "And the guys were like, 'All right, we're not really sure if we can help you out. But we can at least give you a place to stay for the night."

The group then drove to a house on Detroit's west side, picked up drugs, and made their way to a Red Roof Inn on State Street in Ann Arbor, where the withdrawals ended.

"We had booze, weed, a ton of heroin," Hannah recalled. "I blacked out."

'I was screaming and crying'

The next two days were horrifying. Strange men were coming to the door, and Hannah and her friend were told they had to have sex with them for money. The phone was removed from the hotel room.

Hannah was locked in a bathroom. She was slapped, pushed, choked.

"I was an absolute mess. I totally freaked out. I tried to leave and they wouldn't let me," Hannah recalled. "I was screaming and crying and yelling for help."

Someone made a noise complaint, and a front desk employee came to the room and asked if everything was OK. The men said all was fine. But to avoid detection, they moved the operation to a Red Roof Inn in Plymouth.

"I woke up in a different motel room," Hannah recalled. "I was so sick and they wouldn't give me any drugs. They said that I had another date coming ... that was when it really hit me. They were seriously holding us captive."

This time, however, the men left the phone in the room. Hannah found a brief moment alone and called her mother.

"I said, 'Come and get me super fast. I'm at the Plymouth Red Roof Inn. Come tomorrow at this time,' " Hannah recalled telling her mom. " 'And don't leave until I come out.' "

Hannah was timing her escape. The men wouldn't let her leave the room. So she plotted her getaway for the following morning, when the group went to Big Boy for breakfast.

'Run, mom, run!'

It was the morning of Sept. 28, 2012, when Hannah's mom pulled up to the Red Roof Inn. Her daughter had been missing for five days from rehab, so she was relieved to get her call, to learn she was alive. And then she spotted her.

'Run mom, run!': How West Bloomfield human trafficking victim got away

From a distance, she saw Hannah leaving a nearby Big Boy with a group of people, and heading to the motel.

She remembered Hannah instructing her to stay put, but she couldn't just sit there and wait. So she got out of the car and watched where the group went.

"I walked up to a 300-pound guy and said, 'Which way? You got my daughter. She's either left or right," her mom recalled.

The man pointed to Room 208. And Hannah came running out.

"I never saw her run so fast. I had no clue what was going on. I said, 'Hannah, slow down,' " her mom recalled. "She said, 'no, no, you don't understand ... and she threw her luggage over a fence and said, 'Run, mom, run!' "

'Your daughter is a junkie'

Hannah got in the car with her mom and the two drove off, pulling over at a CVS. Hannah explained everything and her mom called the police, telling them about the motel sex ring, and the other woman still trapped inside.

The woman and two men were taken to the police station.

According to Hannah and her mother, the police thanked them for coming forward and helping bust a prostitution ring that police had been investigating for a few years.

Then a few months later came a devastating blow. A detective blindsided Hannah's mother with a telephone call: Hannah was being charged with prostitution.

"You just need to wake up and realize your daughter is a junkie prostitute," her mother recalled the detective telling her.

"He was schooling me," the mom said in a recent interview, her blood still boiling. "I was furious. I told him he had no right to talk that way."

And she was worried. Hannah was back in rehab. How would she handle the news of getting charged?

Ten years later, Hannah still struggles to put into words how she felt when she got the news, how someone could punish her when others had violated her.

"It was the most traumatic thing I ever went through," she recalled. "I tried to numb everything. ... I just went off the deep end."

Though Hannah got probation, the prosecution charge fueled rage. She started using again and her addiction got worse, so bad that she wound up getting trafficked again — this time by someone she knew.

Hannah would wind up in jail for 90 days on a probation violation for failing to report to rehab. It was January 2014 when police arrested her in what would be a turning point in her life. That year, she got clean.

Hannah turned her life around with help from The Joseph Project, a nonprofit that connects human trafficking survivors with free legal services. Though proud of her sobriety, the prostitution charge still nagged at her.

"It was a shameful thing that was always following me around. I hated it. I couldn't get a job," Hannah recalled. "It was just horrible."

In 2017, her prostitution charge was expunged.

Hannah went on to earn her real estate license and become a mother. She still has mental scars, though years of therapy have helped her heal and cope with the fears and trauma that once consumed her. She is now a Realtor, a proud mother of a busy kindergartner, and has been clean for eight years.

"I feel it's important to share my story as much as possible to spread awareness," Hannah said, stressing human traffickers don't care where you come from. "It can happen to anybody because it happened to me."

Stranger-danger myth

Over the last five years, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit has prosecuted more than 40 individuals tied to 30 human trafficking operations. The ages of the victims range from 13 to 29.

In January, a father and son were sentenced to more than 24 years in prison combined for running a Detroit drug house where women were raped, beaten, choked, drugged and forced into prostitution. The son got 15 years; his dad got 9¼ years.

In September, a 70-year-old Detroit man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for holding teen girls and women captive in a Detroit home, where they were held behind a locked gate, drugged, sold into prostitution — and beaten if they didn't perform as demanded.

In July, a 40-year-old Detroit man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for turning at least six women into sex slaves by getting them hooked on heroin and crack, and then withholding the drugs to make them sick and keep them under his control.

While these stories are alarming, authorities stress, most human trafficking cases are not stranger-abduction cases, which is a message they are struggling to get out as myths and false narratives run rampant on the internet.

One myth in particular that has heightened fears, they say, is that girls are getting kidnapped at shopping malls and then held captive in sex dungeons. This is not happening, authorities say, stressing most victims know their perpetrator.

"Stranger-danger hysteria is around right now," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Woodward, who oversees human trafficking prosecutions in the Eastern District of Michigan. She noted that the idea of children getting kidnapped and turned into sex slaves "is so scary that that sort of rumor spreads. But that’s not what we see."

According to legal and trauma experts, most human trafficking victims are lured by someone they trust and maybe even love: a boyfriend, a relative, a friend or a neighbor.

"This is about power and control," said Melissa Novock, an FBI victim specialist who has worked with human trafficking survivors for 28 years. "We see a pimp or trafficker as the enemy, the bad guy. This is the same person who beats them, who sells them. Then on Valentine's Day, they say 'I love you, I need you to go out and make me $1,500 if you want to come back here where it’s warm. ' "

Too often, the victims comply.

It's about survival. It's about sleeping on a bed versus a curb. Eating rather than going hungry. Getting a fix or going through withdrawals. One more high to get through the night.

And the predators know this, often using violence to get victims to do as they please. Resisting often comes with a beating. Then again, so does complying.

Human trafficking or prostitution — what's the difference?

As human trafficking has become a popular topic of conversation, there has been confusion in the public arena about what it really is, and how it's different from prostitution.

First, there are two types of human trafficking: Forced labor, whose victims include domestic servants, farmworkers or factory workers held in inhumane conditions with little to no pay; and sex trafficking, where victims are forced into the sex industry.

The key difference between sex trafficking and prostitution is choice.

As explained by Exodus Road, an international anti-trafficking organization, there's a broad spectrum of exploitation in the sex industry, with gray areas in between.

On the one end is prostitution, where a person willingly joins the sex industry to make money.

On the other end is the human trafficking victim, who is forced into the sex industry against their will through force, fraud or coercion. This victim has no choice. They are held against their will and work without pay.

In between is a gray area, including people who choose prostitution to make money, but become controlled and threatened by a pimp. There are also minors who choose to sell themselves for sex, but are still human trafficking victims because their age makes consent impossible.

Since Hannah's ordeal, Michigan law has changed to protect human trafficking victims from being charged with prostitution. State law now has a victim-centered approach, where safe harbor provisions shield sex trafficking victims from criminal liability for prostitution crimes they commit at the hands of their attacker.

If you suspect or know of someone who may be a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. Anti-trafficking advocates are available 24/7 to take reports.

ContTresa Baldas: tbaldas@freepress.com