When Trafficking Hits Home
On June 16, 2009, a federal grand jury in Portland, Ore., issued an indictment charging Donnico T. Johnson, 37, and Lisa Miles, 30, with sex trafficking, transportation of a minor, and coercion and enticement of a 16-year-old female with the purpose of prostitution. The couple was arrested in Portland on June 18, 2009.
The indictment alleged that Mr. Johnson and Ms. Miles transported the minor from Seattle, Wash., to Portland with the purpose that she engage in prostitution. It also alleged that Mr. Johnson knew the female was under the age of 18. Both defendants were in custody pending a trial set for Aug. 11, 2009. However, the minor who had testified against Mr. Johnson and Ms. Miles disappeared before the case could go to trial, and charges against the couple were dropped.
Kelsey Emily Collins, the minor who testified in this case, is the granddaughter of United Methodist Women member Gloria Jessup of Dearborn Heights, Mich. After testifying against her traffickers in April 2009, Kelsey left home to meet her boyfriend and never returned.
Missing since May 9, 2009, Kelsey is now 20 years old. She was last seen in Everett, Wash., a city located about 30 minutes north of Seattle. At the time of her disappearance Kelsey was 18 years old, and, despite her status as a trafficking victim and her mother’s insistence that Kelsey gave no indication of running away from home, she was not considered a missing person because she was no longer a minor.
“It was nine days after her 18th birthday,” said Sarah Collins, Kelsey’s mother. “She never met up with her boyfriend. Her phone was going straight to voicemail. I reported her missing on the third day. She took nothing with her except her phone, mp3 player, ID, hairbrush and small purse. She left all her clothes, new shoes, hair straightener, toothbrush and jewelry at home. The police didn’t really take the complaint seriously. They said they couldn’t get a warrant to do an emergency ping on her phone because ‘It isn’t illegal for an adult to disappear.’”
That Kelsey’s disappearance occurred after she testified and before her traffickers werre convicted is a circumstance Ms. Collins has not overlooked.
“We were told by the federal prosecutor that she would not be ‘in much danger’ until the case actually went to court,” Ms. Collins said. “They also told us that because she was almost 18 that there were very few services that they could offer her. This is after she had already testified.”
A year later, on June 21, 2010, Mr. Johnson was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison for sex trafficking of another minor. Ms. Miles, also charged in this additional case, took a plea agreement and was given 18 months probation.
The minor in this case was placed in a program called Children of the Night, a rescue and social service program in Los Angeles, Calif., established to help trafficked children become whole persons again. Kelsey was not so lucky.
Escaping an abusive husband, Ms. Collins moved with her three daughters and young son to Washington when Kelsey was a young girl. As Kelsey entered her teen years she became involved with alcohol and drugs and often ran away to parties, totaling her mother’s car one night and later stealing a friend’s car. The juvenile justice system’s answer to Kelsey’s behavior was to place her in juvenile detention whenever she skipped school, ran away from home or failed a drug test.
When Kelsey was arrested for prostitution, Ms. Collins was shocked. It didn’t occur to her that Kelsey might have been coerced and forced into prostitution. Kelsey told her mother that her bruises and black eyes came from fights at school.
When arrested for prostitution in Seattle, Kelsey was considered a criminal despite her status as a minor. She was placed in juvenile detention or released back to her mother, who explains she was not made aware of the counseling services the state provided in such instances. In January 2008 Kelsey was picked up by police in Portland, Ore., where she was recognized as a victim of trafficking.
“She was picked up by Portland police, where they treat underage girls as victims, not criminals,” Ms. Collins said. “She was 16 at the time.” Police referred her case to the U.S. Department of Justice. “It was finally sent to a grand jury in April 2009,” Ms. Collins explained.
Kelsey had started prostituting herself after a former boyfriend convinced her it would be a good way to make money. On the street she was known as “Lady Dollars.” When she was taken into police custody in Portland, Kelsey told the police that her new pimp was a 36-year-old man she had just met who would drive her between Seattle and Portland. She made $1,500 her first day in Portland, she told police.
What began as an activity undertaken on the advice of someone she trusted turned into her becoming a business commodity for pimps who threatened her with violence. The safer decision for Kelsey was to sell her body to strangers than to defy her traffickers.
Because she had served as a federal witness, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initially helped with the investigation into Kelsey’s disappearance. They focused on Kelsey’s then boyfriend instead of the previous boyfriend who had coerced her into prostitution and who was a relative of Mr. Johnson.
“I believe he was the one who introduced her to Donnico Johnson from things that Kelsey told me shortly after she testified,” Ms. Collins said. “The police knew who he was, knew he had a significant police record. They knew he and one of his cousins had come to my home in early March 2009 and assaulted Kelsey, but she was so scared she refused to talk to the police. Her sister and I called the police, but because we hadn’t witnessed the attack, they couldn’t file charges or arrest them. To my knowledge, he has never been interviewed or questioned by police in the disappearance of my daughter.”
At the urging of Portland police, the Seattle police also joined the investigation. “They did all the things that should have been done immediately after her disappearance, but by that time it had been five months and many of the leads were cold,” Ms. Collins said.
Seattle police have been working on a lead since Kelsey was featured in a January 2011 episode of “America’s Most Wanted.” Kelsey’s story was also featured in a CNN news piece by Patrick Oppmann on June 22, 2011.
Ms. Collins speaks occasionally at training events for law enforcement, first responders and interested social groups in the Northwest United States. She also participated in the Stop Child Trafficking Now National Walk in 2010 and will do so again this year.
United Methodist Women is dedicated to raising awareness of modern-day slavery and recruiting allies to help end it. Local United Methodist Women can help save the lives of girls like Kelsey.
- Invite local law enforcement officials to a unit or circle meeting or event and find out what you can do to help.
- Partner with other community groups, especially men’s groups, to spread information through literature and public events.
- Visit United Methodist Women's human trafficking webpage for more information and resources to help.
- Write, call or e-mail your senators to pass U.S. Senate Bill 596, the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2011. It provides funds for six new safe houses and training law enforcement and social services to recognize trafficked persons as victims, not criminals.
Kelsey is of Caucasian, African-American and Native American descent with brown hair and green eyes. She is 5 feet, 6 inches tall, 160 pounds and has a nose ring on the right side of her nose. If you have any information regarding Kelsey Emily Collins, call the Everett Police Department at 425-257-8540 or the Washington State Missing Persons Unit at 1-800-543-5678.
Tara Barnes is managing editor of response.