MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. - In a case that shocked the South Florida community and made headlines across the country, a young girl ended up caught in a brutal sex-trafficking operation.
It happened in 2013. The girl was only 13 at the time. Six years later, she decided to share her story exclusively with Local 10 News.
"I feel like I'm a living testament," the now-19-year-old told Local 10 News investigative reporter Amy Viteri. "Honestly, I could have been dead a long time ago."
She requested to be identified only as "Z" to protect her privacy and described a difficult home life and constant bullying at school. She said at the age of 13 she had already run away for short periods of time on several occasions but always returned home.
On one occasion, she was hanging out at Flea Market USA on Northwest 79th Street when she met a man named Roman Thomas. He was 26, but Z said she didn't realize how much older he was at the time. She said he asked her whether she wanted to hang out and took her to the Motel Shores at Biscayne on 105th Street and Biscayne Boulevard.
Once there Z said Thomas told her to change into a pink bra and little shorts and took photos of her to begin shopping her on the website Backpage.com.
Within hours, she said, she was being told to have sex with strangers for money. Thomas and an accomplice, Shanteria Sanders, gave her the drug Molly, a form of the amphetamine MDMA, marijuana and liquor to keep her compliant. But she said they became violent if a customer failed to pay or when she told them she wanted to leave.
"I just said, 'I want to go home.' He was like, 'Oh if you want to leave, I'll kill you and your family,'" she said. "He slapped me. He punched me. Duct-taped me. Choked me."
She said Thomas took her back to the flea market, this time to have someone tattoo his pimp name onto her eyelids, branding the delicate skin with the phrase "Suave House."
"When the tattoo artist told me lay down on the bed and he told me close my eyes, that's when my heart started racing," Z said.
Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said traffickers seek to dehumanize their victims with methods like tattooing and branding.
"And it told the world you're nothing. You are mine," Rundle said.
Police arrested Thomas and Sanders after Z's mother learned where she was. Z said at first she did not want to speak with investigators, fearing she was in trouble. She said she broke down when officers assured her it wasn't her fault.
"When I hear stuff like that I start crying," she said. "Because, at the end of the day, I still feel like I did something wrong."
Her story shocked the South Florida community, including Rundle, who said Z's ordeal mobilized her office to learn more about trafficking and paved the way for more convictions.
"She was one of our first handful of cases and now we've had over 580 filed criminal cases," Rundle added.
She said 40% of the victims her office encounters are under the age of 18. Sixty percent of those are local.
"A walking ATM machine -- and that's how these guys look at them," she said. "They don't see personality. They don't see a soul, a heart. They don't see tears."
Thomas received a 20-year sentence. Sanders got probation. But for Z the trauma continued as she endured more bullying because of the tattoos marking her face. Years later she said a local doctor offered to remove them at no cost. Life-changing, she said, but another agonizing procedure.
"It was painful, but it was relief," she said. "Laser surgery. I was in the hospital for about a week."
Her case prompted Rundle's office to lobby to make state law very clear, and it's now a felony to permanently brand or tattoo a victim in Florida.
Business owner Amor Sierra said it was Z's story that inspired her to buy a tattoo shop.
"I knew that that's where I wanted to get involved," said Sierra, who now owns Miami Tattoo Co. on Miami Beach. "Our main focus is to help human trafficking those survivors where we can cover up those tattoos that are put on them."
Her shop partners with different agencies to help survivors cover up ink that can be a painful reminder, or worse, put them in danger.
"It's so important to cover that tattoo, not just to ... protect them, but so that old tattoo cannot be identified and their life could be at risk," she said.
Z is now a mother to an 8-month-old daughter. After years of therapy, she is still healing. Her message to parents is to always maintain a bond with their children even when they don't see eye to eye to prevent them from feeling isolated and vulnerable.
She also had a message for other survivors who have or are experiencing trafficking. It's the same message she still tells herself.
"Don't blame yourself," she said. "It's not your fault."
The state attorney's office is now partnering with several agencies to focus on raising awareness about trafficking ahead of the Super Bowl coming to South Florida next year.
The Women's Fund in Miami-Dade launched a campaign using signs with the words "Stolen for Sex" on billboards and in bus shelters.
Rundle also had a warning to anyone coming to South Florida to buy sex: "Johns are the reason that this horrible industry exists. If it wasn't for the money, you wouldn't have these victims. I do prosecute johns. So, if that's something you've been doing in your community, you're not doing it in my community."
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