Whitmer pardons Michigan human trafficking victims

Just before Christmas, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued several pardons.

Whitmer granted one of the pardons to a Michigan woman who had been a victim of human trafficking for 20 years. Leslie King made numerous attempts to have her record of crimes she was allegedly coerced into committing while trafficking in human beings erased, but to no avail.

King’s story is both a warning and a beacon of hope for other victims.

Listen: Leslie King receives pardon for crimes she committed as a victim of human trafficking

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Leslie King: I was a 15 year old runaway and one day I was walking down the street crying. I can’t remember what I cried about. A gentleman stopped and asked me why I was crying and told me he wanted to take me out to lunch, it was too dangerous for me to be out there. So I got in. I wasn’t scared or anything, there were no warning signs, it was nothing. i felt ok I got in and we went to eat.

He took me to the movies, he bought me clothes, he took me to bars. He introduced me as his girlfriend and started telling me that nobody would ever hurt me again, that he didn’t know what was wrong with my mom and dad because they let these things happen to me. He said if he had been there it wouldn’t have happened. And he gained my trust.

So one day, after the bar closed, we went to one of his friends’ house like we usually do. But this time when I came to, his friend was on top of me and having sex with me. I’m looking for that person who said they loved me and that no one would ever hurt me again. And he looked at me like the devil himself. And he just told me I had better get his money. When the act was over, he grabbed my hair and threw me into a car. And I was told that if I ran, if I told the police or anyone else, they would kill my mother, my son, my brother and my sister, and they would dismember my body and bury me across the state of Michigan.

I was only 15, but I was sold to the United States.

Quinn Klinefelter, WDET News: It’s so appalling to hear this. Even just to hear the words “I’m sold,” not to mention all the other things that happened. When you were stuck in this situation, you ended up committing some crimes as well. Correct?

Oh god yes. He said we had to make a certain amount a night and if we couldn’t make that we had to go to the stores and steal and go to the bars and sell them to raise the money. If not, we would be beaten, so I did as I was told.

Many of my crimes involved carrying a concealed weapon and I have a few assaults. I either had to carry the gun while he drove or if he had drugs I had to carry them too. I remember being beaten up and choked by a John. I fought and escaped but he left and told the police. I didn’t want to tell the police, you know, we don’t go and talk to the police. The police found me, they saw me with bruises. They saw the mark around my neck, but they put me in jail.

How did you get out of the whole human trafficking situation? Did you go to jail for that? How did this work?

I have been involved in human trafficking for over 20 years. I didn’t know what else to do. All I wanted to do was go to sleep, never wake up and the pain would stop.

So I tried to commit suicide. I remember my heart slowing down, with the last breath I took I just screamed. And I’m just like, “If there’s a God in heaven, man, help me!” Right there and there, it’s hard for me to describe, but I felt like the hug I never got as a kid, that i felt I called my mother. They thought I was dead.

My mother came and picked me up, took me home with her, I could bathe, eat and sleep. And when I woke up, I put myself on detox. Then I presented myself in Rosehaven, which was run by the Dominicans. I stayed in this program for over a year, graduated and became the first resident to become a staff member. I really started struggling inside, I had to work on all the problems I was having. Because if I wasn’t working on these issues, they would be working on me.

I have to say how brave you are to come out and speak out about things like this. When you talk about your past crimes, you put in the time you had to, right? You have paid your debts to society. So why was it necessary to get a pardon from the governor?

We tried to get a deletion but due to the seriousness of my file I was not eligible. So the Joseph Project and also Madelaine Lane of the law firm Warner Norcross + Judd suggested that (I) should seek a pardon. I was in college and wanted social work, but they told me I couldn’t get a license because of my criminal background. And that somehow dampened everything in me.

For over 20 years I have been helping women, speaking out against human trafficking and (and) getting my life under control. That record was the one thing I just couldn’t get rid of.

But you turned that into some really super positive things. You’re on the board of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, you’ve established a home for sex trafficking survivors.

Correct. I was hired by the Grand Rapids Police Department to work the streets, to work with the women that we had with the same pimp, the same women that I was high with. I went out and stood up for these women. There’s nowhere else to go, so I started Sacred Beginnings, a home for women trying to move beyond the lifestyle of drug abuse and prostitution. We now have two houses and I opened a home help center last year.

You’ve been through so much, and now you have this forgiveness. When you talk to people, either in the homes or elsewhere, what do you want them to take away from what you’ve been through?

If it could happen to me, it could happen to you. Keep going. When you see women or men selling themselves, it’s always cause and effect. You see the effect, but nobody takes the time to find out the cause. I wish more people would take the time and listen to the victims, not victimize them again, but actually reach out and help them.

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233733.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter

    Quinn Klinefelter is Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally in the loop when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his toes.

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