BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Victims of human trafficking are living among us, often in silence.
According to researchers at the University of Alabama, human trafficking including sex and labor trafficking occur in every region of Alabama. In 2017, researchers discovered that 57 percent of potential victims that first responders and other professionals trained to deal with human trafficking came into contact with were minors.
Heather Marona, 27, was only 24 when she unwittingly became a prostitute in 2014.
She told CBS 42 her pimp initially posed as her best friend on social media to gain her trust. He was dating her best friend at the time and eventually revealed his identity and lured her into a prostitution ring with promises of easy money and drugs.
“I really had no idea the depth of what I was getting into,” Marona said. “He made it sound like it was just, you know, this glamorous thing.”
Marona said she was initially told that she was expected to “hang out” with older, lonely men — without the expectation of any sexual favors — but other women were brought on board and the situation quickly took a turn for the worse.
“Everybody was treated very, very badly, and nobody was allowed to leave, everybody was watched all the time,” Marona said. “It was just a very dark place.”
She said her pimp advertised her and the other women in her group on backpage.com.
“When we didn’t do what he said, he would either get violent or he would stop giving us the drugs to where it would make us very sick,” Marona said. “And so we would do what he said so we wouldn’t get sick. So that’s how he controlled us.”
Marona said her family didn’t know where she was or what she was doing during that time in her life and her phone was closely monitored.
“When I did talk to [my family], I would tell them that, you know, I was OK and that I was just — I was working — and I was staying with a friend,” Marona said. “Just up until the last year, they had no idea what I had been through.”
After three, terrifying months, Marona said her best friend got into a fight with the pimp and her friend called her mother and Birmingham police responded and arrested the pimp.
Marona said her pimp never threatened retaliation. She eventually came to the Lovelady Center for help getting back on her feet and she wants other victims to know that they can find help escaping their situation.
“I would never want anybody to go through the things that I went through and saw during that time in my life,” Marona said.
Brenda Lovelady Spahn, the founder and executive director of the Lovelady Center, told CBS 42 that Marona’s case highlights the reason why these missing persons cases should not be overlooked. She said human trafficking often involves grooming, not kidnap which is a common misconception.
“I get so tired of people saying ‘those women,’ they shouldn’t have done it,” she said. “Everyone of us living make a bad decision sometimes. The decision these women make are just more out there — and sometimes the price they pay is so much greater — but we all make mistakes and these women matter.”
For more information on the Lovelady Center’s mission and how to volunteer, click here.