Mary's story: She was 17 and a victim of human trafficking
A 17-year-old from Windsor was the victim at the centre of Canada’s first human trafficking conviction involving an adult who had placed a child into prostitution. This is the story of how she was rescued by an Ottawa police detective.
Mary had a temper. Even as a young girl growing up in Windsor, she was quick to argue with her father, her teachers, anyone in authority.
She struggled academically, too. Reading at a much lower level than her classmates, her frustrations grew. On her second day of high school, she was suspended for telling a teacher to “shut the (expletive) up.” Two weeks later she was kicked out for good.
“I just think they couldn’t put up with me,” says Mary, who cannot reveal her identity because she fears for her safety. “A lot of people say I can’t work with others because I don’t like being told what to do.”
But the issues ran deeper than that. Mary’s learning disability and behavioural issues were likely caused by her mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy. Battling severe alcohol addiction, Mary’s young mother suffered from an array of health problems, and died when she was just 32.
“She basically killed herself,” Mary says.
She and her twin brother were barely two at the time, and still living in Michigan. Soon after, their father and grandmother travelled to the U.S. and moved the children to Canada.
They ended up in Windsor, where Mary grew up and her struggles with authority and challenges in the classroom emerged. She had a strained relationship with her father, which only escalated after she was expelled from school in Grade 9.
Barely into her teens, Mary bounced around among a few government group homes, where she regularly butted heads with other girls. There were arguments and fights.
“I have to really like someone if I’m going to work with them,” Mary says. “I don’t get along with very many people.”
When she finally moved home again, it was only under the supervision of social workers who visited twice a month. That was in May 2011, just weeks before she would meet a young man online who enticed her to sneak away for a weeklong romance.
Mary first encountered Jamie Byron on Facebook. A girlfriend who had moved to Montreal suggested they’d be a good match.
During those initial online chats, he flirted with her, told her she was sexy. They would text each other. He posed questions that seemed like normal conversation at the time.
“He asked me about school and what happened there, things like that,” she recalled in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, her first with the media.
Within two days, he asked her to visit. She agreed to go for a week, but told Byron the trip would be difficult to pull off. Her dad would never allow it.
So she hatched a plan. She said she was sleeping over at a friend’s, but instead boarded a train to Toronto. There, she and another friend from Windsor met one of Byron’s buddies from Montreal. He drove them the rest of the way.
They arrived at a house in Montreal around 7 a.m. Exhausted, Mary went to sleep. When she woke up, she found herself alone with Byron, who immediately shattered any notion of romance.
“Everything went down from there,” she says. “He told me he wanted me to work. We got into a fight because I refused … and I told him I wanted to leave.”
Her resistance meant nothing. Byron beat her that first day when she refused to do what he wanted. He then took her to see a customer and forced her to have sex with him. He collected $300.
Byron burned her birth certificate and stole her health card, textbook tactics used by pimps to gain control of their victims. He also threatened to hurt her family if she ran away. On days when she didn’t want to work, he pushed her around, pulled her hair and threw her into walls. He wasn’t shy to head-butt her in the face.
With Mary fully under his control, Byron booked hotels and posted provocative photos of her in online escort ads. Mary was soon servicing nine or 10 men a day, for which she could bring in $1,000 or more. Every bit of that cash was handed over to Byron.
The johns got just about anything they wanted if they were willing to pay for it; unprotected sex drew the most cash. She was shunted from one hotel to another and from one city to the next to stay a step ahead of authorities.
They went from Montreal to Toronto then back to Montreal in the first month. Then they went to Barrie and back again to Toronto and Montreal, all three cities popular stops along a prostitution circuit known to police as The Pipeline.
Women working independently travel to many of these same communities as do women willingly working with pimps. It’s an attractive option for traffickers looking to move young women and girls undetected.
In early August 2011, Katharine Edwards joined the operation as Byron’s assistant. Also in her early 20s, she started posting online ads of Mary, booking hotel rooms, negotiating prices and setting up dates.
Eventually, Byron added Ottawa to his pimp circuit. Hotel records show that by late August they bounced between two hotels in the capital before a seemingly small incident changed the course of many lives.
While at the Extended Stay Canada hotel on Cooper Street, just a block south of Ottawa’s City Hall, Mary lost the key to her room on the second floor. As she was picking up a new one at the front desk, she also asked about paying for additional time in the hotel.
“Jamie also wanted me to book the room longer,” she says, now recognizing the significance of that request.
The clerk refused the booking because Mary was just 17. She returned to her room. The johns kept coming.
The next night, around 11 p.m., Mary was expecting another customer to arrive. But there was a problem, Edwards explained to her. “She said it was cancelled or something. I can’t remember exactly,” Mary says.
So she and Edwards went up the hall to Room 219, occupied by a woman Mary believes was working for another pimp. Their conversation stopped abruptly when a knock on the door echoed off the white walls of the room. The woman wasn’t expecting a john. They all stayed silent. Mary and Edwards slipped out onto the balcony.
Standing in the night air, the women listened as the knocking continued. Wearing flip-flops, short shorts and a skimpy top, Mary took long, nervous drags from her cigarette. Smoking was not helping the inflamed throat she’d been nursing for a few weeks. As the two of them stood together, a suspicious Edwards demanded a wad of cash from Mary.
The room door opened and a deep voice announced, “We’re the police.” Within seconds of several officers barging into the room, a husky man in street clothes appeared in the balcony doorway and asked for Mary by her real name.
“He took me out of there and we went to my room,” she says. “I told him everything that was going on with me.”
The officer, Det. Shane Henderson, let Mary smoke in the room as she talked. She powered through a couple of cigarettes, further aggravating her sore throat, as she laid out her story. She wanted out. She wanted to go to the hospital. She feared she may be pregnant.
That first conversation with Henderson was just the beginning. From there, they went to police headquarters where Mary would reveal even more.
For two hours, the teenager stared toward the beige walls of the small interview room with her back to the camera. Sitting in a chair across from Henderson, she walked him through the lurid nightmare that had been her life that summer.
“I didn’t really talk about the details — I was embarrassed,” she says. “At the time, I wasn’t ready to expose every little thing, every little moment. That’s like telling every little detail about yourself to someone you don’t even know.”
Even so, Mary fielded dozens of questions in those two hours, but she still had no answers to her most pressing concerns. Was she pregnant? What diseases had she picked up? Would Byron find her? What could the police really do to help her?
She eventually went with a uniformed officer to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario where medical staff had more questions. They ran a range of tests.
Police brought the rest of her belongings from the hotel room and stationed an officer outside her door. Mary finally got some rest, sleeping off and on throughout the rest of the morning.
Her test results came back: she wasn’t pregnant. Actually, the worst physical diagnosis was a case of tonsillitis, which explained the sore throat. Otherwise, she was going to be OK. She was lucky.
Back at the police station, Henderson continued his investigation, interviewing Edwards and the third woman from Room 219. He eventually went to check on Mary and worked with members of the victim crisis unit to make sure she had somewhere safe to go.
For her own safety and to protect the integrity of their most important witness, police needed to find her a place to stay. City shelters have too many restrictions. Some cater exclusively to men, others lack security and protection. Some only offer beds at night.
The teenager had some trepidation about going to a shelter. She worried Byron would find her or that he would harm her family as he had threatened to do many times. Thinking back to her days in the group home, she also worried about getting along with the other women.
In the end, she was fine. She laid out photographs of her family on the dresser in her private room. A pink frame held up a school photo of her little sister in kindergarten. Beside it rested a baby picture of Mary and her twin brother sitting in a playpen in Michigan.
The director of the Ottawa Coalition to End Human Trafficking, who helped find Mary a shelter, reached out to Shelley Gilbert, the co-ordinator of social work services with Legal Assistance of Windsor. The women had met during a human trafficking conference.
They moved as quickly as they could. With a little more networking, they managed to get Mary on a plane to Windsor just two weeks after Henderson knocked on that door.
In February of this year, Byron was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for human trafficking of a minor.
There’s no denying young women and girls are being trafficked in Ottawa, police say. Since starting a human trafficking team last year, investigators have identified at least 40 pimps who have multiple women under their control, say sources.
Insp. Paul Johnston, who oversees the team, says pimps often traffic several women at any given time: “If you’re a controller, you likely have more than one (girl).”
The anti-human trafficking group, PACT Ottawa, recently reported that at least 150 women and girls are involved in the human trafficking trade in the Ottawa area. Researchers interviewed a host of service workers over several months to come up with that number, which they believe is extremely conservative.
Many of those identified were first lured into the business when they were still minors, 13 to 16 years old. By the time most of the victims reached out to service groups or police, looking for help, they were 18 to 25, according to PACT.
The lucrative business could bring in an annual purse of $26 million for traffickers, says lead researcher Elise Wohlbold.
Trafficking victims can collect $1,000 or more a day for their pimps and they often work out of hotels in the city’s downtown. Johns visiting downtown hotels might think they’re visiting women who are willingly turning tricks on their own, but there are almost always men or women in nearby rooms controlling the operation, police say.
Even when the women manage to get out of the business, there is a significant lack of resources to ensure the survivors remain safe.
In Mary’s case, she’s had counselling and other help since the night Henderson pulled her out of the Ottawa hotel room, but it’s been a struggle.
She has bounced around from a variety of housing paid for by the government, but affordable spaces often mean dilapidated buildings not suited for anyone, says Gilbert, never mind a survivor of human trafficking.
After several tries, Mary has found a comfortable home. The family pictures that provided her with comfort during that horrific summer are now all framed and can be found in the living room, the upstairs hallway, and in her room.
There are new pictures, too. Mary gave birth to her daughter about nine months ago. She weighed six pounds, three ounces.
“She’s going to be tiny like me,” Mary says, with obvious pride. She is not living with the father, but he is part of the child’s life.
Her relationship with her father continues to face challenges, but they’re working on it. Mary is still in regular contact with Gilbert, Joan and, especially, the detective who she believes saved her life that night in August 2011.
In fact, Mary and Henderson regularly call each other. They vowed to stay in touch no matter what happened. It’s a promise she says she’ll never break.
“I will never be able to thank him enough and will never stop appreciating what he did,” Mary says. “I’ll never forget him.”
June 13th, 2014
- Posted By: Derek Spalding - The Ottawa Citizen
- Comments: 0