Police rescued a 13-year-old girl named Kristen from a human trafficker’s trailer on Christmas Day in Wichita a few years back. Her story inspired others.
Authorities told her story to highlight how pimps force children into acts of prostitution, even in Wichita.
The tragedy of her life inspired hundreds. Andover mother Jennifer White founded ICT S.O.S., a popular nonprofit charity that helps trafficking victims and other vulnerable children.
But Kristen has lived in the Sedgwick County Jail for the past seven months. In September, on her 18th birthday, prosecutors filed three felony counts of human trafficking against her. They allege in a probable cause affidavit that she helped a 16-year-old Wichita girl make money for pimps.
Marc Bennett, the Sedgwick County district attorney, said his office acted after police presented evidence. Others say it’s not that simple.
Kristen in September asked for help from the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, based at Wichita State University. The Eagle is not using Kristen’s last name because she is the victim of a sex crime.
The center’s director, Karen Countryman-Roswurm, made the case public last week with postings on the center’s Facebook page.
She asked Bennett to release Kristen. When he said no, Countryman-Roswurm made the case public. The center started an online “petition to the governor” on change.org. And she has helped to organize a rally set for 4 p.m. on Friday in front of the Sedgwick County Courthouse.
“The system has failed Kristen,” the center’s petition says. “Our community has failed Kristen.”
“Instead of receiving services and support for the trauma she has endured, this young woman is facing significant jail time while those who exploited her are prosecuted minimally or even walk free,” the petition statement says.
Countryman-Roswurm said police turned on a victim and that prosecutors filed charges after Kristen stopped giving evidence against others.
Bennett denied that. And he said it is not true the system failed her.
“You would not believe all the help that has been offered to her,” he said.
Gordon Ramsay, Wichita’s new police chief, disputed that police failed her. “I am impressed that the investigators and leadership of the department want to be as victim-centered as they are. I’ve seen that first-hand,” he said.
Bennett, Countryman-Roswurm and Kristen’s defense attorney, Steve House, met on Monday to discuss possible alternatives to incarceration for the woman, Countryman-Roswurm said. If Kristen agrees to the alternatives, it’s possible she’ll be released to take part in a “prosperity plan” the center has proposed for her care, Countryman-Roswurm said.
Bennett wouldn’t comment about that, saying he can’t talk about a pending criminal case. But he said that the goal all along, even with the criminal charges, has never been to send her to prison but to get her the help she needs.
‘Under the control of a pimp’
Police in September wrote a probable cause affidavit, filed in the criminal case of a 19-year-old man who is facing human trafficking charges connected to Kristen’s case, according to court records.
In that affidavit, a Wichita police detective, L.L. Klumpp, wrote about several acts he says Kristen committed last July in helping a 16-year-old Wichita girl earn money by having sex with men.
But the affidavit also makes it clear that law enforcement thinks the 19-year-old man, Tyler O. Brown of Wichita, was acting as a pimp, controlling the illegal sex and taking the money, Countryman-Roswurm said.
Brown is in jail awaiting trial, according to court records.
Countryman-Roswurm said the acts that Kristen is accused of are typical of what some child trafficking victims do to survive.
“She made poor choices. But she did that while operating under the control of a pimp,” Countryman-Roswurm said.
Rally’s goal: To draw attention
Countryman-Roswurm said she tried to talk Bennett out of prosecuting Kristen weeks ago. When that didn’t work, she decided to call the U.S. attorney, the Kansas attorney general, multiple child advocacy agencies in Wichita and the media.
In a news release issued Tuesday, Countryman-Roswurm said Friday’s rally will demand justice “for trafficking victims believed to be receiving unfair and harsh legal punishment.”
“The goal is to draw attention to the cases of two young ladies, Kristen and LaTesha (an unrelated criminal case from Michigan) who as minors were sexually exploited and are now subject to adult penalties as a result of activities that stemmed from their trafficking victimization,” a news release from the Center for Combating Human Trafficking says.
But it is not unusual for a sex crime victim to also be charged with crimes, Bennett said.
Before he was elected as district attorney, he prosecuted sex crimes full time as a deputy district attorney.
“I spent 14 years prosecuting criminals who hurt children,” Bennett said. “I cannot tell you how many of those criminals told me that they were victims, too, when they were children.
“I believed them. But as much as I felt for them about that, I still had to uphold the law.”
Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle