Shortly before Christmas, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued several pardons.
Whitmer granted one of the pardons to a Michigan woman who spent 20 years as a victim of human trafficking. Leslie King tried numerous times to have her record expunged of crimes she says she was forced to commit while being trafficked, but to no avail.
King’s story stands as both a warning and a sign of hope for other victims.
Listen: Leslie King receives pardon for crimes committed while a human trafficking victim
The following interview was 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 was crying about. A gentleman pulled up and asked me why I was crying and was telling me that he wants to take me out to lunch, it was too dangerous for me to be out there. So I got in. I didn’t feel afraid or anything, there was no warning signs, there was nothing. I felt okay. I got in and we went to eat.
He would take me out to the movies, he bought me clothes, he took me to bars. He introduced me as his girlfriend and he started telling me no one would ever hurt me again, that he don’t know what was wrong with my mom and my dad for allowing these things to happen to me. He said had he been around it wouldn’t have happened. And he gained my trust.
So one day, after the bar closed, we went to one of his friend’s house like we normally do. But this time, when I came to, his friend was on top of me having sex with me. I’m looking for this person that said he loved me, and no one would ever hurt me again. And he looked at me like the devil himself. And he just told me I better get his money. When the act was over, he grabbed me by my hair and threw me in a car. And I was told that if I run, if I tell the police or anyone else, that he would kill my mom, my son, my brother and my sister and they will cut my body up and bury me all over the state of Michigan.
I was only 15, but I’ve been sold across the United States.
Quinn Klinefelter, WDET News: It’s so horrendous to hear that. Even just to hear the words “I’ve been sold,” let alone all the other stuff that happened. When you were stuck in that situation, you also had to wind up committing some crimes as well. Correct?
Oh God, yes. He said there was a certain amount that we had to make a night, and if we didn’t make that, we would have to go out to the stores and steal and go to the bars and sell them to make the money up. If not, we would get beaten, so I did what I was told to do.
A lot of my crimes were for carrying a concealed weapon, and I have some assaults. I was made to carry either the gun while he drove, or if he had drugs, I would have to carry those too. I remember being beat up and choked by a John. I fought and got away, but he went and told the police. I wasn’t going to tell the police, you know, we don’t go and talk to police. The police found me they seen me all bruised up. They seen the mark around my neck, but they took me to jail.
How did you get out of the whole situation of being trafficked? Was it that you wound up having to get jailed from it? How did that work?
I was in 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 just slowing down, with the last breath I had I just screamed. And I’m just like, “If there’s a God in Heaven, man, help me!” Right then and there, it’s hard for me to describe, but I felt like the hug that I never received as a child, I felt that. I called my mom. They thought I was dead.
My mom came and got me, took me to her house, I was able to bathe, eat and sleep. And when I woke up, I put myself into detox. Then I put myself into Rosehaven, which was run by the Dominican nuns. I stayed in that program for over a year, graduated and became the first-ever resident to become staff. I really started fighting internally, I had to work on all the issues that I had. Because if I didn’t work on those issues, they were going to work on me.
I have to say how courageous you are to be able to come out publicly and talk about these kinds of things. When you talk about your past crimes, you did whatever time you had to do for that, right? You paid your debt to society. So why was it necessary to get a pardon from the governor?
We tried getting an expungement, but because of the severity of my record, I wasn’t eligible. So the Joseph Project, and also Madelaine Lane from the law firm Warner Norcross + Judd, suggested that (I) try a pardon. I was in college and I was going for social work, but they told me that I couldn’t get licensed due to the fact of my criminal background history. And that kind of just dampened everything in me.
For over 20 years I’ve been assisting women, speaking out against trafficking, (and) got my life together. That record was just the one thing that I just could not get rid of.
But you have turned this into some really super positive things. You’re on the board of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, you founded a home for sex trafficking survivors.
Correct. I got hired by the Grand Rapids Police Department to do street outreach, going out working with the women who we’d had the same pimp, the same women I got high with. I went out there advocating for these women. There’s no place for them to go, so I founded Sacred Beginnings, a home for women trying to leave the lifestyle of substance abuse and prostitution. We have two homes now and I just opened up a home-based drop-in center last year.
You’ve been through so much, and now you have this pardon. When you talk to people, either in the homes or anywhere else, what would you like them to take away from what you’ve been through?
If it could happen for me it could happen for you. Keep going. When you see women or men selling themselves, it’s always cause and effect. You see the effect but no one takes time to find out the cause. I wish more people would take time and listen to the victims, not re-victimize them, 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.