Human trafficking is the illegal transport of people through force, fraud or coercion for labor or sexual exploitation. The problem is too big for law enforcement to handle alone. The Michigan State Police relies on a mobile army of volunteers to help save the survivors and charge the criminals.
If you witness or suspect human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Toll Free Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Day and night, thousands of big rigs roar down Interstate 94 between Chicago and Detroit.
At Mile 151, the east-bounders slow down to pass through the Grass Lake weigh station near Jackson. Computers scan their carrier ID numbers and check for weight violations.
Through the window, Michigan State Police Officer Nathan Daugherty takes a closer look at the cab. Usually it’s just a driver in there. But a second person inside could be a signal that something is wrong.
“If human trafficking is done in a truck, they'll be the passenger,” says Daugherty. “It’s not going to be too often -- I can't say never -- a trailer full of people. Typically, they’re just transporting this individual from point A to point B for somebody.”
Most human trafficking victims in Michigan are part of the sex trade. Victims are overwhelmingly female.
They’re groomed for this work as young as 11 years old.
Trafficking can happen virtually anywhere…but there are certain hotspots.
Just down the road from his post, Officer Daugherty does outreach with truckers who stop to gas up and grab a bite.
That’s where we find Terry Kendrick, a veteran driver out of Florida. We ask him if he’s ever witnessed human trafficking firsthand.
“I’ve never seen anything like that, and I’ve been out here since 1977,” says Kendrick.
Kendrick has a small round decal on his windshield. It depicts a green lizard with long black hair and a curled tongue. A diagonal red line cuts through the image. Truckers know exactly what it means: “No Lot Lizards.”
It’s a derogatory term for a prostitute who solicits door to door at truck stops.
Daugherty informs him that there’s a new term for an old issue.
“What you’re thinking of as a prostitute or a lot lizard, that's human trafficking,” he says.
“Oh…OK,” Kendrick replies. “I wasn’t thinking about that would be human trafficking as well. But I see that all the time.”
Kendrick says before he had the sticker, trafficking victims would often approach his truck.
“Since I’ve put it on, now it seems like they’re doubling coming up to the truck, you know what I'm saying?” Kendrick says. “There’s certain places I will not stop because of that.”
Daugherty follows through.
“Well, those are the locations actually that we'd rather you get the information and call. Give a description: height, weight, hair color, outfits…they would love that information so we can get an officer down there.”
“I can do that,” Kendrick says.
Then, Daugherty hands Kendrick a card that lists the national toll free human trafficking hotline.
“You guys can be our eyes and ears out there, saving lives,” says Daugherty. “You’ve got one,” is Kendrick’s quick reply.
When it comes to outreach, few people can communicate the evils of modern-day slavery as well as Anny Donewald.
She was trafficked at a very young age. "It was familiar for me to sell sex,” she says. "It felt normal.”
Donewald was an exotic dancer in strip clubs all over the country. Then she turned to prostitution.
Eventually, she found her way out, became a Christian and founded Eve’s Angels, a nonprofit that operates a safe home for sex trafficking victims.
From the moment she walks through the door, Donewald knows rescues start with relationships.
“I think that’s where a lot of people are failing, is that for so long there’s this scarlet letter on sex workers,” Donewald explains.
“These are people, and so I go in and approach them as such. I sit and have conversations with them.”
Donewald takes aim at the culture of objectification that sends women into a downward spiral. She knows the psychological devastation it causes…so she’s thankful for the moments when former victims reach their turning point.
“A girl will come to me even a year or so many years later and say, you stopped at my club, and I was going to kill myself that night,” she says. “And because you guys showed up, I didn’t. Or, just girls at the safe house; I’ve had girls say, had I not shown up here I'd have been dead of an overdose within the week.”
Victims’ advocates are hoping to gain some legislative victories, too. The Michigan Human Trafficking Commission is proposing mandatory training for licensed professionals, including truck drivers.
Another goal is to reduce the penalty for providing commercial sex to a misdemeanor, while charging those who obtain it with a felony.
In the meantime, Anny Donewald continues to fire her message directly at would-be traffickers and johns: Women are not for sale.
“This is not a notch in your belt; this does not make you more of a man,” she asserts. “She’s a human being.”
In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported a 25 percent spike in calls over the previous year.
While there’s no definitive proof, experts believe it may be that survivors are becoming more aware of the help that’s available, and more confident to ask for it.