Gone girl: The story of a sex worker who came to Sacramento for help, then vanished

23-year-old single mother felt caught between a pimp and the FBI

Monroe looked to the FBI and WEAVE for help, but says law enforcement cared more about building a case against her former pimp than helping her escape the world of sex work.

Monroe looked to the FBI and WEAVE for help, but says law enforcement cared more about building a case against her former pimp than helping her escape the world of sex work.

ILLUSTRATION BY jonathan buck

The dread is familiar to Kristen DiAngelo. During her former career as an escort, it repelled her from certain alleys, cars and people. And when a fellow working girl disappeared, it filled in the rest of that story. Today, the dread tells DiAngelo that her friend is gone.

She last heard from the 23-year-old woman in July. Call her cellphone and an automated voice says the number is not in service. Emails disappear into a vacuous cloud. Even more telling, the woman’s escort ads, posted online at regular intervals for weeks, stop dead on the same date: July 28—the day that “Monroe” disappeared.

“Out of the blue,” DiAngelo said, “she was gone.”

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. A sex worker whose childhood friend pimped her between Marin and Los Angeles counties, Monroe (SN&R isn’t revealing her real name due to safety concerns) arrived in Sacramento this spring to escape a life that felt like a single day, replayed on a loop: boxy motel rooms and stubbled faces. A wall stain that looks like a far-flung continent. A cigarette that tastes like everywhere else.

“It’s a fast pace of living,” she told SN&R a month before she disappeared. “There was never a break.”

Somewhere in that blur, Monroe was arrested six times in three months for solicitation, while her pimp evaded apprehension and prevented her from attending court hearings. That led to bench warrants, more arrests, jail time. She was a human-trafficking victim, but her record said something different.

Monroe wanted out. “I just really want to be able to get back into a regular lifestyle,” she said. “Because I miss that. I miss the hell out of school and work.”

In April, she cold-called help lines from her mother’s garage. Finally, a woman with a tattered voice answered. It was DiAngelo, who had recently started a local chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, or SWOP, which offers harm-reduction services and calls for decriminalizing prostitution.

In May, Monroe relocated to Sacramento to be closer to SWOP and other services. She applied for jobs, housing and aid. She did what the system told her. But doing that just showed Monroe how many doors were closed. Not two months later, she was arranging dates for rent money.

Then, on July 28, she fell off the grid.

DiAngelo knows only a few endings to this story. “This, unfortunately, is very common,” she said, noting that she tries to “remain unattached” to the women she assists. “Because when the people turn up dead, you don’t want to grieve.”

June: Exploited by the system

Standing in a McDonald’s parking lot with a cigarette ashing at her side, Monroe gazes through the open car window at her sleeping daughter. It’s been a long journey for them both.

When she and her 5-year-old first arrived, they possessed little besides the clothes they wore. WEAVE, Sacramento’s flagship services-provider to domestic-violence survivors, granted Monroe a six-week emergency stay at one of its safe houses, which started the clock ticking on finding long-term housing and a livable—and lawful—wage.

Monroe expressed the desire to go into the legal profession. But that’s difficult with a criminal record, even one obtained under the duress of a pimp who forced her to earn $1,000 a day.

While Monroe added her name to two-year wait lists for affordable housing, she reluctantly considered another option: law enforcement. DiAngelo’s experiences with local authorities, both as an activist and onetime escort, were negative, but she’d recently heard from the FBI’s Office of Victim Assistance regarding another sex worker she tried to help. That sex worker had already left the state to escape an Oak Park pimp, but the victim specialist she spoke to on the phone indicated they could provide services whether Monroe formally reported a crime or not.

According to an FBI spokeswoman, the two-person office provided an “array” of services to more than 660 crime victims last year.

Still, it wasn’t an obvious choice. The FBI was the same agency that last summer seized myRedbook, a website popular among escorts for its scheduling and screening abilities. Sex-worker advocates and public-health workers say the raid forced poorer sex workers onto the streets, where they’re more vulnerable to predatory violence and disease.

DiAngelo left the decision up to Monroe. After pondering it for a couple of days, Monroe decided to roll the dice.

“This is all uncharted territory,” DiAngelo said at the time. “But somebody has to go down it or else nothing will change. And [Monroe] decided to go down it.”

Things started well. Monroe says FBI employees supplied her with food and clothing vouchers, and drove her to various government offices so she could replace her ID, obtain Social Security cards and birth certificates, and apply for aid.

Monroe began to think her fears of the agency were unfounded. “I actually had a panic attack before I went,” she said a day after her first meeting with representatives. “But it was completely different than what I thought. They were dressed normal. They were actually very offering, regardless of whether I gave them information or not. They were willing to make sure me and my daughter were OK.”

The tone changed that night.

She and DiAngelo say FBI officials began pressuring her to give them more information about her ex-pimp, so they could start an investigative file that they might hand over to local law enforcement.

That worried DiAngelo. “If they [locals] pursue the case, that means he can bond out [of jail] within two hours and be out in the street and know she talked,” she said.

Monroe was also reluctant to disrupt her fragile peace, especially without guaranteed protection. It had been nearly a year since she heard from the pimp, who had stalked her with threatening phone calls. But the two grew up in the same small town, knew each other’s families, and he made past statements about harming her daughter. “What the hell is the point if that’s going to endanger me and my child?” she said of working with the FBI.

Shortly after she explained her reluctance, Monroe says she was pulled aside by a WEAVE case manager and told it was in her best interest to cooperate with the FBI. Then, she says, the services started tailing off from both WEAVE and the FBI. “I just felt very pressured by them two,” she said. “Once I said I wasn’t ready to cooperate, that’s when everything just stopped.”

WEAVE representatives say they can’t speak to the specific claims without a signed release from Monroe, but stressed that they never withhold services due to a client’s relationship with law enforcement.

“Victims are often torn when it comes to cooperating with a law enforcement investigation and our role is to make sure they understand their rights regardless of their decision,” Executive Director Beth Hassett wrote in an email. “In the end, her level of involvement is the victim’s choice and we provide services regardless of her relationship to any open case.”

FBI spokeswoman Gina Swankie declined SN&R’s requests to interview the agency’s victim specialists and said she wouldn’t be able to answer specific questions about an ongoing investigation. But in an earlier email correspondence, Swankie defended the two-person office. “Trust me, these two ladies do an amazing amount of work without a single complaint,” she wrote. “Trafficking victims are only one sort of victim they encounter. They coordinate services for victims of all of the crimes we pursue; truly amazing people.”

Three days after Swankie’s email, Monroe says she was approached by the WEAVE case manager. Besides talking up the FBI, she says she was told to reconsider her close relationship with DiAngelo, to ask herself whether SWOP could provide the same breadth of services as WEAVE.

Pacing the shoreline of the American River, Monroe draws a cigarette down to its filter and scans the murk. “I just didn’t feel comfortable in the [safe] house,” she said.

She stubs out her cigarette. A week later, she and her daughter would leave town.

Monroe returned to sex work, at first to help her mom with the rent. Then, a few weeks later, she was gone. Her phone number and professional name appeared on a website that accused her of snitching to law enforcement. DiAngelo worried someone would use the information to “make an example of her.”

“I’m afraid she may be in real trouble,” she wrote in a text.

It would be almost four months before SN&R learned what kind.

November: Still a struggle

A hundred miles from anyone who knows her real name, Monroe answers her cellphone after months of radio silence.

She’s somewhere in the Bay Area—she asked that SN&R not reveal where, as she’s afraid of being targeted by exploiters and law enforcement—living and working out of a motel room where she meets her clients, most of whom are businessmen who pay promptly and don’t overstay their welcomes. Some even give her lifts when she needs to get somewhere. “Luckily, I have amazing clients,” she said.

Things are relatively stable, but not great. “I got robbed not too long ago, which sucked,” she said. It happened in San Jose. A guy made a date, but instead stole her cash and work phone. “It’s still a struggle like it was before.”

She’s switched phones and numbers, but kept the same professional name, even though it appeared on the website that accused her of snitching. Monroe says these sites have accumulated since federal authorities shuttered myRedBook. The sites scrape phone numbers from online escort ads, then post blurbs teasing reviews that don’t exist. The blurbs almost always imply that the sex workers are working directly with law enforcement, which could prove dangerous for the sex workers if the blurbs are believed.

Monroe dismisses the potential danger, saying everyone knows the sites are just trying to scam easy money through clickbait ads. “Cops won’t put us on the Internet like that,” she reasoned.

Besides, the safety risk is less pressing than the financial one: After all, her professional name is a brand to her clientele, and Monroe lives off commission.

She sends money back home to her mom to help with the bills and her daughter. She misses her kid, but won’t let her be around this environment. She’s exiled herself for her daughter’s sake, she says. And, except for a couple of texts and emails, she’s been reluctant to contact DiAngelo, whom she affectionately calls “Miss Kristen.”

“I basically had to leave because I didn’t want Miss Kristen to worry about me,” Monroe said.

As a result, her world has become small, about the size of a motel room. She’s saving up for a car, though she can’t yet afford to buy her suspended driver’s license out of hock. Unpaid speeding tickets and red-light infractions have mounted in fines. And she won’t take public transportation because she doesn’t want to risk meeting anyone new. People, she said, just leave her life “more fucked up.”

Her experiences with the FBI and WEAVE soured her on looking to the system for help. The way she sees it, the system used her to build a case. “They kept toying around to get something out of me,” she said. “It kind of felt more like a waste of time.”

That kind of distrust is common among sex workers, acknowledges Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jennifer Rockwell, who oversees a relatively new diversion court that allows sex workers to swap misdemeanor charges for programming and assistance.

“It takes a long time to get out of the life,” Rockwell said. “There is no one single path.”

But a fresh start isn’t completely out of reach, even for someone who’s already been convicted. According to the Judicial Branch of California, people can petition local courts to have certain misdemeanor and infraction-level convictions dismissed if they didn’t result in prison time and all debts are paid, including all fines and probation terms. But it’s a complicated process with strings attached, and having the FBI’s assistance would have helped. Monroe says the agency initially put her in touch with a lawyer, one she never heard from again after she stopped cooperating with the criminal investigation.

In September 2014, Monroe spent about seven days in jails in Alameda and Santa Clara counties to take care of her charges. But she doesn’t know whether she’s currently on probation or has any warrants out. “I’m nervous as hell to get caught,” she said.

Right now, a standard background check reveals that she’s been convicted of multiple prostitution offenses, which has already prevented her from gaining entry-level positions at a daycare, a caregiving facility and a package-delivery service.

But she hasn’t given up. She still thinks about becoming an attorney, so she can help women like her clear their records. Maybe she can get her convictions dismissed on her own. Maybe she can pay off her fines and get her license back. Maybe she can start over.

“I’m trying my hardest,” she said. The line goes quiet, then scratchy and wet. Monroe lets out a ragged sigh and apologizes for letting her emotions betray her. “It’s hard to talk about. I worry I let people down.”

A week later, the day before Thanksgiving, Monroe calls DiAngelo. It’s a good talk, DiAngelo says. Monroe tells her she’s thinking about returning to Sacramento, about giving the straight life another shot.

She says she’s ready to try again.