MADISON (WKOW) — A Madison woman who escaped human trafficking is sharing her story, hoping to help others do the same.
In 2012, Lexie Weems was a struggling 21-year-old who had gotten into some trouble.
“I was just in a real vulnerable state and I think that was his perfect time to come into my life,” she said.
A predator found her on Twitter and took advantage of her weakness, carrying on an online friendship for a year. Eventually, she visited this man, who she thought was a good friend, in Atlanta. But she wound up trapped.
“The hardest part was knowing that I trusted somebody for that long and that whole entire time they were plotting on me,” Weems told 27 News. “They had a whole different plan for me than what I thought that it was. I think that was my hardest part, was the betrayal.”
She says the man drugged her and forced her into daily prostitution. She tried to leave, but once she started fighting to escape, he became violent.
“He knew where I lived, he threatened my family, and after that it was just kind of like what do you do now?” she said.
Her story is just one of many cases of a predator grooming a victim and maintaining control to keep her from escaping.
Police have investigated cases of human trafficking like this in all of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Here in Madison, it’s a constant challenge.
“It’s not a problem the police or law enforcement can arrest themselves out of,” said Madison Police Detective Roger Baker. “It’s a problem that requires working with partner agencies and the more community awareness there is, the more resources.”
Baker has been investigating human trafficking cases in Madison for the past decade. He says the crime is constantly evolving as technology advances.
Developing relationships with victims is one of the most important steps to end the crimes, according to Baker. But he says that can be difficult.
“It’s a challenge and sometimes it may require sitting down with somebody five, six, seven times before they finally feel they can make a disclosure,” he told 27 News.
This year, Madison Police Department plans to add an extra officer to the team that investigates human trafficking. That officer will take on a new method to identify the community’s most vulnerable children. It’s based off a successful program in Dallas.
“They look at which kids are going missing four or more times a year, focus on building trust with those children so it’s easier to work with those children and get disclosures,” Baker said. “They’ve really been able to increase the amount of cases they’ve been able to work and children they’ve been able to save.”
It will be a citywide focus on human trafficking, in addition to new goals across Dane County to try to decrease the demand for prostitution in the community.
Meanwhile, state investigators have spent the past year training thousands of casino and hotel staff, truck drivers and mall security to spot and report signs of human trafficking.
Since the state created a human trafficking bureau, officials have investigated 79 cases, rescuing 17 children and 59 adults from trafficking.
For victims like Weems, it comes down to building trust in police. She was relieved when the FBI raided a hotel, rescuing her and other women after she had been trafficked for four months. But, she says they treated her like a suspect when she just needed help to get back home.
“It was really confusing. It was like, who’s on my side? So at first I held back. I didn’t know if I could even trust them. I was scared,” she said.
She says more can be done to support victims, which is what she’s now ready to do in Madison, using her strength to share her story with the community.
“I don’t know where my strength came from. I don’t know where I found it, but it was there and I did everything I could to just try to be a better person. To try to move on from this situation and I think now I’m there,” Weems told 27 News.
Lexie Weems will continue sharing her experience at a public event Sunday afternoon. She’ll speak at a panel discussion put on by SlaveFree Madison. Detective Baker will also take questions from the community. The event is from 1:30-4:30 p.m. at the Fitchburg Public Library. Click here for more information.