Human Trafficking victims share stories of enslavement and escape
Updated: Jun 6
Erik Gray and Rebekah Fonden share their stories of surviving human trafficking at forum hosted by FWCAT.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Honda
This is a reprint from here.
It isn’t easy to tell the story of how you were human trafficked out of Federal Way when looking into a crowd of Federal Way residents. But it is a message needed to be heard.
The Federal Way Coalition Against Trafficking hosted a forum last week and two local survivors shared their gut-wrenching stories of how they wound up in, and escaped, from sex trafficking. Formed in 2011, FWCAT aims to educate and engage the Federal Way community through the voices of survivors and provide each person a role in ending human trafficking.
“In order to effectively and compassionately serve the needs of any community we must prioritize listening to voices representing that community,” said Claudia Lawrence, community mobilization director for FWCAT. The stunned silence encompassed a crowd of nearly 60 people at Federal Way City Hall as Rebekah Fonden and Erik Gray recounted the events of their lived experiences. “It can happen to anyone … it’s not biased,” Fonden said, although she also pointed out human trafficking disproportionately affects young people, the homeless, the LGBTQIA+ community and those in poverty.
Telling her story to a crowd for the first time, Fonden said she asked herself for years: “How could this happen to me?”
Fonden grew up in Federal Way in a very religious conservative family, which meant strict rules on what she could watch on TV, the type of music she could listen to, and the people she could keep as friends.
Nearing her senior year at a local high school, Fonden’s life began a downward spiral.
“I went to this party, we were drinking heavily, and that night I was raped,” she said. “I never told anyone … but it affected me. And I hid it.”
During senior year, she wasn’t the same person anymore. The lifelong athlete quit sports, began acting out and disobeying her parents rules.
“They were asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but they were asking the wrong question,” she said. “If they would’ve had open-ended conversations with me, I could’ve told them what happened to me …”
After graduation, her parents told Fonden she had two weeks to move out and find a different place to live. A longtime friend called Fonden and asked if she would come along on a double date.
“I said ‘Sure, I’ll be the wing-woman,’” she said. “So I go out with them and that night is when I met my traffickers.”
Two men, “S” and “T” as Fonden named them, analyzed the girls’ vulnerabilities asking about their housing situation, incomes and where they worked. The men posed as aspiring rappers and offered jobs to the girls to be promoters, to which Fonden and her friend agreed.
“And they were like ‘Yeah and we have this other business. It’s an escort business, but you don’t have to have sex. You just go out on dates with guys and you’re their company,’” she said. “And I thought ‘Well OK that doesn’t sound too bad as long as I’m not having sex with anyone …’”
As a relationship evolved between Fonden and T, her trafficker, he arranged for her to get an apartment, furniture, a bank account, and took her ID for “safekeeping.”
“He told me … ‘I love you, I want you to be my girlfriend,’” she said. “And this all happened within a week.”
On the night of her first date, T drove Fonden to Pacific Highway South and Aurora, told her to get out, walk down the road, and someone will pick her up.
“So I get out of the car and I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, am I prostituting?’” she said. “… So I start walking down the street and I get into my first car.”
As Fonden’s life with T worsened, she moved to S’s house, where at any time there were five to seven girls being trafficked out of his house.
“Unbeknownst to me, T gave S money for me … he sold me to S. S bought me from him,” she said. S then drained her bank account, stole all her things, and ruined her credit.
After about a week-and-a-half, S told Fonden she needed to pull her weight and make money, she recalled.
“That’s when I began two years of being trafficked between Las Vegas, Texas and Washington,” she said. “I saw a lot of horrifying things.”
Traffickers would make the girls fight until they were “beat up to his liking,” or made the girls take ice baths with a gun held against their head. The physical and mental abuse left the girls fearful and “leaving him really wasn’t an option,” Fonden said because if any attempts to leave were made, S would threaten to kill her family or severely harm her.
After a house raid in their Covington location, the female victims were taken into custody; the group of 10 included a minor.
The situation provided two choices: Keep quiet and face possible charges or confess and have their family killed by the traffickers, Fonden said. There were no resources or other options, so no one said anything and the girls were all released.
S then took the girls to Las Vegas and Fonden said she prayed to God to help her get out of this situation.
“I remember going to sleep one night and praying to God like ‘I’ve just had enough of this. I need to get out God, whatever you need to do just make it happen so I can get out of this horrifying hell that I’m in.’”
The next morning, she received warning about dangers along her track, a term for where women would walk the street. Some girls in a car begin to harass her, saying Fonden was on their turf.
“They get out of the car and the girl has a knife and tries to stab me with it … I pepper sprayed her and she gets in the car with her friend, and before I know it, I turn around and they run me over with their SUV,” Fonden said.
Waking up in the hospital, Fonden had two black eyes, multiple broken bones in her foot and thought, “Thank you, God.”
She was now no use to her trafficker because she couldn’t walk and she returned to Seattle to serve three months on house arrest for a warrant.
“He just started crying,” she said about returning home and telling her father everything she had gone through. “He apologized and I forgave him.”
For Fonden, this was her out. And luckily, she had a supportive community to welcome her home.
“Everyone’s exiting can look very different,” she said.
More than 10 years later, Fonden is still working through her pain, shame and guilt that the traffickers ingrained in her. There were countless nights Fonden said she slept on the bathroom floor because she felt safer she was behind two locked doors where no one could get to her.
Erik Gray agreed that the isolation and pain lasts for years after. You never know when a moment can change your entire life, he said.
The son of a mother from the Philippines and a father raised in a Texas foster care system, he had a rigid religious upbringing and was born overseas into a conservative Filipino community. Gray’s father served as a U.S. Navy chief for 25 years.
He said he has always been remarkably intelligent from a young age, as the need for kids from military families to be globally deployable left Gray five years ahead that of any school in the U.S. Upon moving to the U.S. after being stationed in Japan for seven years, he was excited for the new opportunities America held, but faced jarring culture shock.
When Gray began at Ridgetop Middle School in Silverdale, Washington, he endured relentless bullying and said his peers viewed him as “weird” due to the stark cultural differences. The school system also met him with distrust of his academic ability and placed him in remedial classes.
“The [schooling] system met me with ‘You’re a liar … there’s no way you can be this smart, especially can’t be smarter than us because no one here had ever scored like that,” he said.
So, he begged his parents to let him go to Washington Youth Academy in Bremerton or for any other option to be academically challenged in a healthier environment, but they ignored these pleas, Gray said.
At 14 years old, Gray was similar to any other curious kid.
“Like many other kids who were instructed not to click on something, I clicked on that thing,” Gray said as he ventured into the personal ad section of Craigslist after his father told him not to.
He then came into communication with Brian, a 30-something-year-old in Federal Way who lived in an apartment behind the mall and claimed to be in his 20s.
Gray had unanswered, and unacknowledged, questions about life in America. His conservative community of friends and family members didn’t offer any avenues to explore nontraditional ideas.
“I had a lot of questions about what it meant to have an attraction to men,” he said. “Like many 14-year-old boys, I was excited to figure that out. I needed to figure that out … Brian had a lot of answers to the questions I had.”
One day Brian began to drive from Federal Way to pick up Gray from school after he had been bullied all day.
“That felt really special to me, so I met up with him,” Gray said, noting they drove to Gray’s childhood park; once filled with joyful summertime memories now is tarnished with flashbacks of drug abuse and molestation. “Brian pulled out a meth pipe and a weed pipe and very quickly I would have my own understanding of what it would mean to be LGBTQ in America.”
Brian would pick up Gray multiple times a week, bring him back to his place in Federal Way and engage in intimate acts for hours on end.
“[This was] what I could come to know was a grooming process,” Gray said. “… I thought if I was grown up I would have the power.”
A routine settled in. Brian would pick up Gray, drive to a drug dealer’s house in Seattle, then return him in the early morning for school the next day.
“At this point, I’m addicted to opiates, methamphetamines, multiple psychedelics,” Gray said, noting he began to sell drugs at school and suddenly wasn’t being bullied any longer. “He’s got me on quite a drug cocktail and I’m 14, 15 years old.”
Brian started to engage intimately with Gray in strange ways, Gray said, such as covering the minor with a sheet or a hood to block his sight — which Gray took as a fetish and didn’t fight because “I loved him.”
The first night he was trafficked is still a vivid nightmare, he said.
“I remember one night … I was bent over the couch engaging intimately with [Brian], when the door opened and … when I turned my head, I saw there were boots on the ground,” Gray said with a quivering voice. “And they weren’t his. There was another man there. He would proceed to have sex with me … Brian put a meth pipe in front of me, held my head in his hands and he lit that pipe for me and very quickly I had answers to how I would get through that, too.”
Gray was then dropped off back at home, went to school, only to repeat the routine.
“It didn’t matter who I told because I tried,” he said. “I tried to reach out.”
Aunties and pastors at the church couldn’t get past the idea of Gray engaging intimately with another man. Rather than a listening ear, he was met with a message of sin.
“I couldn’t even get the words out of my mouth that this man is forcing me to have sex after putting drugs in my body and making me have sex with other men and benefiting off of these things, I think, but I’m 14 and I have no idea.” Gray said.
For more than a decade, he attempted to rebuild his life but often found himself among the rubble unable to heal or escape from the very things that damaged him.
His trauma from trafficking unveils the fact he was sexually abused by his own relative, leaving him without a concept of consent and dissociation from reality that would take years to repair.
Creating his own exit from sex trafficking was a painful, enduring process but with a smile of relief, Gray said: “God is good, life is possible and we change.”
Human trafficking does happen in Federal Way and victims come from a variety of backgrounds and origins, Lawrence said.
“We hope their stories inform us all better as to the harsh realities of sex trafficking,” she said. “We also hope that people see how our community neighbors who have been the victims of exploitation by traffickers can successfully exit those situations and rebuild their lives in a variety of enriching, thriving ways.”
For people experiencing trafficking exploitation or those in need of exiting resources and survivor enrichment programs, support is available through Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST), the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network (WARN), and Innovations, HTC.