Summit helps break the silence about human trafficking

By Eve Meinhardt, WAMCOctober 4, 2016

Fort Bragg Special Victims Summit
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

If you passed Shamere McKenzie on the street, you'd notice a vivacious, well-dressed woman who seems to radiate energy.

If you spoke to her, you'd notice a slight Jamaican accent and a seemingly ever-present smile.

After your brief conversation, you would never suspect that McKenzie was once a victim of human trafficking. But for 18 months this was her reality.

McKenzie was a guest speaker at Fort Bragg's Second Annual Special Victims Summit at the Iron Mike Conference Center, Sept. 26. She shared her experiences about how she went from a promising track star going to college on a scholarship to becoming a human trafficking victim carted around the United States and forced into prostitution.

When she lost her scholarship after an injury that prevented her from running, McKenzie's number one priority was to find a way to continue to pay for school. One day she met a man named "Michael" who said all the right things. Their friendship blossomed and he became her Prince Charming, When he later offered to let her stay in his house rent free so all her money could go directly to her tuition, she quickly agreed.

One of the conditions of staying once she moved in was that she had to dance to earn her keep. McKenzie said that she was initially okay with the prospect and knew many girls who worked in the strip clubs to make their way through school. However, when a man propositioned her for more than a dance, she told Michael that she wasn't going to do that and that she was leaving.

Michael told her she would do whatever the man asked. When she refused again, he asked if she really thought she could make it out of there alive.

Shortly after, she learned what she called rule number one -- never hit a pimp. He choked her to the point of unconsciousness, causing her to lose control of her bodily fluids. When McKenzie came to, she said he turned back into Prince Charming, promising never to hurt her again.

At one point she ran away, but was hurt so badly upon being caught that she "learned her lesson." Her life and her Family's lives were threatened. For 18 months, the cycle of abuse, torture and forced prostitution continued.

McKenzie was eventually able to escape, but not without being convicted as a felon and labeled as a sex offender. Shaniya Davis wasn't so lucky.

Davis, a five-year-old girl from Fayetteville, made national news when her mother called 911 to report her missing on Nov. 10, 2009. As the story unfolded, the world learned that the little girl had been trafficked by her own mother to repay a debt she owed her sister's former boyfriend. She was found in the woods six days later. An autopsy revealed that she had been sexually abused at or near the time of her death.

Her killer, Mario McNeill, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Her mother, Antoinette Davis, pled guilty to murder and is currently serving a sentence to up to 21 years in prison.

Billy West was one of the prosecutors for the case and served as the keynote speaker. He said that the summit was a great opportunity for members from across the community to come together and address such tough issues.

"This is an important event," said West to the more than 400 attendees. "It's time when local law enforcement, the military, civilians, health providers, social workers and first responders are all able to come together to help combat human trafficking."

Kelly Taylor, Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Program Manager at Womack Army Medical Center, said that facilitating the conversation between the groups plays a vital part in what the summit is all about.

"When you look at something like the Shaniya Davis case, it's hard to acknowledge that something so heinous happened right here in our own backyard," said Taylor. "Bringing that case and the other stories today to the forefront helps everyone realize that there is no one look to human trafficking. It spans all ages, all races and all genders.

"It's not just an international problem where victims are being trafficked overseas," she said. "It's right here in the United States. This helps break the mold of what people may think they know about human trafficking."

McKenzie, who now runs the Sun Gate Foundation that helps survivors of human trafficking, said that the important thing to remember is that it can happen to anyone.

"We need to ask ourselves 'what can I do?''' she said. "This is not a Barack Obama problem. This is not a politician's problem. This is not a law enforcement problem. It's not a therapy problem. This is our problem."