Lexington County, SC (WLTX) - Sex trafficking is often thought of as being held hostage and physically forced to do things against a person's will. And while that can be the case, it's often threats--and fear--that truly keep victims bound to the trafficker.
That's the story for a Lexington County woman, who we're referring to as "Nicole" to protect her identity. . In an exclusive interview with News19, Nicole painted the picture of what happened to her, and hoping it doesn't to happen to you, or your loved one.
"Somedays, yeah, I hope he burns in hell. And then somedays I hope, he gets help," she said about one of the men who put her through that struggle.
It's been eight years since Nicole, then an eager 21-year-old, packed up her life in South Carolina and moved with her then-husband to San Diego. She soon found herself with no car, no family, and divorce papers on the way, so she turned to Craigslist, applying for a modeling and message job.
"It was a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, behind a big, gated complex," she says.
The man behind the business – who's now behind bars – had her pose in lingerie. And that's when the memories start to fade.
"There were a lot of Zanax that were taken, he told us that it would make us feel better," she says. "I remember one of the girls making margaritas in the kitchen, and not sleeping for several days."
She thought this one gig would lead to more jobs, but had no idea it would quickly unfold into a nonstop sex ring.
Court documents show James Earl Phillip preyed on vulnerable, desperate women, eight going through similar issues, all falling victim to his scheme to make money.
Nicole says there wasn't any violence at first, but she was intimated by him. and that fear kept her at his condo. He also had copies of her driver's license, birth certificate, and knew where she lived.
"They find things to use against you later on so that way it's like the blackmailing process," she explains.
After several days, she found the courage to run.
"There was a fight involved and he threatened to shoot me and one of the other girls was beating me up."
She made it to a gas station and called police, but officers didn't arrest Phillip. She says it took another victim coming forward before charges were filed.
Nicole finally got help in South Carolina at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands.
"I think a lot of people don't think it happens to adults," said Nicole. "It's happening in your backyard, and in your own community."
Nicole moved back here to the Midlands. Now, after studying human trafficking for two years, she's raising awareness, organizing events at colleges, attending meetings, and using social media to share stories about other victims.
"You don't ever really fully move on from it, it's always going to be a piece that I carry around with me, but I don't want it to define my life."