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Pieper Lewis case reignites conversations about sex trafficking in Iowa: ‘I think things are going to change’


Pieper Lewis – Photo still taken from CNN trial coverage

Pieper Lewis’s case became national news when the 17-year-old was sentenced last month for the June 2020 killing of 37-year-old Zachary Brooks, who allegedly bought her from a sex trafficker and repeatedly raped her. Lewis was arrested when she was 15 and spent two years in jail before her sentencing.

According to the Des Moines Register, Lewis was sentenced to five years of probation at the Fresh Start Women’s Center and over 1,200 hours of community service. But she also received a deferred judgement, meaning that after the completion of her probation, Lewis’s record could be expunged. Lewis will also have to pay $150,000 in restitution to Brooks’ family, and if she violates her probation, she could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

In the wake of Lewis’s sentencing, conversations around sex trafficking in Iowa moved to the forefront. But these discussions never stopped occurring for folks like George Belitsos, the chair of the Board of Directors for the Iowa Network Against Human Trafficking (NAHT). NAHT is the only nonprofit organization fighting human trafficking statewide in Iowa. Since their founding in 2005, they have been working tirelessly to pass legislation that would protect sex trafficking victims and create campaigns to raise awareness about human trafficking in Iowa.

“One of the projects that we’ve been doing for multiple years now is getting rescue stickers posted with the 800 number to call if you see something suspicious that may be trafficking, or for people who are being trafficked to call for help,” Belitsos explained. “The 800 number we started with, of course, was the national trafficking hotline. But now we are advertising a new Iowa hotline to call. So we’re promoting both numbers.”

These stickers can be found across the state in heavily travelled public places like rest stop bathroom stalls, Walmarts, gas stations, city halls and hospitals.

Additionally, NAHT worked towards getting a mandate passed that would require motel and hotel employees to be trained on recognizing the signs of human trafficking. Iowa Code 80.45A was passed in 2020 requiring lodging providers that receive public funds to train all employees in human trafficking prevention. The bill was passed with bipartisan support.

“Seventy percent of sex trafficking goes on in hotels and motels,” Belitsos said. “So that’s why we zeroed in on this. And then when the hotel/motel can show that they have trained all of their staff, they get a certificate from the Department of Public Safety.”

Iowa Code 80.45A and rescue stickers are certainly better than nothing, but many critique Iowa for not doing enough. NAHT has been lobbying for the implementation of a safe harbor law prohibiting criminalization and punitive sentences to facilities like Fresh Start Women’s Center for minors who are found to be victims of sex trafficking, according to Belitsos. This law, in theory, might have protected Lewis from her sentence at Fresh Start Women’s Center, although her lawyer, Magdalena Reese, told the Register that the facility could provide her a “proper support network.” But such a bill has not yet been introduced to the legislature.

Safe harbor laws mean something different in every state, but generally they are “legislation that protects victims and directs them towards restorative and protective services,” according to Shared Hope International. Some states, like Florida, prohibit minors from being charged with prostitution. Florida also provides specialized services to sex trafficking victims under the age of 18 through a non-punitive system. Other states, like North Dakota, prohibit minors from being charged with prostitution as well as misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenses such as misdemeanor theft, drug paraphernalia and misdemeanor forgery. North Dakota, however, does not mandate access to specialized services for sex trafficking victims, but the services are available.

2021 Iowa report card on child sex trafficking via Shared Hope International

Iowa does not prohibit criminalization of minors for charges of prostitution, misdemeanor or non-violent felony charges, although it does allow for affirmative defense in those cases. While Iowa does require a victim who is a minor to be referred to special services, the state does not require that the child actually receive or access those services.

Because of Iowa’s lack of legislative protection for victims, NAHT introduced HF2464, a bill related to expunging criminal offenses for victims of sex trafficking at any age, to the legislature. This year, the bill passed in the house 95-1 with bipartisan support, but it died on the Senate floor. However, Belitsos feels confident about the upcoming legislative session since NAHT has partnered with Shared Hope International.

“[Shared Hope International] heard about Pieper Lewis and said, ‘Hey, we can add a lot of research to what you’ve already done to show that it really works,'” Belitsos explained. “They’re going to help us at the legislature because they have studied every state, and not one state that has passed a safe harbor law has gone back to the way it used to be. And what better proof that it works than the fact that so many other states have made it work?”

HF2464 would not apply to all criminal charges, though. Homicide, intimidation with a dangerous weapon, and kidnapping are amongst the charges that would not be expunged under HF2464. But Belitsos says it’s still a step in the right direction.

“The hardest thing for [victims of sex trafficking] is integrating back into society, getting jobs, being able to support themselves, because they have these charges,” Belitsos said. “Their lives are destroyed. I mean, they are totally under the control of someone who is calling the shots and earning the money.”

But changing legislation regarding victims alone is not enough to halt the ever-growing monster that is sex trafficking. In her 2019 Tedx Talk, Davenport native and documentarian Vanessa McNeal talks about the role buyers play in sex trafficking.

“Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry fueled by an unbelievable demand from buyers. Sex trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise second only to drug trafficking,” McNeal says during the event.

According to Iowa law, “A person who knowingly engages in human trafficking by soliciting services or benefiting from the services of a victim is guilty of a class ‘D’ felony, except that if the victim is under the age of eighteen, the person is guilty of a class ‘C’ felony.” Class D felonies are punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $7,500 whereas Class C felonies are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

“Buyers are what fuel this criminal industry,” Belitsos said. “And we do not have a very good system to keep them accountable. Some states have changed their laws to make the punishment for the buyers who are caught and charged and prosecuted much more severe — in fact, as severe as the punishment for the trafficker. But we aren’t there and there are very few busts of buyers.”

One bust happened earlier this year in Dubuque when 11 men were arrested during a sting operation targeting human trafficking. One of the men was former Dubuque County Treasurer Randy Wedewer. According to KWWL, Wedewer received one year of probation and must pay a total of $1,855 in fines and human trafficking surcharges. Wedewer, like Lewis, also received deferred judgement.

“We have to demand aggressive prosecution for these buyers,” McNeal pleads in her Tedx Talk. “They don’t deserve to get a slap on the wrist. Although the sex traffickers are the orchestrators making the big money, they wouldn’t be able to without the buyers.”

Community members gathered at Greene Square Park in Cedar Rapids on Friday, July 30, 2021 to speak out against human trafficking and raise awareness for victims and survivors. Individuals filled the sidewalk cracks in downtown Cedar Rapids with red sand and used chalk to write messages. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

In the month that has followed Pieper Lewis’s sentencing, a GoFundMe started by one of her former teachers has surpassed half a million dollars from donors around the world. Her story has received national attention, making headlines in NPR, CNN, The New York Times and BBC. And she turned 18.

“One of the silver linings of Pieper’s horrible experience with the criminal justice system is that it has really put it in the spotlight,” Belitsos said. “And I think things are going to change.”


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