Alyssa Beck has love and hope on her hands. She’s not particularly fond of the tattoos, which she got in the Duval County jail along with the cross on her cheek.
“Hope was originally hate,” the 21-year-old said. “I changed it because there were people in my life who showed me hope.”
People in Beck’s young life – hateful people – once used drugs and violence to drag her into an abyss of unspeakable horrors. A victim of human trafficking by the time she was 15, Beck was twice held prisoner by men who forced her into prostitution. She was raped more times than she could count.
Beck ran away from both men at different times but ended up in jail after one of them was attacked. She spent almost three years behind bars on kidnapping and carjacking charges.
Then came an epiphany, and help, and change. Today Beck speaks on behalf of victims of human trafficking and works for several organizations that try to raise awareness of the problem. And while there are still tattoos on her hands, there is determination in her eyes.
Among Beck’s long-term goals is building a safe house for women who are victims of abuse. She wants to be visible, she says. She wants to lead a movement.
“I want to be the face of this movement, because I want them to see, when people look at me, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is an average white girl. Looks nice. Dresses nice. Looks like she has a good job.’ … Despite all that, people wouldn’t know anything that I’ve been through. I want people to know this could happen to anybody.”
‘GIRLS HAVE NO CHOICE’
Asking why Beck “chose” to get involved in the sex trade is a mistake, said former FBI agent Eileen Jacob of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit group that combats the sex trade nationwide, classifies human trafficking as a form of modern slavery. Sex traffickers use violence, threats, lies and other forms of coercion to compel children into commercial sex acts against their will. Any minor induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of the coercion used.
“We’ve seen this in every single state in America,” said Jenna Novak, a program specialist and supervisor for the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Resource Center. “While it’s often concentrated in cities, we’ve also seen it in rural areas.”
Polaris says that between 2007 and 2015, it recorded 1,767 human trafficking cases in Florida. Those cases involved 3,059 victims.
Even though most victims don’t know about the hotline Polaris has set up for them, it got 2,200 calls last year, Novak said. “Florida has the third-highest call volume in the country.”
Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Detective Richard Trew said many drug dealers have turned to working as pimps because they’re less likely to get robbed and the girls can be used to sell both sex and drugs. He said, “when the girls get arrested, they’re bailed out the next day and back to work.”
ADDICTED & LOCKED AWAY
Beck was born in Philadelphia and moved to Jacksonville with her family when she was 11. She missed her friends and didn’t adjust well to the new city.
“I didn’t feel like I was loved and I started looking for it with boys,” Beck said. “I snuck boys into my room. My dad found out and he disciplined me.”
She hated her parents and started getting arrested for petty crimes. At 15, she met up with an older girl who was in the sex trade.
They ended up in Sin City, a rough-and-tumble Arlington neighborhood where Beck met Ian Sean Gordon. He would rape her, imprison her and let other men rape her for money. He’s now in prison for life.
“He let people come in and do whatever they wanted to me,” Beck said. “They treated me like an object. Like I wasn’t even a person.”
Gordon also got her addicted to crack cocaine, to the point that she struggled to know where she was and what was happening. She wasn’t being fed, she wasn’t showering and she was completely at Gordon’s mercy.
“I thought of fleeing, but I was extremely terrified of him,” Beck said. “He was insane; he truly was.”
One day she did run. She called her mom and they went to the police. Instead of getting help, Beck got arrested for violating her probation and was sent to a juvenile-detention facility.
After her release came more arrests. Frustration and anger grew.
Attorney Shannon Schott, who represents Beck, said, “I was upset with her when she fell back into it and just wanted to say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’″ Schott said. “But at that time she really thought she was worthless.”
‘WORST OF THE WORST’
Beck stood out from other juvenile clients.
“Most of the children we represented had serious mental-health issues,” Schott said. “She had demons, but she was very articulate.”
The FBI and Sheriff’s Office spoke with Beck, who ended up cooperating with them in their investigations of Gordon and others.
“I’d describe her as having an incredible memory,” said Trew, who’s part of a human-trafficking task force that also involves the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mac Heavener concurred and said Beck had the ability to describe events and situations with astonishing clarity.
Beck was able to describe where an attacker lived, the vehicle he drove and what the inside of his apartment looked like in such detail that when FBI agents showed up there was no doubt they were in the right place even though Beck didn’t know his name.
“But with Alyssa it was easier than most,” Jacob said.
Beck agreed to testify against Gordon, her first trafficker, who pleaded guilty in January 2011 to sex-trafficking charges.
“He’d sell 15 minutes of her time – pieces of her innocence and future – for $20 a pop,” Heavener said. “It was violent, brutal, cruel and unusual.”
At Gordon’s sentencing, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard said that in her four years on the federal bench, she had never before sentenced someone to life in prison.
“How anyone can think of causing that sort of destruction to another individual for $20 this court simply cannot conceive,” Howard said.
At that hearing, Schott said, she came to understand the true nature of Beck’s ordeal.
Weeks after Gordon was sentenced, Beck turned 16.
IT HAPPENS AGAIN
Beck ended up in a group home and ran away again. This time she had met Gregory Hodge. Both would end up in jail for what they did to one another.
“He pimped me out, but at first I could keep some money and come and go when I wanted,” Beck said. “But soon I was a prisoner again.”
Hodge manipulated Beck, telling her that no one else loved her and she’d end up in jail if she ever left him.
According to court documents, Hodge engaged in sex trafficking and attempted sex trafficking with a number of girls, using a website to make arrangements and transporting his victims to customers.
TRIED AS AN ADULT
Beck and three friends – Edward Hall, Louis Alexander Wingard and Tara Flynn – set up a “date” with Hodge in August 2011 after Beck had gotten away from Hodge. According to police reports, the quartet pretended to be interested in picking up a prostitute, and Hodge brought a 14-year-old girl he was controlling, Grace, to the intersection of 17th and Boulevard streets.
When Hodge and Grace arrived, Flynn pulled a gun. Hodge was tied up and forced into the trunk of his car while Grace was tied up and put in the back seat.
They went back to Hodge’s house. Beck grabbed stuff left behind when she ran away from Hodge weeks earlier.
When Hall and Wingard went inside, they tied up Hodge’s 8-year-old daughter and put her in a closet. They also tied up a middle-aged man who was in the house.
Police arrested Beck and the others later that night. Still 16 years old, Beck was facing two charges of kidnapping, two charges of false imprisonment and one count each of carjacking and burglary.
The State Attorney’s Office chose to prosecute Beck as an adult, and she would spend the next 35 months in jail after bail was denied.
Before her 18th birthday, she was placed in a mental health dorm, locked down for 23 hours per day.
“No help, no nothing,” Beck said. “That’s the worst thing you can do to a victim of anything.”
“I never had a guardian angel that swooped down and said, ‘Alyssa, hey, let’s change! Here’s your second chance.’ There was just one day I decided, ‘I’m tired,’″ she paused. ”‘I’m so tired. I want to change.’
“I don’t want to live this way anymore. I don’t want to be a victim. I don’t want to be a criminal. I just want to be Alyssa. I hadn’t heard my name in the longest time. I heard ‘victim of human trafficking,’ ‘co-defendant,’ ‘defendant,’ ‘criminal.’ I didn’t hear my name.
“All I wanted was to be Alyssa.”
“There is no guardian angel in this story,” Schott said. “Alyssa did it herself.”
It was Beck, while still in jail, who reached out and started making connections by speaking with people visiting and by writing letters telling her story, Schott said. The letters, and her changed attitude, were noticed.
After keeping her locked up for years, Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper granted Beck bail in July 2014, months before she would plead no contest to all the charges against her.
‘A VERY SATISFYING DAY’
Cooper’s sixth-floor courtroom was full on Dec. 15, 2015, the day Beck would learn her fate.
“I remember Alyssa’s sentencing hearing was delayed by three hours that day,” Schott said. “That usually means everyone isn’t coming back. But no one left.”
“She is an incredible employee,” Ravoira said. “She comes with passion and great intellect.”
Beck had also gone to work for Rethreaded, a nonprofit that provides jobs and support to survivors of the sex trade through the sale of accessories fashioned from recycled materials.
Rethreaded founder Kristin Keen said, “We need Alyssa and we need her voice for the girls who are still out there.”
Psychologist Jacqueline Brown testified she was treating Beck for post-traumatic stress disorder and that sending her to prison would add to the trauma and delay her healing.
Officials with the Department of Juvenile Justice recommended Beck receive juvenile sanctions but no prison time.
“State and federal law say we must look at trafficking victims as victims,” said Chief Probation Officer Donna Webb. “She’s already spent a significant amount of time in jail.”
“On Aug. 31, 2011, I really didn’t care about anything,” Beck said. “I was definitely full of rage and hate.”
“I was in jail and I had a dream I tried to kill myself,” Beck said. “God told me not to. He said, ‘I need you alive.’″
Cooper sentenced Beck to the 1,046 days she’d already served in jail and two years’ probation. Full-time work or school was required, along with random drug testing.
“That was a very satisfying day,” Beck said months later. “It was a reminder of how far I’ve come.”
Heavener, who showed up that day to support Beck, said the transformation was heartwarming to see.
“It gives us a reason to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said.
ALYSSA BECK TODAY
For Beck, this is a pivotal time. She’s been living a quiet life of weekends at home watching movies, but big changes are coming. She’s having a baby, and has already begun thinking about how her child will feel about her story.
“I want to have an extremely honest relationship with my child,” she said. “But I worry about what other kids might throw in his face.”
Asked if she feels she’s living a normal life now, Beck laughs.
“I don’t know what a normal life is,” she said. “I guess, as an outsider looking in, it would look like everything is normal and everything is fine. I go to work and work 40 hours plus a week. I have a family. I eat three meals a day. That’s normal.
“But I still go through stuff. Stuff from trafficking still affects me. People don’t see that, and I don’t allow them to see that. I’m OK with not having a normal life.”
Beck has been to Tallahassee to lobby and has spoken to state legislators to rally support for her cause. But even the simple things, like walking out of her house and getting into the car, are surreal.
For now that life is focused on helping others. And she relishes the life she has made for herself.
“Freedom. I have freedom,” she said. “Not just physically, but mentally. I’m no longer bound.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW
Status of those involved in trafficking Alyssa Beck:
Ian Sean Gordon was charged with sex trafficking of a minor in federal court. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Gregory Hodge was charged with sex trafficking of a minor. He pleaded guilty and faces 10 years to life in prison. He has not been sentenced.
Alfredo Martinez Riquene was convicted of child pornography involving a minor and sentenced to 19 years and seven months in prison as well as a concurrent eight-year term for making false statements to the FBI.
Phillip Anthony Aiken was charged with sex trafficking of a minor. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 43 months in prison with five years of supervised release.
Oris Alexander English was charged with sex trafficking of a minor. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 151/2 years in prison with 10 years of supervised release.
Antonio Ford pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony and was sentenced to two years in prison with one year of supervised release.
Melvin Eugene Friedman was charged with sex trafficking of a minor and sentenced to 10 years in prison with five years of supervised release.
Leeann Adkins pleaded guilty to sex trafficking of a minor and was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison with five years of supervised release
Status of those involved in the Gregory Hodge assault case:
Edward Lee Hall is charged with home-invasion robbery with a firearm or deadly weapon, three counts of kidnapping, two counts of false imprisonment and one count of carjacking in state court. He has not yet gone on trial.
Louis Alexander Wingard is charged with home-invasion robbery with a firearm or deadly weapon, three counts of kidnapping, two counts of false imprisonment and one count of carjacking and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon. He has not yet gone on trial but has been convicted for a separate armed home-invasion robbery and sentenced to life in prison.
Tara Flynn has been charged with kidnapping, carjacking and armed robbery. She has not yet gone on trial.
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